To find out what interested Marie Connolly as a child, look no further than her parents’ Christmas tree.
“My mom still has those ornaments. Still puts them on the tree today,” Connolly says of the plastic-foam balls wrapped in fabric that she created more than 30 years ago.
Connolly, now a mother of three and owner of the knitting store Stitch DC, took her mom’s idea and expanded on it with her own family.
“We do a Christmas tree that’s just the kids’ Christmas tree, with all of their arts and crafts to show all of the fun things they did over the years,” she says. (She and her husband, Alan Zich, set up an additional tree to put gifts under.)
Connolly, 41, came of age before children had electronics to distract them. Sewing and knitting became natural pastimes for her while in Girl Scouts.
“I just think there was less things to do when I was growing up,” she says. “It was easy to sit a child down and do that.”
She turned her hobby into a business in 2004 when she started Stitch DC; before she opened on Capitol Hill, she says, the District had not had a knitting store since 1997. She later opened additional locations in Georgetown and Chevy Chase. Now, the store’s sole operation is in Tenleytown, where she teaches children and adults how to sew, quilt, knit and crochet five days a week.
Connolly is also author of “The Very Easy Guide to Knitting Scarves” (St. Martin’s Griffin), which hit bookstores last week, and “The Expectant Knitter: 30 Designs for Baby and Your Growing Family” (Potter Craft, 2008). We spoke with her about sewing and knitting with kids, handmade holiday gifts and the best age for kids to start crafting.
At what age can children learn to sew or knit?
It depends a little bit on the activity. I think you can start sewing with big needles between 5 and 6. They need the ability to focus a little more. Between 8 and 9 is a good age to introduce knitting.
What is a good project for a child who has never sewn?
Doing a pillowcase is a nice one because it’s something they can then have as their own. Two pieces sewed together, it’s quick and easy. You can just use the pillows you have on your bed.
What are some holiday decorations children in elementary school would enjoy making?
If you wanted to do simple braiding with yarns or ribbons, you could then use that to make garland. Braiding is kind of fun, and pretty ribbon goes a long way.
One of the projects I remember doing when I was that age was orange cloves. Take an average orange and a box of cloves. Stick the cloves into the rind and then you just put a ribbon or a piece of thread or a nice thick piece of yarn around the orange, and you can hang it that way. I remember doing that with my parents and hanging them on the Christmas tree and a couple around the house, making the house smell a little more like Christmas.
What are some holiday decorations older children would enjoy making?
With my [11-year-old] daughter, we take some of our T-shirts we have over the summer or over the year, and we cut them up and make a quilt. It’s a memory quilt. Or cut them into little squares, 9 by 9 [inches], and make a pillow.
We use our scrap yarn. I’ll create a stash of pretty colors. Around this time, we pull our stash out. We tie lengths together to make our own unique balls of yarn. We then knit those to make scarves or hats for family.
Finding ways that you can use a lot of stuff you already have in your house, I think, is a really important lesson to pass on. Not everything has to be bought from a store. Some of the best gifts come from things you already have in your own house.
Which books or Web sites do you recommend for children who would like to learn more about sewing, knitting, crocheting or quilting?
I do love looking at [Martha Stewart’s] Web sites for crafts with kids. There’s One Pretty Thing, which is a compilation Web site. They take pictures from all over the Web and tutorials from all over the Web and organize them on a daily basis. It’s one-stop shopping for me. I can look there and find five great ideas.
Where are your favorite places to shop for supplies?
Often parents worry about children using needles and other sharp objects. How do you teach children to be safe while using these supplies?
You don’t have to use the sharpest needles. Think about your materials. You might be able to use a blunter needle for sewing than for knitting. You can use plastic knitting needles. You can get some plastic sewing needles, also.
What holiday decorations do you like to make with your family?
We usually try to make a wreath. Every year it’s a little different. I think last year we did ribbons on a green wreath.
One project that our older daughter likes to do is building a little castle using sugar cubes and glue. It’s kind of like Legos. We usually do it on Christmas day after we’ve opened the gifts and the kids are a little tired and we’re starting to cook. We can sit at the table and do that while we’re cooking. Really inexpensive. Two boxes of sugar, some random candy and glue.
We usually make a yarn garland for the tree or around the house. We usually crochet it or knit it.