Rafe Kotalik of Troop 777 in the Woodlands, Texas (Sam Houston Area Council), makes face coverings to donate.

Today’s in-demand superhero skill isn’t flight or invisibility. It’s the ability to sew.

Sewing machine sales have skyrocketed as dextrous do-gooders put their skills to work making face coverings that could save lives. “As the need for masks exploded,” the Washington Post wrote last month, “sewers became rock stars.”

In Scouting, meanwhile, the importance of sewing skills never waned.

Scouts — or at least their rock-star dads, moms and grandparents — have been adding patches to uniforms, hemming pants and making backcountry gear repairs since the Scouting movement began.

During the pandemic, Scouts and their families have used sewing for another reason: Good Turns. Scouts and Scouters have been making face coverings for themselves, for friends and for complete strangers.

Like anything in Scouting that involves a sharp point, we should keep safety in mind. So today, I thought we’d go over a few sewing safety tips.

1. Check the manual

I’m guilty of it, too. I’ll unbox a new tool or gadget and immediately throw the product manual into the recycling bin.

With an appliance like a sewing machine, that’s not a good idea — especially if your Scout plans to use the machine, too.

The manual will have specific safety, cleaning and maintenance information for that exact product. Grab a glass of lemonade and spend some time reading the manual with your Scout.

And what if that product manual was recycled long ago? Check the manufacturer’s website. Most popular brands, including Bernina, Brother and Singer, post product manuals on their website — even for models they no longer sell.

2. Inspect the machine

While some families purchased a shiny new sewing machine during the pandemic (causing many companies to sell out completely), many more simply dusted off the machine they’ve had all along.

Whether your machine is new or a hand-me-down, you’ll want to inspect the machine before you begin. This means looking for damage, checking the power cord, making sure ventilation openings are clear and going over each setting knob by knob. Never use a broken machine.

For cleaning and maintenance tips for your specific machine, return to the manual you just read. (You did read it, right?)

3. Supervise your sewer

Top-selling beginner models like the Brother XM2701 or the Singer Start 1304 suggest that their products can be used by children ages 8 and up.

But that’s a guideline and won’t apply to every family. And it certainly doesn’t mean that an 8-year-old Wolf Scout is immediately ready to begin sewing.

With any model of sewing machine and with Scouts of any age, adult supervision is recommended.

It says so right in the manual: “The appliance is not intended for use by persons with … lack of experience and knowledge, unless they have been given supervision or instruction concerning use of the appliance by a person responsible for their safety. Children should be supervised to ensure that they do not play with the appliance.”

4. Keep your fingers (and hair) away from the needle

As you’d expect, the majority of sewing-related injuries are caused by the machine’s sharp, fast-moving needle. The best safety advice is to keep your fingers a safe distance away.

On a sewing machine, the metal piece that holds the fabric flat on either side of the needle as the fabric is fed through the machine is called the presser foot.

To avoid injury, maintain a safe zone of about one inch away from the presser foot at all times. And keep your hands on the left and right of the presser foot — never in front.

If you do suffer a puncture or cut, be sure you know how to treat them.

Scouts with longer hair will want to tie their hair back when sewing. The natural position when sewing — leaned over slightly — means any loose strands could get caught in the machine.

5. Go slowly

Start slow and gradually build up speed as you practice and gain confidence.

That’s sound advice for Scouts learning to use any piece of equipment — from an all-terrain vehicle to a hand saw. And it applies to sewing machines as well.

Like the gas pedal on a car, the foot controller on a sewing machine responds to the amount of force applied. Press down lightly for slower sewing; press down harder for faster sewing. Learning to maintain a steady, even speed takes practice.

Speaking of that foot pedal, make sure the space around your feet is clear of objects that could fall on the pedal and inadvertently activate the machine.

6. Don’t force it

Feed dogs are metal ridges that come up from the bottom to feed the fabric through the sewing machine. They ensure that the fabric moves seamlessly through the machine.

The biggest lesson here is to let the feed dogs do their job. Work with the machine; don’t force the fabric through. Forcing the fabric can cause it to shift, ruining your straight stitch. And it can also lead to a safety hazard by bending your needle.

7. Stay clean and organized

The 11th point of the Scout Law should apply to your sewing work, too.

Keeping a clean work area means sharp supplies like needles, scissors and loose pins have their place. For pins, use a magnet to pick up any that you drop on the floor before someone steps on them.

For families with a metal sewing machine, try sticking that magnet on the side so it’s always within arm’s reach.

If you’re sewing by hand (you brave soul, you!), this guidance applies as well. Keeping sharp needles neatly organized will avoid unexpected pokes.

8. Keep focused

You’re aware of the dangers of distracted driving, but what about distracted sewing?

Never look away from the sewing machine when it’s in use. Moving your attention, even for a moment, could have serious consequences.

If you need to look away, take your foot off the pedal.

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