Meet Penelope. She’s pretty in pink (and white), with a spiffy silver thunderbolt shooting right down her center, and an interior to die for. This 12-foot vintage inspired camper belongs to Australian native Annabel Wrigley, who uses her to hold small sewing parties for kids of all ages when she’s not writing books, designing textiles or teaching students at her Little Pincushion Studio in historic Warrenton, Virginia.
Penelope, named by Wrigley’s creative young students, is just one of the many tools she uses in teaching children the craft she’s grown to love so much. Her passion for creating handmade treasures began very early in life, but it wasn’t until the birth of her son 17 years ago that she actually learned how to sew.
Wrigley followed in her grandmother’s footsteps, earned her degree in nursing and initially began her professional career working as a psychiatric nurse. She loved the job and fully intended to return to work after the birth of her son. But life took a different, very unexpected turn while she was on maternity leave.
When she began shopping for clothing for her baby boy, she had a difficult time finding anything that she liked or could afford. So she stapled together a hat one day and took it to her mother-in-law to sew.
“My mother-in-law is an amazing seamstress,” Wrigley told Opportunity Lives, explaining how she’s known for creating beautiful Christening gowns. Instead of sewing the hat for her, her mother-in-law taught her how to sew it herself. And, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
Friends loved her adorable creations and immediately began placing orders. Word travelled, and soon, she was offering baby hats, baby bibs, appliquéd onesies, diaper bags, quilts, and all things baby in local markets near her home in Sydney, Australia.
Annabel immediately realized she had found the thing that made her happiest — being a mom and making beautiful things. And so, she continued, and her new little business quickly became successful. In fact, she says the business took off almost too quickly, and it got scary. That’s why, when her husband got a job offer that would move them to the United States, it was a welcome adventure and they decided to accept.
“We decided to put the business to rest for a little while,” Wrigley said. “We knew if it was meant to be, I’d come back to it.”
And come back to it she did. Once Wrigley and her husband settled in the United States, life slowed down a bit and the focus became family. She had another baby — a sweet baby girl — and while she still enjoyed making things, it was for herself and her family. She was focused on being a full time mother.
Seven years ago, she got her worker’s permit, and about that same time, she began teaching her daughter how to sew. Once again, friends loved what she was doing and asked if she would teach their daughters. Before long, she had a class full of creative little girls who were eager to learn how to sew. That’s how the Little Pincushion Studio came to be.
The studio first started in Wrigley’s garage, and thanks to the wonderful parents of her students, she’s never had to spend a dime on advertising and has always relied solely on word of mouth.
“In that little garage, I had this little group of devoted students and wonderful parents,” Wrigley said. “I noticed that the girls didn’t want to make the things I thought they were going to make, they could actually do a lot more than I thought they would be able to do. I was learning a lot from teaching them, so I decided that I should do a book.’”
In 2013, the first of three “We Love to Sew” books aimed at girls ages 8-12 was published. From that came her video teaching series for Creativebug, which she says is important to her because so many children learn visually. This gave her an immediate opportunity to reach far beyond her physical classroom.
Wrigley approaches teaching with a patient, relaxed “perfection is for the birds” philosophy, and has a special ability to connect with her students. She holds classes in studio five days a week, and then takes Penelope out on the weekends to host small sewing parties. Every beginner starts by learning to use the sewing machine and earning her “Certificate of Bobbinology,” then students are usually given the opportunity to vote as a class on what project they’d like to create.
“I’m trying to create a space where children who are very over scheduled and stretched to the limit academically these days can come here, learn the basics from me, and then have the freedom to experiment,” Wrigley said. “The project doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be straight — I teach them to sew straight, but it’s not the end of the world if it’s not. There’s this really beautiful age from 7 to 13, where it’s okay to just create and experiment.”
She strongly believes that using this teaching method during a time in their lives when the pressures of school tend to be difficult instills a love for sewing and makes it fun for them rather than adding another thing to the list of demands already placed on them in school.
Wrigley adds extra fun for her students by labeling machine parts with washi tape, taking video of certain portions of the class so they can repeat the procedures at home, and giving unique names like “the groundhog,” “chicken foot,” and “space guy” to boring sewing machine parts so they can be remembered.
It’s clear that Annabel Wrigley has a passion for teaching, and that the fun isn’t reserved just for her young students. Her latest creation, a line of gorgeous Windham fabrics called Maribel, was inspired by some of her favorite childhood memories and can be found at local fabric stores nationwide.
The proof of Wrigley’s hard work and passion for her craft lies in her success at teaching the next generation of seamstresses to find and develop their own creativity. Whether it’s in the classroom, online through her videos, off the page of one of her books, or at a fun birthday party in Penelope, students are able to learn and create because she has taken the time to share her love for making things.
This article was written by me and published by Opportunity Lives on October 14, 2016. Photo credit: Little Pincushion Studio