The 4-H Sewing Camp and Baby Lock USA Story

by Helaine Ball Eckstein 

(October 17, 2014)

Lately I have been asked how our Sarasota/Gulf Coast Chapter of the American Sewing Guild got involved with the Manatee County 4-H. Some 20 years ago quite a few of our ASG members represented ASG at  the Manatee County Fair. We sat at tables and demonstrated whatever craft we chose to do that day. I cut out lots of teddy bears at home, packed up my Featherweight, and sewed bears together all day. I found it a good opportunity to get a lot done and promote the Guild at the same time. I have to admit that my machine got a lot more attention than my bears. The kids enjoyed the bears but the adults were fascinated with my Featherweight. Today it looks a lot like a toy. I am not sure how many years I did this at the Fair but eventually I stopped as the trek in and out of the building was getting too much as I got older. Several Guild members continued to demonstrate a while longer but eventually no one went for quite a few years.


Seven years ago, ASG got involved at the Manatee County Fair once again.  Kathleen Heinicke, Jackie Silvasy and Brenda Broadbent were demonstrating their sewing skills at the Fair. Several 4-H Moms came by and asked if they would please teach their children to sew. That is how this all got started. Kathleen Heinicke , Marie Gartley and Eva Winter approached Dr. Diana Smith at the Manatee County Extension office to initiate setting up a program. Kathleen was leader of the NG Creative Sassy Sewer's at that time, she volunteered to start a 3-day sewing camp and was asked if anyone was interested in helping her. My hand flew up in the air. I really wanted to do something like this. I was no longer doing any free lance teaching in the area shops and I was looking for a place to do a bit of volunteer work. 


In June 2009 we started the 4-H Sewing Camp which ran for 3 days. Kathleen was at the helm and we had quite a few volunteers, close to 20 at that time. We had 2 groups of children ages 5-8 and 8-18. It was a great experience. The kids learned a lot and we did as well. Children who had machines at home brought them. Manatee County’s 4-H had a few machines on hand and we brought some of our own for the kids to use as well. As you might expect, few of the machines had manuals, only one presser foot and they were quite old and heavy. We spent a lot of time trying to make these machines work over the 3-day period. That part of the camp was frustrating to everyone, and yet it was still a success. The really exciting thing for me personally was that I found out I can still teach children effectively. For the past 20 years I had taught mostly adults which is a totally different ball game. 


When camp was over, Kathleen Heinicke, then President of the Sarasota/Gulf Coast Chapter asked if I would take the Education Chair position on the Sarasota/Gulf Coast Chapter’s Advisory Board and lead the 4-H Sewing Camp the following year. I explained that I would accept the position if it were limited to Youth Education and under two conditions: 1) someone else will have haul all the equipment and supplies to camp each year as I am not physically able to do that; and 2) I would have final say on which projects will be made at camp and the sewing techniques used. Kathleen and the Board agreed to my requests.

The June 2010 4-H Sewing Camp was expanded to 4-days. Like the previous years, we dealt with many frustrating sewing machine problems but got through it and it did get better. When camp was over, we started talking about how we could make money to buy sewing machines for the kids to use. Many ways were suggested -- writing grants, asking local businesses for donations, hold fund raisers, and etc.. A committee was set up to work on this project. 


Jan Squires, who at that time was an ASG Region Representative, was invited to be the guest speaker for our November annual meeting. I offered to host her visit in the area. She arrived Friday afternoon, sat right down in my living room and pulled out her hand sewing while we chatted about sewing and the guild. By dinnertime, I was telling her about our 4-H Sewing Camp and the problems we were experiencing with the machines. Jan immediately said, "Why don't you contact Rosemarie Smith, regional representative for Tacony Corporation and the USA Baby Lock distributor in Fenton, Missouri? Maybe she can help you." I put that in the back of my head right away as I have never been one to ask anyone for anything. Besides I was sure we would get some grants and/or donations.


By January 2011, not enough money had been raised through donations to purchase one machine, certainly not 20 that would be needed by the summer so I called Jan Squires and asked who to contact at Baby Lock. She said to contact Rosemarie Smith, the regional representative for Tacony Corporation.  I then contacted Rose and gave her my sewing and teaching background, my involvement with 4-H Sewing Camp and our successes and problems. Days and possibly weeks went by without a word. I was positive I had wasted my time. Then one morning the phone rang and it was Rose. We chatted a bit and all of a sudden she asked, "How many machines do you need?" I excitedly blurted out 20, since that was the number of students that had registered for camp. She then asked if we would like an embroidery machine as well. I want to tell you that my feet did not touch the ground for a week. This would make such a difference in our camp. We extended camp one more day which now made it Monday through Friday.


When the 20 Grace machines and one Sophia arrived in town Rose picked them up, then came to my home for dinner. I invited Kathleen Heinicke, our chapter President, and Mary Jane Fuller, our chapter Secretary, to come and meet Rose. At that time, Rose said they are on loan for up to a year. I was rather disappointed at that statement, not knowing exactly what it meant, but I have to tell you once those machines got here I never intended to send them back. I was willing to do just about anything to keep the machines so we could develop a great sewing program to teach young and old how to sew. I don't want to forget to mention that having an air-conditioned storage facility to house the machines when not in use was an asset. This facility is donated to the guild by Value Self Storage. You can see their insert in our “Needle News” chapter newsletter. 

Once we got the machines, I put on my thinking cap and pondered what else we could use to efficiently set up a sewing lab within hours. After all, the first time I asked for something, look what I got, so why not try it again?  And I did. People just kept saying "yes" -- some as donations and some as discounted prices. They are too numerous to even mention here, but all have been mentioned in previous articles. Besides, this story is about how we got involved with the 4-H Sewing Camp and how we got the Baby Lock sewing machines.


After three years and four camp sessions using the 20 Graces and one Sophia, Baby Lock USA has donated the machines to our chapter. Tops Sewing and Vacuum in Bradenton serviced all 21 of the machines for us this year free of charge.

This is a story I will never forget and may be one of the best accomplishments I have made in my lifetime. I can also say that I got a few gray hairs working on this project. However, in the end, it was all worth it. I believe we have a fabulous and a unique 4-H Sewing Camp. Hopefully it will be around for years to come and long after I am gone.