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The Ergonomics of Sewing: Feel Comfortable While You Quilt

When you’re sewing, it’s easy to get caught up in your work and not realize how awkwardly you’ve been sitting until all of a sudden—ow! Your neck is pinched, your shoulders aching, and your back is begging you never to do this again. But there’s no need to choose between sewing and being pain free! Check out these seven tips on how to set up and use your sewing equipment for the most efficient and comfortable sewing experience you’ve ever had.

1. Adjust your chair

This is a basic step that’s all too often overlooked. After all, if your pain is in your arms and shoulders, your seat isn’t exactly the first cause that springs to mind, but it is the foundation of ergonomic posture. An office chair is often the best choice for your sewing seat, since they’re already designed to support your body in an ergonomically correct posture. Choose one without arms since they tend to snag your project and get in the way. You want to be able to sit against the back of the seat so that your back is supported. Add a lumbar cushion if you need to. Your feet should also be flat on the floor; if this is impossible, add a platform so that you can comfortably keep your feet flat with your knees at a 90 degree angle.

2. Adjust your table

Chances are that once you’ve got your chair adjusted to suit your individual size and shape, you’ve realized that your sewing table is a serious problem. Most tables are simply much too high to work well for sewing. Add in the height of your sewing machine’s deck, and it’s no wonder sewing for long periods can be so uncomfortable! The best solution is a drop-in table (like this one), which has a well in the center to house your sewing machine so that the entire table is level with the needle plate. These tables are often adjustable in height as well, which means they can be lowered to suit your (now correctly adjusted) sewing chair.

3. Minimize friction

This is especially important if you’re using a standard domestic sewing machine for free-motion quilting, since you’ll likely be spending a lot of time moving the quilt in different directions rather than feeding it through along simple seam lines as you might for other projects. Make this easier on yourself by adding a slippery silicone mat to your table to let the quilt freely glide in any direction you need to move it. This also makes intricate quilting patterns much easier to achieve.

4. Use magnification for fine work

If you’re machine quilting a detailed design, or working on other dainty projects like embroidery, needlepoint, or crocheting, don’t hesitate to use a magnifier to make your work easier to see. With small projects, even if your eyesight is typically fine, you may unconsciously lean toward your work to make out the details, putting unnecessary strain on your shoulders, neck, and back—not to mention your eyes! Look for a magnifying lamp on a long, flexible arm that can easily be positioned wherever you need it. Many even attach to your table so you don’t have to worry about them overbalancing, or accidentally bumping them while you work.

5. Use quilting gloves

Wearing gloves while sewing might sound counterintuitive at first. After all, it’s tricky enough to manage sewing bare handed sometimes! These aren’t just any gloves, however. Quilting gloves are thin and lightweight, with padding and textured rubber at the fingertips to allow for a better grip on the fabric. These let you manipulate fabric by pressing it against the table with your fingers flat, rather than having to grip it in your hand, which causes arm fatigue. There are also added benefits to using sewing gloves, including not having to worry about keeping your hands perfectly clean and dry to avoid marks on your fabric.

6. Use a standing frame for hand quilting

If you prefer to quilt by hand, but have trouble with the discomfort of a lap hoop, try using a standing frame instead. If you have the space and funds to invest in a full-sized frame, you can wind on quilts, batting, and backing material for any size project you can imagine and use a system of rollers to bring fresh areas to work on right to you without needing to adjust the fabric itself. These are quite expensive, however, and impractical for small sewing rooms or occasional quilters. Instead, use a standing hoop, which is essentially a quilting hoop on an arm that can be positioned at the proper height while you sit in an ergonomically correct chair. For this kind of work, it can be helpful to have a chair with arm rests so that your forearms and wrists are supported while you work.

7. Take breaks

As difficult as it can be to set aside your work to get up and stretch, it’s crucial to keeping your body healthy and happy. If you’re the kind of sewist who gets too absorbed in your work and only realize once fatigue sets in that you’ve been sewing for hours, use a timer. Kitchen timers tend to work quite well, especially if you leave them in the kitchen while you work in another room, since the simple act of getting up to go reset the timer accomplishes exactly what you need it to—a quick break to stand, stretch, and refocus your eyes on something further away to avoid eyestrain. Set your timer for 20-30 minute intervals to get the most out of your breaks, and you’ll come back to your project fresh and ready to go.

Every sewist has experienced a bit of discomfort while working on a project, and it’s easy to write off as normal or just part of the hobby to get used to. This isn’t the case, and ignoring this kind of discomfort can lead to permanent damage. So spare yourself the pain and bother, and make sure quilting and sewing is a hobby you can enjoy your whole life long. Invest in good tools and adjustable equipment so that you can continue to perfect and adapt your setup. With a little awareness and a few steps in the right direction, you’ll be sewing painlessly before you know it.

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