As a quilter with fibromyalgia, I take care to keep repetitive tasks from causing me pain—so I’m a proponent of good sewing ergonomics. Anyone can learn to stay healthy and keep pain low in the sewing room!
Ergonomics is the study of people in relation to their working environments with the goal of boosting wellness and efficiency. To develop good sewing ergonomics we examine our workspaces, tools, and processes, making changes to promote our wellbeing.
While I’m not a health care professional, I have spent 25 years navigating chronic pain and I even wrote a book called ChronicBabe 101: How to Craft an Incredible Life Beyond Illness. As a professional wellness coach specializing in working with quilters and crafters, I’m excited to share what works based on experience (and guidance from my health care team).
I’ve also asked Rose Parr, author of Sew Healthy & Happy: Smart Ergonomics, Stretches & More for Makers, to share her top tips. Rose is a certified health and ergonomics specialist who has consulted with businesses to implement office ergonomics and teaches ergonomics workshops and lectures at quilt guilds and conferences.
If you currently have pain or injuries, consult your health care provider before making big changes (or spending big money) in your sewing space. Keep reading for 5 of our best tips on how to get started with healthy sewing ergonomics, including a huge resource list!
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5 Tips for Good Sewing Ergonomics
There are many things we can do to improve our ergonomics. Knowing where to start can feel overwhelming! Try starting with these five principles:
Tip #1: Mindfulness Matters
It’s easy to get in the zone when you’re quilting and forget to take breaks, but frequent check-ins help you stop pain early by modifying your posture or process. Try doing a quick head-to-toe body scan to assess how you’re feeling, then honor that information by making changes.
When I'm working on an intense project, I like to set frequent timers to remind me to pause and do a body scan. By paying attention we can spot trouble spots early and make changes before we injure ourselves.
This stretch opens the hips and glutes, great for those of us who sit a lot while working.
Tip #2: Let Go of the “Shoulds”
If you’ve sewn for ages, it can feel like everything “should” be done a certain way. But change is good and necessary! Open yourself to new ways of being, creating, and quilting.
It's also good to note any comparisonitis you're feeling with friends or quilters you follow online. You don't have to be just like them—you can follow your own path.
Tip #3: Embrace Curiosity and Creativity
You’ve got creativity out the wazoo; now use that trait to get curious about how to make healthy changes. “Tweak until things work for you,” says Rose. When we approach change with the spirit of creativity (instead of dread or resentment) it can turn the process into a fun game. And when we're having fun, we're more likely to come up with an effective solution!
I do wrist and forearm flexor stretches before and after any hand stitching.
Tip #4: Eyes on Your Angles
In general, any angle (like knees or elbows) should be 90 degrees or wider; anything smaller means your joint has reduced blood flow, which can cause discomfort. Pay attention to your ankles, knees, lower back, hips, elbows, and wrists.
If you're not sure if your angles are good, try having a friend photograph you in these four key areas: cutting, pressing, machine sewing, and hand stitching. Sometimes only a small change (like lowering your ironing board one notch) is needed to provide relief.
Notice how my elbow angle is wider than 90 degrees? I'm also sitting on a pillow to open up my hip angle.
Tip #5: Take Breaks and Stretch
The biggest lie a quilter ever tells, says Rose, is “I’m just going to do it for a little bit.” Raise your hand if you’re like me: always tempted to sew for hours on end. Instead, consider setting a 20-minute timer and taking a 2-minute stretch break each time it goes off.
With practice you’ll get used to it – and your body will thank you. I've demonstrated my favorite stretches in the photos here; scroll down to see more of them. Rose offers detailed instructions for many of them in her book.
This triceps stretch is particularly good before, during, and after a round of machine quilting.
The cat and camel stretches are classic yoga poses that release tension in your lower and mid-back. I do them a few times a day.
If you have low back pain or tightness, the cobra pose is a wonderful back extension.
If cobra pose seems too intense, try back extensions against your cutting table (kitchen counters are often the right height, too). Slowly increase your stretch, breathing into it, until you feel your back open up.
4 Key Areas to Focus on Good Sewing Ergonomics
Before we jump into the four key areas where good sewing ergonomics come into play, Rose offers two general tips:
- Task lighting at every stage of your process can minimize eye strain and improve your posture (think: less leaning in to see tiny details).
- Wearing reading glasses or cheaters (if you need them) will bring the fine details of your work “closer” to you and help you maintain a healthy posture.
I keep reading glasses in my sewing space so I can wear them whenever necessary.
Task lighting helps prevent eye strain and promotes good posture.
1. Cutting Fabric Ergonomics
Finding the right height for your cutting surface is key. Rose says it should be “low enough so you can use gravity to help with downward pressure, but not so low you have to bend over.” Some quilters use risers to elevate their table. My table at home has adjustable legs from Ikea.
When it’s time to start cutting, pay attention to the angle of your elbow, aiming for 90 degrees or wider. Keep your wrist so you have a straight line from rotary cutter to elbow. (Rose offers precise guidelines in her book.)
I love the O'lipfa Lip Edge Ruler, which lines up against your cutting mat and makes it easier to cut straight without applying much pressure to your ruler.
The Gypsy Gripper is a suction handle that stabilizes your ruler and makes holding it in place easier on your hand, wrist, and forearm.
2. Pressing Seams Ergonomics
Rose says people often have their ironing board slightly too high. Lowering it so your elbow angle is 90 degrees or wider while holding your iron can provide relief. Otherwise, your shoulder will be too high, says Rose: “If you’re spending half the day with your shoulder elevated, no wonder you’re in pain.”
She adds that quilters who maximize efficiency by locating their ironing station so they don’t have to get up to walk to it are missing out on the benefits of standing up during sewing sessions. “Every time you get up to go to the ironing board, you’re boosting energy because you’re getting better blood flow,” Rose explains.
An anti-fatigue mat is a must for cutting and pressing.
My favorite ergonomic iron is the Oliso, which lifts and lowers at a touch. Since I started using it, my wrist pain has dramatically reduced.
Oliso irons have cute little feet that pop out and allow the iron to stay on the horizontal, which means you're flexing your wrist less frequently (and feeling less pain and fatigue).
3. Machine Piecing and Quilting Ergonomics
To achieve a healthy posture while machine-sewing, check all of your angles. You might need a seat cushion to get higher, or to find a lower table (my machine drops down into its own table). “If you can’t bring your machine down, you’ve got to bring your bum up,” Rose jokes. Dining tables and work desks are almost always too high.
If you raise your seat height, make sure your feet can rest flat on the floor. If not, find a footrest (a box or large book will do).
Quilting gloves relieve strain on your hands, arms, shoulders, and back.
Rose’s tips about task lighting and using reading glasses or cheaters are critical here. You can find a variety of LED light strips and clamp lamps online to modify your machine, and it’s wise to keep an extra pair of reading glasses where you sew.
4. Hand Quilting and Sewing Ergonomics
All of the above ergonomic guidance also applies to hand stitching. It may be tempting to sink into your couch to Netflix and quilt. Instead, consider quilting at a table, which Suzy demonstrates in this video (the table supports the weight of the quilt and you can modify your posture for optimal angles and comfort).
For those who really want to sit in a cozy chair, Rose recommends The Lap App, a small adjustable lap table that provides a healthy height for your projects and a place for your hands to rest.
Snips offer a cutting function that's easier on your hand than that of small scissors. And the extra-large handle on this seam ripper makes it easier to grasp and use, reducing hand and forearm strain.
Some Additional Resources for Good Sewing Ergonomics
This work boils down to what feels good to you. My preferred methods and tools may not be best for you. Take your time, be patient with yourself, and stay open to the possibility that a solution exists for you.
I can’t wait to continue the conversation in the comments, where I hope you’ll share your favorite tools and tips! Check out the additional resources below, which include my personal faves.
- Sew Healthy & Happy: Smart Ergonomics, Stretches & More for Makers by Rose Parr: I adore this book, as you can probably tell, because its instructions are clear and easy to follow, and the images provide beautiful guidance.
- Heidi Parkes Hand Yoga Club: Her YouTube channel and Instagram account offer copious video guidance for folks who experience pain when stitching. She teaches yoga, recommends fave tools, and reminds us to exercise patience and self-compassion.
- GelPro Comfort Floor Mats: These mats are so lovely I use them at both my cutting and pressing stations (and in the kitchen, too). They reduce foot pain and general fatigue when standing.
- O’Lipfa 5” x 24” Ruler with Lip Edge: This ruler locks against the edge of my cutting mat, keeping it steady and taking some pressure off of my hand to keep it immobile while cutting.
- Gypsy Gripper: A handle with suction cups that allows you to apply gentle pressure on a ruler without aggravating wrist or arm pain.
- Oliso TG1600 Pro Plus SmartIron with Auto Lift: My hand, wrist, elbow, and arm pain are greatly reduced thanks to this fancy iron, which keeps me from tilting my wrist dozens (hundreds?) of times during pressing sessions.
- Dritz Fons & Porter Machine Quilting Grip Gloves: These improve your grip when machine quilting, so your hands, arms, and shoulders are more relaxed and slower to tire.
- OLFA 45mm Ergonomic Rotary Cutter: While I’m a strange bird who loves the classic rotary cutter, some folks experience pain when using them. This ergonomic alternative gets top marks from some of my quilty pals.
- Martelli Rotary Ergo Cutters: Fellow Suzy Quilts readers have recommended this brand!
- Tula Pink 5” Curved EZ Snip: SuzyQuilts Team Member Laura Hopper introduced me to these, and I’ve never looked back. They take pressure off of my hand while I’m snipping threads, and have reduced my hand pain substantially.
- Dritz Large Ergonomic Soft Grip Seam Ripper: Any tool you can find with a jumbo handle will give your hands some relief. Bonus points if the handle has a little squish to it!
- Tilting Footrest by Humanscale: This is the brand I’ve used for 20 years; I love that you can tilt the angle of your feet to increase blood flow. It’s a bit pricey but you’re in luck because we have a lower-cost recommendation next!
- ComfiLife Foot Rest: This less-expensive alternative offers memory foam support and can flip over to function as a leg rocker to increase blood flow.
- Therm-a-Rest Lumbar Travel Pillow: Turn an uncomfortable chair at a sewing class or retreat into a chair with fab lower back support with this inflatable pillow.
- Travellite Seat Cushion by Lifeform: Make that same uncomfortable chair much more ergonomic with a memory foam seat cushion.