5 Tips for Good Sewing Ergonomics

Stay healthy and feeling well with these 5 tips for good sewing ergonomics. suzyquilts.com #sewing

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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Stay healthy and feeling well with these 5 tips for good sewing ergonomics. suzyquilts.com #sewing

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.

Stay healthy and feeling well with these 5 tips for good sewing ergonomics. suzyquilts.com #sewing

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!

Stay healthy and feeling well with these 5 tips for good sewing ergonomics. suzyquilts.com #sewing

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.

Stay healthy and feeling well with these 5 tips for good sewing ergonomics. suzyquilts.com #sewing

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.

Stay healthy and feeling well with these 5 tips for good sewing ergonomics. suzyquilts.com #sewing

This triceps stretch is particularly good before, during, and after a round of machine quilting.

Stay healthy and pain free with these 5 tips for good sewing ergonomics. suzyquilts.com #sewing

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.

Stay healthy and pain free with these 5 tips for good sewing ergonomics. suzyquilts.com #sewing

If you have low back pain or tightness, the cobra pose is a wonderful back extension.

Stay healthy and pain free with these 5 tips for good sewing ergonomics. suzyquilts.com #sewing

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:

  1. Task lighting at every stage of your process can minimize eye strain and improve your posture (think: less leaning in to see tiny details).
  2. 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.
 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.

I keep reading glasses in my sewing space so I can wear them whenever necessary.

Stay healthy and pain free with these 5 tips for good sewing ergonomics. suzyquilts.com #sewing

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.) 

Stay healthy and pain free with these 5 tips for good sewing ergonomics. suzyquilts.com #sewing

While cutting, I stand on an anti-fatigue mat, which reduces foot pain and back strain. Here is a link to the one seen here. Other helpful tools include: 

Stay healthy and pain free with these 5 tips for good sewing ergonomics. suzyquilts.com #sewing
Stay healthy and pain free with these 5 tips for good sewing ergonomics. suzyquilts.com #sewing

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.

Stay healthy and pain free with these 5 tips for good sewing ergonomics. suzyquilts.com #sewing

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.

Stay healthy and pain free with these 5 tips for good sewing ergonomics. suzyquilts.com #sewing

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.

Stay healthy and pain free with these 5 tips for good sewing ergonomics. suzyquilts.com #sewing

 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). 

Stay healthy and pain free with these 5 tips for good sewing ergonomics. suzyquilts.com #sewing

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). 

Stay healthy and pain free with these 5 tips for good sewing ergonomics. suzyquilts.com #sewing

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.

Stay healthy and pain free with these 5 tips for good sewing ergonomics. suzyquilts.com #sewing

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.

38 thoughts on “5 Tips for Good Sewing Ergonomics

  1. mcadwell says:

    These are some wonderful suggestions! Thank you for them.

    As a person with rheumatoid arthritis, may I add one more? To make sure I get up and move around, I have my cutting table, ironing board and sewing table as far apart as possible – which means I have to get up and walk to those areas multiple times for each sewing session.

    I think of them as ‘sneaky breaks’ because I don’t consider them as breaks in my head by my body sure does appreciate the position change.

    • Jenni Grover says:

      yessssssss this is a great tip! i was on a quilting retreat last weekend and noticed how many people had mini pressing stations next to them and i wanted to invite them to stand up with me 😉 on the other hand, one of my pals said that because of some injuries, it’s really hard for her to get up and down all day. so this one is a YMMV tip = your mileage may vary 😉

      thanks for sharing your experience! happy sewing 🙂

  2. PatB says:

    Excellent article. Thank you for such a well written, informative post. The photos are so helpful. Appreciate the links to products suggested. I am not a quilter, but have sewn since I was a child. I am lucky now to have a Sewing/Office room which I so need to improve layout, and remove the clutter that takes over the Cutting table. I also love my Oliso Iron.

    • Jenni Grover says:

      hey i’m so glad this resonated for you! and isn’t suzy a great photographer?! she made me look so good 😉 did any of the tips help you consider your new sewing room layout? i am toying with a reorg of my own sewing studio based on some things i learned while writing it…

  3. Ms Sam Nicholson says:

    Thank you. My riders are going on my table today! Also, I use arthritis gloves where my fingertips are bare. Which helps while moving cloth around. I have an ergonomic cutter but am having trouble using it, I will have to watch a video to see how again! Love the lip edge ruler and anti fatigue mat, I will be getting those! Between arthritis in hands and back and failed spinal surgeries your article has helped a lot and made me so happy! Thank you!

    • Jenni Grover says:

      oh i am thrilled that this was so helpful! you’re SO not alone with your physical challenges. i think you’ll love the lip edge ruler and anti-fatigue mat for sure. please let us know how they work out for you!

      oh, and re: the ergonomic rotary cutter, if you can’t get used to it, see if any friends use that same brand and get some tips. and don’t be shy about trying another kind – i have yet to find one that works for me so i’ve stuck with the classic rotary cutter, but made all the other changes and got a ton of relief.

  4. Ms Sam Nicholson says:

    My riders are going on my table today! Also, I use arthritis gloves where my fingertips are bare. Which helps while moving cloth around. I have an ergonomic cutter but am having trouble using it, I will have to watch a video to see how again! Love the lip edge ruler and anti fatigue mat, I will be getting those! Between arthritis in hands and back and failed spinal surgeries your article has helped a lot and made me so happy! Thank you!

  5. Dawn Tess says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I recently reconfigured the layout of my sewing room to make it easier to transition from sewing table to cutting table to ironing station. I still am standing up and sitting down frequently but no longer have to awkwardly maneuver around my space. Sometimes you just have to stop and consider what’s working and what is not and this post gave me many things to consider to improve my sewing experience even more so again, thank you!

    • Laura Hopper says:

      Hi JiYoon! It’s such a great post, so glad you read it. There’s no pattern for the mini HST quilt, it was made by the author of this article using scraps 🙂

    • Jenni Grover says:

      thanks! and ah i wish i could tell you a pattern, but it’s just HSTs. BUT you will notice that i oriented them by value. they’re made with scraps from another project, so as i made each HST unit, i decided which of the two colors was darker. then i oriented them such that all the dark corners are pointing inward toward the center – which gives the quilt a lot of movement. try making a few HSTs with your fave scraps and play with orienting them with the darker corners pointing different directions – i think you’ll have fun! 🙂

  6. mts says:

    So great!
    You never really think that whole body stretches are necessary in the quilting life.
    I set a timer or if I forget the timer, a timed playlist for my crafting sessions. Same goes for my writing, gardening, house cleaning and other segments of my day.k
    I am envious of these beautiful built ins I’m seeing in this post.
    So appreciative of all the information you put out there for us!
    Happy Mother’s Day to you and to all the moms of all stripes out there! “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle Is The Hand That Rules The World”. Thank you, William Ross Wallace.

  7. Christina Coats says:

    What a brilliant article, just come at the right time. Have avoided my sewing room, with chronic fibromyalgia and symptomatic Tarlov disease and spinal issues , I thought my days of sewing were over. After reading this article several times and spending time working out all the angles etc, I feel there is a possibility of sewing again. The stretches were so helpful and footrest and anti fatigue mat on order. Many thanks

    • Jenni Grover says:

      oh christina, way to make me cry!

      i have had many times in the past 25 years when i thought crafting was done for me. it has taken me a lot of trial and error to make crafting such a big part of my life. i encourage you to take it slow, and know that baby steps are important. please stay open to changing periodically – those of us with fibro can sometimes ebb and flow, which means we need more or less help depending on how we’re feeling that day. i know you can do this!

  8. Iris says:

    Really valuable and helpful post, thank you! Love the exercise photos. For me, a visual helps reinforce the instruction: I can recreate it so easily.

    • Jenni Grover says:

      aw thanks iris! that’s great to hear. i’m so glad these stretches seem achievable. i can’t recommend rose’s book more highly – she’s got lots of detailed instructions for these stretches and many many more, including illustrations.

    • Laura Hopper says:

      Hi Jaime! We’re so glad that you like this article! There’s no pattern for the mini quilt, it was just made by the author using scraps 🙂

    • Jenni Grover says:

      thanks! and while i don’t have a pattern for this mini, note that the HSTs are organized by value – for each unit, i chose the “darker” half and oriented those toward the center. the result is a lot of movement and i think it makes a big difference. whip up a few HST units with your fave scraps and play with value… you might try taking black-and-white pics to really suss out the differences. good luck and have fun!

  9. christinacoats60 says:

    Hi All, what a brilliant article, has opened my eyes to where I have been going wrong. I am looking to more time in my sewing room, yay.

    • Jenni Grover says:

      ah i’m so glad this resonated for you! i invite you to not beat yourself up 😉 you haven’t been wrong, you just didn’t have all the tools you needed to improve your setup… yet! now you can take this advice and run with it. good luck!

  10. Anne Bell says:

    Where can you buy the arthritic gloves, I love hand piecing, and osteoarthritis in my thumbs leaves me in pain. Are those only available in North America, I’ve never seen them in my country. Also the floor mats sound amazing.

    • Jenni Grover says:

      hello! so these aren’t for arthritis per se, they’re quilting gloves with rubber dots all over that help you move the quilt without having to grip it hard. google “machine quilting gloves” and i think you’ll find some near you. good luck!

  11. Loma says:

    Thank you so much!! Great article. I appreciate the level of detail you provided and recommended resources. I’m going to consider the recommended seat cushion and floor mat

    • Jenni Grover says:

      thanks, loma! it was really my pleasure. let us know how the cushion and anti-fatigue mat work out – they really changed my sewing experience hugely! (i also use the seat cushion and lumbar support in the car, and on retreat, and and… )

  12. Paula Jean says:

    This is such a great post!! Thank you! I’m also a sewist with fibromyalgia (more garments than quilting) and releasing the ‘shoulds’ was a big one for me. I realized when making masks at the beginning of the pandemic how much my body hates doing repetitive sewing (or anything). Sure, it’s more efficient time-wise on the day, but being in pain for days or more after makes it worse in the long run. My sewing flow is so much more enjoyable (and pain manageable) when I sew a few seams, get up and press, move to my table to pin or mark my next pieces, read the next few instructions, then back to sitting and sewing. To anyone else, it looks scattered and inefficient, but all the movement really helps my body.

    • Jenni Grover says:

      thanks! and yesssssssssss paula jean! i hope everyone reading my post also reads this comment.

      dropping “efficiency” in favor of “wellness” and “enjoyment” and “mindfulness” is a huge win. excellent! love hearing from a fellow fibro sewist 😉 i love that you’re making it work for you.

  13. Erin says:

    This was a great read with lots of helpful information. Thank you! When I came back to sewing in a much bigger way than before, I wondered why quilters were talking about their pain – until, like I said, I started sewing a lot more. I’ve kept my sewing stations in separate spaces mostly because it’s how it works in my house. I get to move a bit more because of this. I do have one prop to recommend. It’s called a Gertie ball. I found mine at a local children’s toy store. I use it also in teaching Pilates. You can place the soft ball behind your upper back and the back of the chair you are sitting in. Interlace your fingers behind your neck to support your head, draw your tummy in and look up while doing a kind of small upper back bend (tummy in to support your back) or a “roll back over the ball.” Feels good. It’s easy, and your upper body gets a break and so does your head and neck.

  14. ccl says:

    what a great post! i learned a lot about the different tools out there and will definitely be investing in some. one funny thing: i’m an eye surgeon and the tula pink ez snips are the same scissors that we use in the OR. i never thought of using them outside the OR, but you’re right, they are easier on the hand than scissors with finger loops. thanks for all your suggestions!

    • Jenni Grover says:

      awesome! that’s hilarious about the tula pink ez snips – i love it. i’m guessing you don’t have rainbow iridescent ones in the ER 😉 or do you? coolest eye surgeon ever!

      which other tools felt like good investments to you? always curious to know what resonates for folks. plus we might do deeper dives on specific tool categories if folks want to learn more…

  15. Sharon says:

    Thank you for this article–so helpful! My own tip to add: I hold an average-sized foam yoga block between my knees while I’m sitting at my desk for long periods of writing, drawing, and stitching. I had developed chronic hip pain and realized when sitting at my desk I was crossing my feet and sort of tucking my legs under the chair and twisting them for balance. Very bad move! The yoga block stopped this habit and the pain, and it keeps my feet flat on the floor.

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