Here on the blog and in the Suzy Quilts Patterns Facebook group we’ve heard from quilters around the world who have one question—what advice do we have for quilters with chronic pain and illness? Quilting is our passion, and it can cause frustration when pain makes it challenging. That’s why we are thrilled to bring you 8 tips on quilting with chronic pain and illness!
Our guest contributor and expert Jenni Grover is a creativity coach with a focus on resilience. Jenni lives with multiple chronic illnesses and chronic pain diagnoses, but that didn't stop her from learning to quilt seven years ago. She is also a Past President of the Chicago Modern Quilt Guild, and a freelance quilt journalist whose writing has appeared in several quilt magazines.
Jenni’s book, ChronicBabe 101: How to Craft an Incredible Life Beyond Illness, explores the intersection of her passions and expertise, and she has even more resources on her website. Today, she will share 8 tips about a topic that’s important to so many of you—advice to make quilting easier and more accessible to people with chronic pain and illness.
Keep reading for Jenni’s tips, tricks, and product recommendations! And make sure to let us know in the comments if you’d like to see more posts like this in the future!
The photo above was taken by Amy Boyle Photography.
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8 Tips for Quilting with Chronic Pain and Illness
Spend enough time with quilters and you’ll learn to spot the ones with chronic pain or illness. They bring ergonomic chairs to retreat, they take lots of self-care breaks, and they have a hack for everything.
A few weeks ago, Suzy opened a thread in the Suzy Quilts Patterns Facebook group about this topic. After dozens of you offered advice for quilting with chronic pain and illness, the SQ Team knew it was time for a deep dive! Here are my 8 best tips to help quilters with chronic pain and illness thrive.
The pattern above is the New Horizons quilt pattern, available in the Pattern Shop on June 11!
Tip #1: Your Mindset Matters
I was diagnosed at 25 with fibromyalgia, asthma, anxiety and a handful of other conditions. Now, at 48, I’ve been quilting for 7 years and I’ve never known what it’s like to not quilt this way.
My best advice: Your mindset determines your success. Quilting with chronic pain and illness may take some adjustment but it is entirely possible. Don’t focus on what you can’t do or how you used to do things. Instead, experiment and stay open to possibilities.
Tip #2: Pace Yourself
Pacing your tasks helps conserve energy and reduce repetitive stress injuries. When planning a quilt or fabric shopping on my laptop, I use the BreakTime app to enforce periodic breaks. (Similar apps are available for different phones and tablets.) When cutting, pressing and sewing, I set timers on my phone. Even a simple kitchen timer works.
How often and for how long you pace is up to you. I take a two-minute break every 20 minutes spent on my laptop; when sewing, I set 30-minute timers and switch between different tasks or take breaks. Consistent pacing pays off.
Tip #3: Make Eye Health a Priority
You’ve got to take care of those peepers! There’s no substitute for working in natural daylight, but LED lights that attach to your sewing machine or clamp onto a work table make evening sewing possible and minimize eye strain.
And if you’re quilting with chronic pain and illness, treat yourself to a needle threader. I’m fond of this threader but classic metal threaders work fine, too. If possible, invest in a sewing machine with an automatic threader. A magnifying glass can also come in handy!
Tip #4: Find the Right Iron for You
Test drive your friends’ irons to find the one that feels best. My favorite: the Oliso SmartIron. A gift from my mother-in-law (who also thrived despite chronic pain). Its iTouch technology eliminates the need to tilt the iron and triples the amount of time I can press fabric before my arm starts to hurt. I also alternate arms frequently to reduce fatigue.
I’m a big fan of mini irons for days when pain and fatigue are high. Consider adding a small pressing station next to your sewing machine to minimize trips to the ironing board.
Tip #5: Ergonomic Cutting is a Must
A raised table with adjustable legs (mine is from Ikea) allows you to cut at a healthy height, reducing arm and back strain. I stand on a GelPro chef’s mat to reduce foot, leg and back pain.
On the table itself, my Gypsy Gripper helps me cut with less pressure on my wrists...and makes people giggle. Likewise, my O’Lipfa lip edge ruler keeps things straight and reduces arm strain.
When it comes to choosing a rotary cutter, there are many ergonomically friendly options. (I could write a whole post on them!) Community members recommend spring-loaded scissors and Martellli tools, and while I’m going to check those out, my current favorite is my classic Olfa cutter, which just goes to show there’s no “right” way to cut. Find the tool that feels best for you.
A guild-mate whose asthma is more severe than mine learned during the pandemic that wearing a mask while cutting lots of fabric reduces the microscopic fibers she inhales, causing fewer breathing issues. Live and learn!
Tip #6: Get Helpful Sewing Machine Tools
For machine sewing ergonomics, I admit I got professional help. Working from photos, my occupational therapist advised me on table height, chair height, and more. Don’t be shy about seeking help!
Start with a supportive chair and position your sewing machine so you’re gently gazing down at it (as opposed to staring horizontally). Try a book or box to elevate your foot pedal, and keep it steady with a rug gripper underneath. Sewing machines with a start/stop button can eliminate the need for a foot pedal completely.
Pacing really matters when machine quilting. Grippy gloves reduce arm strain, and positioning your machine on or next to a long table means you can offload a lot of the quilt’s weight. This is good for your body and improves your stitching!
Tip #7: Know Your Quilt Basting Options
Many quilters who struggle to crawl around on the floor find spray basting a much quicker, less physically demanding way to baste a quilt. Suzy’s advice on spray basting includes the option to use a design wall.
For small projects, I love Clover Wonder Pins (pricey but worth it for the pain relief). If you know someone with big tables, you can spread out and baste at a healthier height. You might even consider hiring a long-arm quilter to baste your quilts. Check out these helpful posts for more information on hiring a longarm quilter.
Tip #8: Find Some Community Support
It’s easy to feel alone when you’re quilting with chronic pain and illness. Seek support in your quilting community! It’s fun to invite a friend over to baste a quilt, borrow someone’s die-cutting machine, or even take pacing breaks together at retreats.
My pal Heidi is a quilter and yoga instructor, and I’ve learned lots of hand yoga tricks from her. Suzy Quilts team member Laura is a friend and guild-mate who introduced me to the Tula Pink snips that save me from lots of hand pain. And Tracy, my friend and editor at Quiltmaker magazine, sent me a copy of Sew Healthy & Happy: Smart Ergonomics, Stretches & More for Makers by Rose Parr.
All this is to say if you’re struggling, chances are you know someone who’s found a trick that gives them relief. You don’t have to do this alone.
Next Steps for Quilting with Chronic Pain and Illness
Whew! We covered a lot of ground, and I barely scratched the surface. What tips, tricks, and tools keep you quilting pain free? Hop in to the comments and share what works. And let us know what quilting with chronic pain and illness topics you’d like us to cover in future blog posts!