High Enough – Ergonomics in your sewing room

Ergonomics Part 2:  In the last article, we discussed why we need to pay attention to ergonomics.  Now I’d like to talk about some of the ways we can do this.

Most of the time, it’s little changes that we can make that are inexpensive, or even free.  Sometimes we can trade cost for a little sweat equity.

If you’re having trouble putting your finger on the cause(s) of your ergonomic pain, I suggest that you have a helper take a photo of you when you’re working at the machine(s) and then you can review your posture.  You’d be amazed at what you can pick out from a photo.

At a sit down / domestic / etc machine:

  • Dracula arms are bad.  If your elbows are at the height of your shoulders, you’re going to be uncomfortable.  Similarly, if your shoulders are around your ears, you’re going to be uncomfortable.  Both of these positions will likely cause pain in the long term as well.
  • Traditional advice seems to be to have your arms at a right angle to your body.  I don’t think this works with all machines.   On my Pfaff, or probably most full sized machines, this might be pretty close.  On a 3/4 sized machine or smaller, like a Singer 99, or a featherweight, I find that the harp is too short, and I hunch.  Obviously this isn’t a position I can or should sustain for any amount of time.   These machines, I tend to raise up some, or lower my chair a little so I don’t have to duck to see the needle under the tensioner.   If there’s no easy way to adjust for this (say at a sew day with bad chairs), I just know that it will be a short session with these machines and I make sure I get up and stretch a lot.
  • Sit in front of the needle.  We have a tendency to want to sit to the right or the left of the needle for some reason, and this does weird things to the spine and neck after a while.  You may also find, like I did, that when you correct this, your seams are also a lot straighter as a result.
  • Support the weight.  There’s a reason that anyone who’s used a sewing machine in a cabinet will never go back to a table top.  The less your fabric has to be muscled around, the less wear and tear on your body, and the straighter your seams.   Use banquet tables, ironing boards, TV trays, bungies from the ceiling or a well-trained child, spouse or dog.  OK, maybe not the last three.   Whatever you have to do to support the weight so you’re guiding – not wrestling.
  • Stand up.  Walk around.  You need to take breaks fairly often to refocus your eyes, stretch your muscles and give your mind a break.  For free motion quilting, about 15 – 20 minutes, especially when you’re starting out, should be the max.  It’s hard to remember this though – so set a timer – or you’re going to feel the effects of having pushed a quilt around like that the next day.
  • If you’re raising your desk height, audition the change with blocks of wood.  A 2×4 will raise the height about 1.5″.  Many many things in my studio are on wood blocks – even Lucey.  (I should note that Lucey is on blocks, but she’s not raised to her full adjustment from the factory.  The blocks were easier to keep her level once she was level to begin with)IMG_1273
  • IMG_1275
  • If you need to go lower, consider cutting a recess for your machine if you don’t already have one.  If you must shorten the legs – remember – your back and neck are worth more than your table is.  (Maybe if you’re using Aunt Martha’s antique  table that she brought over from the old world, you might want to get a replacement to modify instead….)

At a standup machine / longarm / midarm / quilting frame / etc:

  1. Traditional advice is that your machine should be at your belly button.  I don’t think this is true in every case.  I’ve never found it comfortable, and I feel like I just can’t see enough of what’s around the needle when I quilt at this height.
    • As mentioned in the video I posted in the last post, your machine should be fairly high.  I joke that the backing bar should be a good height to “rest the girls on”.   Yes, that high!  (Or close to it).  This offers you better control.  This actually has a little “science” behind it.  Have you ever watched a race car driver?  I have, but had never really paid attention until Ryan mentioned this to me:  Their arms when they’re controlling a car at unreal speeds are between shoulder height and about 3″ below shoulder height, and they’re extended most of the way but with their elbows bent – with the bend facing outward (not downward).  With all of the money that goes into research and aerodynamics and control, you can bet that that steering wheel is placed for optimum control.   This is also the “arms” part of the “Attack position” that motocross riders use for optimal control.   Try it, give it a fair shake – don’t try it for 10 minutes and decide you don’t like it.  Yesterday we raised Lucey by about 3″.  I was already sore by then, but it still felt a little better to quilt with her that high.
    • Caveat: If you raise your machine, then pull your machine toward you, you may find that is seems like you gained no visibility, or maybe an inch.  If that’s the case, see suggestion #5 😉  The other thing you may notice is that for the first few minutes, it may feel like you’re on a different machine.  This too shall pass. 🙂  About 5 minutes in, Lucey was as comfortable or better than she had been prior to her promotion.
  2. If your handles are adjustable, move them up or move them down until your wrists are in a “neutral” position.  This will reduce strain and provide the most consistent “power” to the machine, meaning that you won’t be wasting energy compensating for bad posture. 😉
    Hands too low, bars too high – poor ergonomics
    Hands too high, bars too low - poor ergonomics
    Hands too high, bars too low – poor ergonomics
    Wrists approximately in the neutral position (they're actually rotated a little forward, causing the wrist to come up a little.  This is thanks to trying to take a picture of the left hand with my right hand, from the left side. ;) )  This position -shouldn't- cause pain.
    Hands approximately in the neutral position (it’s  actually rotated a little forward, causing the wrist to come up a little. This is thanks to trying to take a picture of the left hand with my right hand, from the left side. 😉 ) Properly executed, this position -shouldn’t- cause pain.

    A front on view of better ergonomics.  Wrist is in neutral position. (close to it anyway.  There should be a small amount of slope upward from your wrist to the hand, but not a lot.   Think of your position when properly holding a mouse on a desk.
    A front on view of better ergonomics. Wrist is in neutral position. (close to it anyway). There should be a small amount of slope upward from your wrist to the knuckles, but not a lot. Think of your position when resting your hand on a desk.
  3. Sit down for micro work.  It’s easier on your back and neck.  Some people quilt completely at a stand up frame with a stool.  If you’re going to do this, consider a good adjustable stool – I like the saddle stools myself – make sure you have carpet under it so it doesn’t wander away with you when you maneuver your machine and get really friendly with your start / stop button.   Adjustable is also good, because some days I seem to be shorter or taller than others, because the height I was at yesterday isn’t comfortable today, but might be fine tomorrow.
  4. Death grip not required!  All you need is the lightest touch.  You should be able to guide your machine with 2 fingers.  If you can’t, you may want to look at some maintenance.  As with motorcycle riding, the death grip actually makes your control worse.  Lighten your touch, and see how much of a difference this makes.
  5. Move it.  Dance.  Sway.  This movement does a couple of things:
  • It keeps you at a more consistent distance from the needle.  When we stand stationary and push and pull the machine around like a lawnmower, we don’t have the utmost control of it, and we’re changing the amount of the quilt we can see behind the needle.  This causes us to hunch and bob our heads side to side as we quilt.
  • When we dance with our machines, we become partners with our machines, we get “in tune” with them, we bond.  This is important.  It helps to develop a good working relationship.
  • Sway, dance – it loosens you up, frees the creative mind, makes for much more attractive, flowing surface designs.

At your cutting table:

So often we cut on a banquet table, or a similar height.

Every single time I do this, I hurt.  It’s too low for almost anyone I’ve ever met.  I’m 5’4″, and it’s too short for me.  My cutting table is on top of 3 Ikea Finnvard trestles.   They’re adjusted to almost as tall as they can go at 36″ at the top of the table.  At this height, I can cut for about a half day without being sore.  Probably longer, but I lose focus and start to make some spectacular mistakes at that point (often ones that involve blood), so I stop.   Raise your table to as high as you think you can comfortably cut to the opposite end of your cutting mat.   You shouldn’t have to hunch to do it, but you shouldn’t be on your tip toes either.  I’ve seen people do this with banquet tables using ABS pipe from the plumbing department, or coffee cans, or bed risers.

At the end of the day, one rule must always take precedence over any other:

Your tools must conform to your needs, not the other way around.

I spent a lot of years trying to conform to what a particular motorcycle demanded of me.  I was miserable.  I almost quit riding altogether.  This summer, that motorcycle got beaten into submission.  It started conforming to MY needs.  You know what?  That ride I had on it after it started to behave was one of the best rides I can remember in the 9 years I’ve had it.  Why?  Less frustration and pain from trying to do what it wanted, instead of it doing what I wanted it to do.  I will -never- settle for a piece of equipment that forces me to endure pain and frustration to accomplish a goal again.

Adapt your tools.

Overcome the obstacles.

If your chair causes you pain – replace or change it.   No, I’m not saying go out and spend money for the heck of it.  I’m not saying spend several hundred dollars on a chair.  I’m saying figure out the issue, and take care of it.   Maybe it doesn’t go high enough.  Maybe it has an uncomfortable angle it “forces” you into.  Maybe that piece of ripped vinyl keeps poking you in the as… rear end and makes you uncomfortable.

If your sewing desk makes you sit funny, or you’re uncomfortable with the height – change it, or replace it.  The Buy and Sells are always full of Sewing cabinets for cheap.  I typically sell them for $15 each.  That’s less than the cost of a single chiropractor appointment or a big bottle of Advil.  Or maybe a little more than a yard of fabric.

What’s your physical and mental health worth?  Because that’s another thing: Physical pain wears down your mental and emotional health as well.  Your health is worth it.

YOU are worth it.

Remember –  your particular injuries may dictate a deviation from the “norm”.  For example, I know a lady who, despite being taller than me, quilts with her machine much lower than mine, because of a problem she has with her vision.  She sees better with the frame lower.

What other things have you done to help you stay healthier in the sewing studio?   Let me know below.


Today’s post brought to you by the Damn Yankees – High Enough

5 thoughts on “High Enough – Ergonomics in your sewing room”

  1. I can’t recommend a My Comfort Cutter enough. I put my middle finger in the crook, rest the tip of my pointer finger on the neck and my palm against the top so my writs and arm are in line above the blade.

    I also cut on the floor, using my upper body weight to keep the ruler in place with one hand while I cut with the other rather than straining the muscles in my elbows and back. It is a little weird but it really works.

    1. I completely agree. Rotary cutters are not all created equal. What works for some will be awful for others so I usually tell people to try a few. I like my Fiskars 60mm cutter way better than my Olfa 45mm – except when it closes suddenly on me and causes me to yelp in a rather unlady-like fashion… I have 3 brands here I let people try if they want to so they don’t have to go buy them to try them.

      I figure whatever works for you is best. Sure it might look weird to others if you’re on the floor but as long as you can still get up off the floor afterward, I say go for it! 😉

  2. Interesting post. I had that type of machine (recognized the handles). I found the horizontal hand position to be too stressful on my elbows and finally got rid of it. I now have a different brand with more vertically oriented handles, and love quilting with my hands in a more comfortable position.

    1. I can see how that would be. Everyone’s body is different, so different things will appeal to different people. This machine in the older version would have come with vertical handles and the horizontal was an upgrade. I find that the “neutral” position for my very damaged wrists is easier on me than the vertical.

      Thanks for stopping by and for your comment!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *