The Comfort Zone

A lot of people don’t realize how physical quilting is. Perhaps in the old days it wasn’t. Perhaps people picture an old aunt or grandma, sitting in a cozy circle of light with her needle and thread, a pair of shining scissors on the table next to her. One at a time she pieces the patches together, the blocks together. When it’s time to quilt, a large group of women gather around a frame, daintily poking needles through layers to stitch an intricate design.

No sweat, right?

But if you’re a quilter these days, you probably have a different sense of the physical toll. You may suffer from elbow tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, seemingly permanent pain in your neck or back, or sore knees and hips.

ELBOWS AND WRISTS
Elbow tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome can arise from that modern miracle of quilting, the rotary cutter. These conditions, unfortunately, can make both fast-quilting (rotary cutter and machine piecing) and slow-quilting (scissors and hand-piecing) impossible. Your best bet is to avoid them with good ergonomics and some body awareness.

First, your cutting table needs to be at the right height for you. This site quotes Carolyn Woods to suggest, “Your cutting surface should be quite a bit higher than your sewing table. To determine the best height for you, stand with your feet flat on the floor and your arms straight forward and bent 90 degrees at the elbow. Your fore­arms should lie flat on the cutting table. This height is likely to be between 36˝ and 40˝ (91–102cm).”

I actually think this (“flat on the table”) is too high, as then I would need to lift my shoulder quite a bit to get leverage for cutting. However, 36″ is about the right height for me, and I’m about 5’3″. If you are taller, a higher table may be even more comfortable.

I use leg extensions for my cutting table. The longer legs give me a comfortable surface.

The pipe pieces are longer than the table’s original legs, and they support the crossbars, raising the surface.

A few years ago I made hundreds of blocks for my local guild’s donation quilts over a short time. The result was many lovely quilts and some significant elbow strain for me. The combination of cutting and pressing led to tendonitis. I still have trouble with it sometimes, and it can get aggravated in a number of different ways now, not just quilting. My best help for that has been use of elastic elbow braces. Whenever I’ll be cutting or pressing a lot, I try to remember to use one. And I use it when my elbow is tender, or when it will be strained for very long. That includes driving long distances and lifting weights.

To ease the strain on your wrist, consider an ergonomically designed rotary cutter. Several manufacturers sell different models. If you can try it for feel before buying, you may get a better “fit.”

Another tool some quilters like are the Accuquilt products, like the Go! cutter. I don’t have one so can’t give any feedback on them. It seems that if you could use it for most of your cutting, it could substantially reduce your wrist and elbow strain.

FEET, KNEES, AND HIPS
Dem bones dem bones … Remember the old song? Of course, your back bone’s connected to your … hip bone…

If you’re like me, you may spend a lot of time on a basement floor. I have carpet over padding, but it’s still concrete underneath. Between cutting, pressing, and quilting with my longarm, I’m on my feet a lot.

I ALWAYS wear shoes with good support. ALWAYS. Besides that, I’ve found more help. I use chef’s floor mats at each of my work stations. Mine were cheap, found at a weird discount store at about $20 each. If you buy them from restaurant supply companies, they can be much more expensive.

My cutting table with cushioned mat in front.

There are other mats you can choose, too, including interlocking floor tiles. I’m not advocating this brand — it was the first one that came up when I googled. I know nothing about them and am not recommending them. You can also find similar foam floor tiles at big home centers like Lowe’s. I just saw some the other day. Imagine buying one package of 4 to interlock in front of your cutting station or your longarm.

Shoes protect in other ways, too. While I’m pretty good at keeping track of pins, I do lose them occasionally. Wearing shoes prevents getting stuck with one of the strays in the carpet. Similarly, if you’ve ever dropped scissors, an open rotary cutter, or an iron (I’ve managed all three at different times,) wearing shoes protects you from stabbing, cutting, and just plain OWies.

BACK AND NECK
Leaning forward to cut, press, and sew all put tremendous strain on your neck and back. The close work we do, both hand-stitching and unstitching, can lead to unnatural postures, too. OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration) has a number of recommendations for industrial employees. They apply to quilters, too, due to the long hours we spend at our craft.

For example, sewing chairs should be fully adjustable for height, seat tilt, and backrest position. The back should be padded with support for the lower back, and the front edge of the seat should be sloped to prevent pushing into the back of legs. In other words, that antique wooden chair that looked so fun at the flea market is exactly the wrong chair for sewing.

Though they also have recommendations for chair height, those assume a table height adjustable for the height of the worker. I actually like to shift the seat height adjustment for mine a couple of times during a work session, slightly up or slightly down. It helps adjust for my changing posture as I tire.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR WHOLE-BODY COMFORT
One of the best ways to stay comfortable is to stay stretched. A lot of people recommend keeping a tight working triangle of sewing machine, cutting table, and ironing board, for efficiency. I prefer having my cutting table in the next room, as it makes me move about more. Also I take breaks regularly from whatever my tasks. A trip up the stairs to chat with Jim or have a glass of water helps me stay looser.

In addition, I try to stay in shape. For the last couple of years I’ve focused on my back and core, which helps my posture. But leg strength is important, too, for getting up and down comfortably.

AQS offers a set of ten exercises to keep quilters loose and comfortable, from your head to your toes.

Do you have favorite ways to stay comfortable while quilting? Please share in comments.

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26 thoughts on “The Comfort Zone

  1. jmn111

    For me, the relationship between the height of my sewing machine bed (2 1/2″ above the table top) and the seat height of my saddle seat is critical! Table top – 26″; seat height 22″. That allows me to sit straight, swive on the seat, support my feet on the wheel supports on the seat, with my arms at a perfect 90 degree angle. There is no back support on my my saddle chair but sitting on it forces s straight back, neck alignment. I do big cutting jobs on my dining room table which is too low, but I trim on my ironing board which is 32″ high – a wee bit low but I’m never standing there for long periods of time. Sit to sew, stand to press, trim… I can work comfortably for three – four hours.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I haven’t tried a saddle chair. I’ve seen them at shows offered for longarm quilting, which might help when doing very fine work. Is your ironing board adjustable? I feel like I often do a lot of pressing at a time.

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  2. mothercat2013

    Your post came at just the right time for me! After two days of beavering away on my current project, which involves lots of cutting and pressing as well as sewing, I was starting to feel a few aches last night. I can’t do a lot to change my present sewing set-up, so I shall be much more diligent about taking breaks and doing exercises to loosen up tensed muscles, thanks to you 🙂

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  3. jimfetig

    I had no idea that you were engaged in a contact sport! Geez, moving ginormous rocks doesn’t mess me up that bad. You need a personal trainer, massage therapist and chiropractor. 😉

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  4. katechiconi

    I have my cutting table high, and all the tools for cutting at hand, on a pinboard over the table. I never cut for more than half an hour at a time, mainly because I can’t! The arthritis in my feet decides how long I can stand for. I have found my cordless steam iron a boon, it allows much more freedom of movement and has much less drag, and it’s also noticeably lighter than earlier corded versions. I have my sewing machine under the window so the light is excellent, and I find I hunch over much less because I can see what I’m doing…

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      The light makes a big difference for me, too. Also, I like the idea of a cordless iron. I’m on my 4th iron in 12 years, so whether I would go for that would depend on its pricing.

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      1. katechiconi

        My LQS had Semco cordless irons on sale for a ridiculous low price so I bought three! Their one defect is that they don’t shut off automatically when not used for a while, so they do tend to burn out after a year or two. If I had the money, I’d get a Tefal cordless, which is wonderful, but three times the price.

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  5. KerryCan

    I do pretty much everything wrong! And i feel the twinges to prove it. I think the only things that save me are that I have a short attention span so I take a lot of breaks and I switch crafts frequently so I mis-use different muscles at different times. Your advice is excellent!

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  6. snarkyquilter

    As you know, I’ve been dealing with quilting related arm and hand issues. This past week a quilting acquaintance recommended a booklet called Rx for Quilters written by a doctor. I see from Amazon that it was published in 2000 and can be bought for basically the cost of shipping. I may buy a copy. That’s the easy part. The hard part is following good advice.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      How much longer are you out of commission? Do you know what specifically hurt you, or was it a combo of things? Yes, hard to follow good advice. I have that problem, too!

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  7. allisonreidnem

    Thanks for hilighting the physical issues that quilting can create. I do find getting up from my sewing machine chair to press and cut helps me to stretch and change posture but as it’s not a swivel chair I have a very bad habit of not repositioning it correctly when I sit back down to sew a few quick seams. Using pipes to raise the height of your cutting table is a great idea and I will be employing my adjustable iroing board when I have a pile of blocks to trim.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Hi Allison — I missed seeing your note. Yes, even with the swivel chair, sometimes I find myself perched badly. But it does help. If you can find one that suits you, consider it a good investment. Thanks much!

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  8. Trish

    Have you tried standing up while machine quilting? I raised the top of my sewing table and put my sewing machine on it. As long as you have a floor mat that will add some support to the standing area, it is less stressful on the knees. Also, my shoulders are less achy. A bonus is that I actually was more productive…
    Cheers!

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  9. Alice Samuel's Quilt co.

    Very timely! I had to give up halfway during my sewing session yesterday. My back was hurting so much I needed to go lay down for a bit. Guess it’s my fault for sitting on a stool with no back support for a long time while chain piecing away. That’s for the awareness 🙂

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  10. Jodie Zollinger

    This post was really helpful, I will check the height of my cutting board and see if it is right. I have been having problems with my sewing hand so I will have to pin your post and try out those tips. Thanks Melanie for sharing.

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