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.
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.
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.