Perhaps not the most exciting of topics but it is, none-the-less, very important for avoiding strain, pain and injury when you sew. What’s more, if you are in pain or even just uncomfortable when you sew, you will not be having a good time. I want you to enjoy your time at the sewing machine so I’ve chosen to discuss this topic this week.
I know about sewing pain – and I’m not talking about the many times I’ve accidentally forced a needle into my flesh. I used to get an aching upper back every time I sat at the sewing machine for anything longer than half an hour. When I decided to take my Blue Radish business full-time, I redesigned my sewing and office space (ah well, in truth I took over the spare room). When I did so, I looked into the best advice I could find for optimal sewing set-up and designed accordingly. Since I have made these changes, I don’t experience that back pain any more.
So, what did I do? There are two main areas I looked at when I redesigned my sewing space: the sewing machine height and the cutting table height.
Sewing Machine Height
When considering the height of my sewing machine, it is the work surface that I focussed on. The work surface is the stitch plate, the area where you place the fabric under the sewing machine foot. Machines vary a little in how far off the table the work surface is. And a machine that is built into a sewing cabinet usually has the work surface at the table height.
The US Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends that your forearms should be level when sewing. With your arms hanging from your shoulders, your elbows should be at the same height as your work surface. The Sewing & Craft Alliance recommend having your sewing surface a little higher than this and that is where I have mine. I found that my pain was caused by hunching over the machine when the sewing surface was too far away from my eyes. Now I can see what I am doing very well while maintaining a pretty straight back with my head only slightly tilted forward.
I had the advantage of being able to install my bench at exactly the height I needed. If your sewing space doubles as the kitchen table, you do not have this luxury. However, if you can find a way to raise your sewing machine to the correct height for you, your physiotherapist/chiropractor/osteopath will thank you. The position of your body in relation to your sewing surface can be adjusted in two ways – adjust the surface height or adjust the chair height. Your machine needs to be stable and on a sturdy surface so perhaps a suitably sized piece of timber would lift your machine up to the correct height. If your surface is already too high, you might need to find a table that you can adjust by taking a little off the legs for example.
Lifting or lowering your chair so you are at the correct height is often possible but, as with working on a computer, your feet should be flat on the ground. If you are short like me, you might need a little platform to raise your feet (and your machine pedal). Look at this diagram from the US OSHA above to guide you.
Cutting Table Height
When I left my employment to work full time on Blue Radish, I invested in a Horn cutting table. It was quite an investment but, looking back, it was a good one for the sort of work I was doing, for the amount of time I was doing it. I love it! The surface folds down for storage and it has a small ironing board which folds out too. It gives me a generous area for cutting out (with my large cutting mat on it) and it is at a comfortable height to stand at. The surface is about 90cm from the floor. This is also about the height of most kitchen benches so if you have a generous island in your kitchen, you might find that is the most comfortable place to cut out – although if yours is like mine, there might be no small effort involved to clear enough space to lay out your fabric and pattern!
Other Factors to Consider
If you have ever designed a kitchen, you will have heard about the recommended work triangle between the fridge, stovetop and sink. Sewing has its own work triangle between the sewing machine(s), cutting table and ironing board. Mine are not exactly really in a triangle because my ironing board is attached to my cutting table but having these three things at least in the same room is a big step forward. Being able to move between them unimpeded (as when they are arranged in a triangle) is ideal.
Even the most precisely correct sewing set-up will not prevent strain if you work for too long in the one position. Fortunately, the nature of sewing means that, for the home sewer, we do move around quite a bit – around the triangle discussed above. However, it is important to remember to take breaks from your work or move to a different activity rather than sit at one task for an extended period of time. Anyone who works at a computer will be familiar with this advice.
And take care not to work until you are fatigued or when you are tired. This is when mistakes are made (see my Top 5 Tips for Happy Sewing) and also when you are at the most risk of injury.
If it hurts, something is wrong
If you find you are in pain when you sew, something is wrong and your set-up could be the problem. Pain and discomfort will sap the joy from sewing in no time so take some time to investigate the cause of the problem and try some of the adjustments discussed here to find a solution.
What is your sewing set-up like? Do you have a dedicated sewing space? How do you make yourself comfortable when you sew? I’d love to hear.