When was the last time you thought about how your body felt while you were sewing? Probably not until your back and shoulders were beginning to ache. We’ve all been there, so what can we do to prevent this?
Well, let’s start with sitting and sewing more ergonomically. Ergonomics? Well, a straightforward definition is that it’s “the study of how equipment and furniture can be arranged so that people can do work or other activities more efficiently, comfortably [and safely].”1
Backache, neck pain, leg cramping, tingling hands, and forearms are all symptoms of not sitting correctly. Fortunately, through the application of ergonomic principles, mainly keeping your body in a neutral position at all times, you can eliminate the primary causes of the pain and discomfort that you may often feel when you are engaging in quilting activities over extended periods.
When you assume a neutral position, you should attempt to be in your most relaxed state. Your weight should be centered, and your limbs should be completely relaxed. Whether you are sitting or standing, your body should be centered on your work.
You should also, of course, maintain correct posture while you sew. Begin by sitting upright and open, head level, elbows in, and feet flat on the floor. You should also ensure that your hips are back in the seat. It would be best if you did not lean forward, and there should be no pressure on your legs at the front edge of the chair. That pressure can impinge both your sciatic nerve and your popliteal artery, which can lead to significant discomfort. Your seat's height should be set so that your knees are at a 90-degree angle or even slightly higher than your hips. Keeping your knees in that configuration, with your feet flat on the floor, will help move the pressure from your lower thighs to your seat. It would be best if you sat up straight with your back pressed lightly against the backrest.
You should also consciously relax your shoulders, letting your arms hang limply at your sides. To determine the correct height of your sewing surface, you should first sit comfortably in your chair, as described above, and bend your elbows up to a 90-degree angle without moving your shoulders or your upper arms. This is the correct height for your sewing surface. If your sewing surface is too high, you’ll probably lift your shoulders to sew, making you tired and tense. If it’s too low, you’ll likely hunch over, putting a strain on your back, shoulders, and neck. Keep in mind that if your sewing machine is placed on top of a table, then the sewing surface (needle area) will be higher than the table height. If the sewing machine is recessed into the table, the sewing surface and table height are the same.
If your sewing table's height is adjustable, you should set it at a height that allows your hands to rest on the sewing surface with your elbows at a 90-degree angle. If your table is not adjustable and too low, you should consider placing the table on a platform or placing the table legs on boosters. Doing so will raise the sewing surface to a height at which you’ll be able to keep your knees and elbows at 90-degree angles and your feet resting flat on the floor – an ergonomically compliant neutral position! Alternately, if your chair is adjustable, you can raise or lower it as long as you keep your knees and elbows at 90-degree angles. You may need a footrest to ensure your feet are kept flat.
Some final tips for safe, ergonomic sewing… Keep your back straight and your head as level as possible. You should sit directly in front of the machine, not towards one side or the other. Finally, it would be best if you positioned the foot pedal directly under your foot do not stretch to reach for it like a gas pedal. That stretching will change your hip position and twist your back.
Quilters spend a lot of time at the ironing board and the cutting table. It's just as essential to maintaining an ergonomically correct neutral position when you’re standing as when you’re sitting. It would be best if you stood straight and tall, without slouching or leaning to one side or the another. You should keep your feet shoulder-width apart, and you should concentrate on keeping your weight on the balls of your feet. You should also be mindful of your neck. Try to keep your head as level as possible -- use your eyes to do the looking, not your nose.
When cutting fabric, most quilters press down extremely hard on the ruler so it will not slip during the cutting process. Unfortunately, this pressure can cause your shoulders to tighten up and become sore. Fortunately, there are products on the market that allow you to add a non-slip coating to the backs of your rulers, or you can purchase rulers with grips on them, giving you more control and thus reducing the amount of pressure you will need to apply.
Finally, as with your sewing surface, your cutting table's height or ironing board is also significant. To maintain a neutral position, you should ensure the cutting table or ironing board is 3-4 inches lower than your elbow when you are standing.
1. Good Lighting. Good lighting can help with your sewing posture. You naturally slump forward when you can’t see what you are sewing. The better the lighting, the easier it is to see what you are sewing. In addition to helping our posture, good lighting prevents eye strain.
2. Take Breaks, Vary Your Tasks and Hydrate! Our bodies are built to move and sitting for long periods can restrict circulation and affect our joints' movement. According to OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration), you should take frequent breaks while sewing.3 To do this, alternate between tasks, so you are moving around your sewing room and stretching out your major muscle groups. For example, you shouldn't sew all your half-square triangles, then trim them all, then press them all. Instead, split them into smaller groups and sew, trim, press, and repeat! Get up and MOVE and, of course, stay hydrated -- drink water!
We can all agree that it is important to develop healthy sewing habits. Set a timer to check your sitting position, switch tasks, and move! Relax your body while you sew. Doing these simple things will allow you to sew longer and, over time, maintaining the correct posture will become natural and enable you to sew pain-free.
 Collins Dictionary, “ergonomics,” https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/ergonomics
 Quilt Fabrication, https://www.quiltfabrication.com
 OSHA, Sewing and Related Procedures, Ergonomics, https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/sewing/sewingstationdesign.html