The Ergonomics of Sewing

Hey, you!

Look:

Let me be frank with you. Sewing can be hard on the body, especially if you get into the flow and sew for long stretches of time without a break.

I have seen YouTube videos of sewists cutting out garments on the floor!

This is just crazy! And should only be attempted by the VERY young if it is attempted at all.

Please if you are past your early twenties, you do NOT even want to consider using your floor as a cutting surface.

Here’s the thing…

Regardless of your age, you need the proper setup if you are to fall in love and stay in love with the craft of sewing. But this is especially critical when you have a little mileage on your body.

Because if you don’t make sure your sewing setup is appropriate to YOUR body, your heart might be in it, but your body simply will not last.

Sewing without the proper setup for your body will crush your body and sap your enjoyment.

So if you want to fall and stay in love with sewing and at the same time spare your back and shoulders, then you must understand and heed the ergonomics of sewing.

Are you ready?! Yes?!

Then, it’s time to learn about RIGHT angles…

NOTE: This article contains affiliate links. Please read my full disclosure HERE.

Rules of Sewing Ergonomically

drawing of a tomato timer

Rule #1: Never sew continuously. In between different steps, always lean back and rest your back for a minute or two.

Rule #2: Take frequent breaks. It’s not good for your body to sit, hunched over your machine for long stretches of time. Set a timer to go off every 30 minutes, and when it goes off: GET UP, stretch, walk around, roll your shoulders, and drink a glass of water.

Rule #3: Just like your fabric must have perfect right angles if it is to drape well and be comfortable to wear, you will sew comfortably when YOUR body also honors right angles.

RELATED: I really love the Pomodoro Technique for getting work done but still being kind to the body and mind. And here is an online timer if you want to try this technique.

RELATED: Here is how you can de-stress during your breaks.

It’s All About Right Angles

right angles demonstrated on a triangle ruler

You need to make sure of the following:

  • that the height of your cutting table is just perfect for YOU;
  • that your chair of choice is supportive of your lower back; and
  • that the table on which your sewing machine sits is also at an appropriate height for YOU.

The word YOU is the most important consideration in the previous statements.

And the proper setup depends on YOUR elbow height. And as you’ve probably guessed, everyone’s elbow height is different.

If you are of average height, here are some general tips for getting your sewing setup right so that you can get busy sewing and flaunting your dreams in record time…

Cutting Table & Ironing Board

Listen:

In your sewing career, you will spend many hours not only sewing at your sewing machine but also pressing at your ironing board and laying out, pinning, cutting and marking at your cutting table.

So it is critical to get a setup that is perfect for YOU!

Ideally, your cutting table (and your ironing board) should be a tad bit lower than YOUR elbow height. Because this way you will avoid accidentally knocking your elbow on your cutting table, which really hurts!

For the person of average height, this is between 36 to 38 inches high.

The ultimate goal is to be able to stand comfortably with your elbows bent with your hands slightly dropped downward.

In a perfect world, your cutting surface would be custom made to YOUR elbow height.

However, most of us don’t live in a “perfect” world. So if you find a cutting table that will accommodate the length and size of garments you will be sewing, but the height is just a bit off, you can try cutting the legs down or elevating them in some manner.

Hey! It is even worthwhile finding a good carpenter to help make your cutting surface perfect for YOU.

Pro tip: Ideally, your cutting surface should be at least 30 inches wide, about 6 to 8 feet long, and accessible from all four sides.

Sewing Machine Table

Ideally, the bed of your sewing machine should be about 25 to 29 inches up from the floor.

Again, the ultimate goal is to keep your work at elbow height and your wrists straight when sitting at your machine. Keep in mind that your elbow height is relative to the bed of your sewing machine and not the surface on which the machine sits.

Because if the table is too high, you will hike your shoulders up. This is an exhausting sewing posture.

And if is too low, you will round your upper back forward. This will strain your back, neck, and shoulders. OUCH!

Either way, you will not last. You won’t!

Oh, and here is another tip: Tilting your machine forward slightly may help to relieve the pressure on your upper body as you sew.

Pro tip #1: Make sure that the surface your machine sits on is free of nicks or other imperfections. It would be a shame to snag your lovely fabrics.

Pro tip #2: If you are having trouble maintaining posture, you might want to invest in a back support brace. This brace will help to train your body to remember proper posture. And after a while, you will be able to do so even when you are not wearing it!

Sewing Chair

The chair must allow you to sit with your back straight, your feet flat on the floor, and your hips and knees forming right angles!

Ideally, you want a chair that tilts so that your knees can be ever so slightly lower than your hips.

There are some who like an office chair on wheels. But personally, I don’t.

I tried this and it just wasn’t comfortable for me. The chair back was too far back. And because my apartment had plank flooring, I always felt I was rolling away from my sewing machine. I tried a rug, but then the wheels didn’t move freely. UGH!

I tried The Original Kiss My Back back support:

kiss my back support

And I really liked it. It offered firm lower back support. And good lower back support is key!

But it wasn’t ideal for the type of chair I have, which is a folding chair. It kept sliding down.

So, honestly, I am still looking for a viable option for those of us who live in small spaces and have to use folding chairs.

Until then, I will tilt my machine forward, sit with my back straight, shoulders pulled back and down in a relaxed manner, my head aligned between my shoulders, and my feet flat on the floor.

Pro tip: If your legs are too short to reach your foot pedal, go ahead and place a book under your foot pedal.

You: How to Position Your Body and Protect Your Back

Now, let’s get you in the right position for sewing up those dreamy clothes…

  1. First, pull your sewing machine close to the edge of your sewing machine table. You don’t want to have to fully extend your arms in order to guide your fabric through your machine.
  2. Then, position your chair so that it is squarely facing your sewing machine so that when you sit you will be directly in front of the sewing machine needle. This will be less tiring for you and it increases the accuracy of your sewing. Win-win!
  3. Next, position your foot pedal in such a way that you do not have to alter or distort your sitting position to reach it.
  4. Finally, sit straight with your shoulders relaxed; elbows bent at 90 degrees; knees bent at 90 degrees; waist at 90 degrees; and feet flat on the floor.

Perfect!

Now that you are in the correct position, you are ready to sew beautiful straight seams.

Pro tip #1: To help reduce shoulder and neck strain, place an empty 3-ring binder under the back of your sewing machine and slide it forward enough until it tilts your machine. I find that when my machine is in this position it is easier for me to maintain good posture.

sewing machine tilted on 3-ring binder for improved ergonomics

Pro tip #2: Do two to three sets of 10 wall slides daily. They look like this and this. If you do them, “you’re welcome.”

RELATED: This is an excellent article on all the ergonomic tips discussed above.

RELATED: Please take the time to check OSHA for further information on the proper positioning when sewing!

Foot Pedal

sewing machine foot pedal on a square of nonslip rug pad

It is important that your foot pedal remain close to your working foot. You don’t want to be stretching for a wayward foot pedal!

To prevent it from “traveling,” simply place it on a square of non-slip rug pad available at any big box store or you can also purchase a Pedal-Stay II Non-Skid Foot Pedal Support Pad.

Lighting

Finally, your eyes are also an important part of the sewing ergonomic equation. I wouldn’t want you getting eyestrain.

And the best way to protect your eyes is with good lighting.

Modern sewing machines do come with lighting. But if this seems inadequate to you, do not hesitate to supplement it with task lighting.

The End

Bottom line:

Make sure to focus on creating RIGHT angles with your body.

Take frequent breaks. Sewing is a marathon, not a sprint.

Do these two things and you’ll be headed in the RIGHT direction for a long, comfortable, and enjoyable sewing career.

And remember…

Life is the ultimate red carpet event. Dress for it!

RELATED: Click this link to learn all the essential sewing tools you need to begin sewing insanely pretty dresses!

RELATED: Click this link to learn everything you need to know about your sewing machine!

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