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icon freeThis might be the most important article you ever read in YWU.

Any hobby or occupation that you indulge in regularly for a large proportion of your lifetime can have implications for your health. Forewarned is forearmed, however, so this month we start a two part series of advice from our pool of experts on Health and Safety in the Sewing Room.

Suzi Clarke, Cathy Hay and Laurie Tavan dish out some great pointers to help you avoid and manage any potential ill effects.

We contributors at YWU are not medical doctors, and we do not claim to be qualified to give medical advice. The information contained in this article should serve only to point out areas in which to do further research or consult your own doctor, and should not be considered to be complete or accurate.

Suzi Clarke

Lungs and breathing

I recently had a medical scare that made me think about how to avoid problems when sewing. As many people do, I tear fabrics, in order to save time and to have an edge that is on the straight. Have you ever noticed the dust that flies when you do this?

Well, it was thought that this might have got into my lungs and caused damage, just as a result of ordinary breathing. (Jean Hunnisett, a lifelong nonsmoker who died of lung cancer, was convinced that she had damaged her lungs with fibre dust over many years.) I now use a mask to prevent this.

Posture when sewing

I mentioned my health scare to several people, and it set us thinking of the things that we could easily do to prevent what used to be called industrial injuries. And the most important one on the list, after dust, is your position while sewing. There are suggestions about how to use a typewriter/word processor/computer toGirl at Sewing Machine, by Edward Hopperprevent aches and pains, and these can well be related to using a sewing machine.

Make sure that your machine is at a suitable height for you - if free standing, an office desk would be a good height to put it on, and use an adjustable office chair if possible. You should have your arms and wrists level with the machine. Make sure your back is well supported, and that the light falls on the work, and not in your eyes. Try not to bend over the work, especially when hand sewing, and be sure to take regular breaks.

If you can, get up and walk about, make a cup of tea, stretch and move your neck and shoulder muscles.

If you are lucky enough to have a dedicated cutting table, rather than the floor or the kitchen/dining table, make sure it is high enough. Mine is around my waist level - I can rest my elbows on it without bending too much at the waist, and it makes life much easier than bending over to reach a lower table. (Mine folds up against the wall when not in use - very handy.)

Hands and wrists

If you need support for your wrists - carpal tunnel syndrome, or repetitive strain injury, do wear them. But also see whether you can adjust your sewing style to make life easier for you.

I highly recommend the spring loaded scissors/shears produced by Fiskars, as they take a lot of the strain out of cutting.


Do have your eyes tested regularly - I didn't realise how bad my hand sewing had become until I started wearing magnifying glasses. [A useful piece of trivia - under UK law, if you're a professional you can write off eye tests as business expenses. Check whether you can do this in your country! - CH]

Accident prevention

Don't walk about with pins in your mouth, or stuck through your top - that way danger lies.

Do try to tidy up (this is a council of perfection - do as I say, not as I do.) I have been tripped up more times than I care to remember by a coat hanger on the floor.


Laurie Tavan


I was warned by a dressmaker that she ruined her knees cutting on the floor. Unfortunately I'll never have the space big enough to cut a cathedral length train on a table! With a limited work space I still often find myself cutting large projects on the floor.

Even if a super clean floor might be safe enough for white fabric I find is not safe enough for my knees. So for those times you're tempted to cut or pattern on the floor I recommend trying a pair of gardening knee pads. I currently wear a pair made by Tommyco but I'd suggest trying out different types at your local gardening store for ones that fit your own knees. Other types of knee pad are made aswell, but the gardening ones focus on providing a secure and stable platform for kneeling.


Cathy Hay

Hands and wrists

I recently met a dedicated costumer at a Living History event. She was impressively adorned in handmade lower class 16th century clothing. Her naturally dyed linens were perfectly accurate; the completely handstitched look was exquisite and an obvious source of pride.

However, she had accessorised her outfit with big 21st century plastic braces bandaged around both forearms and hands. This isn't a good look! She endured considerable discomfort, she told me, on an ongoing basis.

J van der Aeck, An Old Woman seated sewing, 1655Become aware of how your hands and wrists feel, both during and after a session of sewing and when you wake up in the morning. Are they stiff? Do they ache?

Consider this particularly if you're engaged in a lot of handsewing - plan ahead to spread out a long period of short bursts of work. In making my marathon Worth dress this year (involving 420 handsewn soutache oak leaves) I handsewed mornings only, Monday-Friday only, for a period of four months. I could have done it in two, but it wasn't worth the strain on my hands, back and eyes. Massaging my hands with hand cream was enormously helpful in the evenings, and those free weekends helped enormously. Rest is essential.

Consider the strain of sewing on your hands and wrists even if you don't work by hand as a general rule. Over a lifetime, even a little strain each day can add up to significant problems. Change tasks regularly; think about what you're asking your hands (and the rest of your body) to do. Become aware of what your body's doing.

For prevention measures, we can borrow from the musicians. Professional pianists, guitarists and percussionists must perform very repetitive hand movements for hours at a time as they practise, and so they have their own exercises to keep their hands in good shape. This page offers a selection of links. And of course, there are a much larger group who also perform repetitive hand movements for hours at a time - Google "RSI exercises" to find a huge range of possibilities intended for computer users to prevent or treat repetitive strain injuries.


Now, when it comes to knowing how to look after your back, I'm your woman. Back pain management is a lifelong theme for me, since I began having problems at sixteen, and it's coloured the way I've learnt to sew right from the beginning. I've learnt a thing or two along the way about how to prevent and manage discomfort along and around the spine.

Your tools and equipment will have a considerable effect on your back. Do you cut fabric on the floor, or on a dining table? Deduct ten points for either!! Cutting is a big task, and I'll bet your back hurts afterwards. This is not necessary, and it's not something you should simply be enduring as part of the sewing experience. I suggest doing one the the following three things:

  • Raise and enlarge your table: Find some bricks, or other way of raising your table safely, whilst keeping itWybrand Hendriks, Interior with old woman sewing, 1800-1810 sturdy. The further it rises towards your elbow height when standing, the more you'll thank me. :) (Also consider finding a big board that can lay over the top and increase the size of the surface, which will also make things easier for you.)
  • Buy suitable tables: Look for the tables with telescopic legs that some retailers sell (IKEA sell "Galant" tables that look good, although I haven't tried them myself so I won't comment). These will help you get the right amount of height, and can be slid together for size and then dismantled (I think).
  • Build a cutting table: Find an engineer, tell him/her that you want a standing-height cutting table that folds up against the wall out of the way, and give him a pencil and the back of an envelope. That's what I did. The engineers in question (two housemates when I was a student) couldn't resist the design challenge - two days later I had an enormous, fabulous cutting table made of two internal doors that's gone through countless house moves and is still my favourite sewing accessory. Materials cost me around £50 (US $80 or €55) in 1996. I cannot stress enough how much I love my cutting table, and it made me so much space since it was fold-away-able. If I could find room for it in an eight foot square student bedroom, so can you!

Get a height adjustable office chair to use when sewing at a table. Yes, they're expensive when new, but mine was £8 [$12] second hand. You're going to be sewing for long periods; don't do it on a dining chair. If you stop sewing right in the middle of something and check your posture, you'll be surprised how terrible it is. Also, consider the height of the work; raise it up on a pillow if you can't raise the table or lower the chair.

But what if you already have back problems? Here are my four top tips.

  1. Stretch, especially when you wake up in the morning. A huge proportion of back injuries occur getting out of bed on a Monday morning, so stretch before you even get up. Lie on your back and draw your knees up so that your feet are flat on the bed. Rock your knees from side to side, gently, to warm up your lower back. Rock a little further if this is easy; for even more stretch, lift your feet and draw your knees further up towards your chest, holding onto them if you want to. Rock them from side to side as before.
  2. Ask your doctor or a suitable therapeutic massage specialist for stretches. Look for good stretches online by all means, but be cynical. Look for the credentials of the person advising you, and look for exercises that are recommended by many people before trying them out. Look closely at technique.
  3. Keep it moving. Many people with chronic (ie long term) back pain suffer worse symptoms precisely because they have rested their poor back for so long. The supportive muscles around the spine lose their elasticity and fail to support the spine, making the present discomfort worse and further injuries more likely. So the best advice for long term back health is regular, gentle exercise to give you the best chance of keeping your back as healthy as possible. I find that swimming and yoga are the best for me; consult your doctor and try out some different types of exercise and see what works for you. (Clue: rowing and horse riding aren't ideal choices.)
  4. Get treatment. Again, use what works for you, but above all, don't be fobbed off with painkillers. Dulling the effect of injury will not make it go away. I have found that therapeutic massage works wonderfully for my back, and although it's expensive and feels like a guilty luxury, it has probably saved me from a lot of discomfort and cumulative problems at the times I've really needed it. However, this may not work for you; it's not comfortable or helpful for everyone - some prefer reflexology, for example. Acupuncture didn't do a thing for me, but I know back pain sufferers who swear by it. Use whatever works for you, whenever it's affordable; think of it as an investment in your long term health and your career. Your body is the most important sewing tool of all.


We contributors at YWU are not medical doctors, and we do not claim to be qualified to give medical advice. The information contained in this article should serve only to point out areas in which to do further research or consult your own doctor, and should not be considered to be complete or accurate.

Health and Safety in the Sewing Room, Part I
All of these tips are so important! Also, remember this when using the computer (this is an Internet publication, after all, plus many of us use the web for research & to share our works). I recently suffered serious neck injury due to combined computer use & sewing. My chiropractor & the ergonomic specialist @ my office both made the point that you have a limited amount of muscle use in these repetitive actions (bec. they're not natural), so space them out & save them for the fine motor skills that you value most. Make sure your computer workstation is set up correctly & take breaks & stretch -- you don't want to ruin your body on the computer & then not be able to sew!
Health and Safety in the Sewing Room, Part I
I've got to emphasize the point about not holding pins in your mouth - I did so for years and years, but a couple years ago I accidentally swallowed one during a fitting. I spent a week in the hospital due to it. The wrist-held pin cushions work almost as well as your mouth - and are much safer!

Magnetic wristbands are excellent for pins too!
Health and Safety in the Sewing Room, Part I
I'm glad someone picked up this subject. My muscles are in a terrible condition due to studying at college, sewing and working with a computer. I recently started having serious problems such as constant headaches, trembling hands etc. I think there is no better way to avoiding it than to start doing a serious exercise (I think AT LEAST once a week, better twice a week). I was told by physiotheraphis ts to do pilates or power joga the most (to reinforce the back strength) and another sport to bring my body into a better condition.
Health and Safety in the Sewing Room, Part I
Excellent topic, everybody, and thanks for bringing this to the table. It's serious business and I appreciate the warnings ...
Health and Safety in the Sewing Room, Part I
Check out this link if you have problems with your wrist (tendons): http://www.ehow.com/video_4400777_yoga-chest-stretches-carpal-tunnel.html
Health and Safety in the Sewing Room, Part I
I used to make the highly decorated Irish Dance Costumes. To stiffen the skirts we used iron-on vilene. Even with the window open above the ironing board I could still smell the fumes when applying vilene to the back of the fabric. To this day I get sores around my neck that only started when I did this.
Health and Safety in the Sewing Room, Part I
Is carpal tunnel really carpal tunnel? Yes, sometimes. but other times it's a matter of stretching the neck and back. I had pain, weakness, and numbness in my right hand and arm that nearly put me out of business. Turns out it was major kink in my neck and shoulder that took months to heal. Watch your posture and stretch stretch stretch! Kudos to ya'll for the article and for those folks using yoga and pilates to keep your strength up!
Health and Safety in the Sewing Room, Part I
Knees- I strongly agree with wearing knee pads for all floor working - cutting and fitting. Protect your knees. |I am only 42 and now have the start of arthritis in both knees due to a combination of sewing and ankle injuries. So please look after your knees.
BTW my knee pads are neoprene like wet suits made for electrians

Health and Safety in the Sewing Room, Part I
Another argument for holding pins anywhere but one's mouth comes from my boss. She worked with a woman whose habit was to hold the pins in her mouth. Pins would get collected off of the floor at this workplace for reuse. One day this woman did not appear at work -- finally contacted them -- turns out that they had sprayed for cockroaches, she had inadvertently consumed the poison on those pins from the floor, and was recovering from anaphylactic shock!

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