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icon freeThis month we continue our two part series of advice from our pool of experts on Health and Safety in the Sewing Room. Gina Barrett, Alexis Black and Marion McNealy share what has helped them to avoid and manage any potential ill effects.

This might be the most important series of articles 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, so it's important to consider how you work. Let us point out some pitfalls and preventative tips to help you sew for longer!


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.


Gina Barrett

Julian Alden Weir, The Lace Maker

Much of what I do, making trims and accessories, is repetitive work. I find that regular stops - stretching, walking around, basically movement to ensure my body isn't stuck into the same position for hours, is vital. Otherwise stress aches and pains set in.

I try to alternate projects/work. Moving your hands in the same position continually (such as when weaving or fine sewing) can result in repetitive strain, something I actually first developed in a job I did long ago, working a till [cash register] in a department store! The best way to stop this is to ensure that nothing is too repetitive.

So, have something else to work on, and don't give yourself deadlines that are too short and stop you from feeling as though you can take breaks!

It's also important to have any work at a good level. I need to ensure that I am not bending over work, that I am sitting at a loom in such a way that my back is straight. Lighting is vital too.

If you are someone who sets their jaw when concentrating, try chewing some sugar-free gum. This will help to stop those headaches - and possible toothaches - that can result.


Alexis Black

Vary Your Activities

I try to vary my activities so I am not doing one action over and over again for hours. I might sew for an hour, then move to cutting, then on to drafting, then computer work for an hour, etc. It helps relieve stress on my body and keeps me from getting burnt out on work.

It's important for me to make sure I get some activity through the day. I take 5 minute stretching breaks or bounce on a mini-trampoline for 3 minutes to get my blood flowing. A fun way to make sure you get some exercise in is to set your alarm so that ever hour you have to dance to one fast song. It's great for your body and your mood and it's great fun.

Pay attentionAngelo Trezzini, A Tired Seamstress

I always put precision above speed. When you pay close, almost anal attention to what you are doing, you are less likely to get hurt. Speedy sewing might be fun, but it can result in sloppy work and owies (injuries).

Sleepy Sewers Get Hurt

When I get tired or frustrated, I stop working or change tasks. I have found that when I keep working on a piece that is giving me grief, it only gets worse, so it's better to walk away and come back to it with fresh eyes.

This may not seem like a safety issue, but in my experience, I almost always end up hurting myself while working on something that just won't go right, and I usually end up damaging the piece I am working on in the process. I try to never cut or sew when I am tired. Sleepy sewers get hurt.

Work Space Setup

I make sure all my tables are set at the correct height for the work I am doing. I slightly bend my knees and tighten my abs when doing standing work like ironing or drafting. That reduces stress on my lower back and knees.

I like to listen to books on tape while I work. It helps me keep my mind alert so I don't begin to make simple mistakes.

Using natural light or full spectrum lighting is a better choice for your eyes, emotions, and mental clarity. Fluorescent lights can play havoc on your senses and mood, not to mention they make colors look ugly. Making sure you have a well-lit area will cut back on mistakes and reduce your chances of injury.

I use  spring-loaded shears when I cut. They open after each cut, so your hand has half the work. I keep my shears sharp using a regular hand sharpening stone. Sharp shears are less likely to skip and nick your fingers.

Keep Things Tidy
I try to remember to unplug things when I am not working. Appliances drain power even when they aren't on, and they could start a fire. It's important to clear papers and scraps from the floors too. Fires spread quickly in an untidy workshop, and little creepy crawlies like to nest in messes.  It's equally important to keep cords tidy so no one trips.

Joseph DeCamp,The Seamstress, 1916Ventilation
I try to keep my work space well-ventilated and vacuumed. Fumes from materials, fabric lint, and other seemingly tiny things like the dust you file off flat steel bones can irritate your skin, lungs, and eyes.

I am careful to wash my hands frequently as I work, and I try to avoid using materials that have heavy dies and chemicals. Long term exposure to these harsh chemicals can cause all kinds of problems on the surface of your body, and deep inside, where you don't even know damage is being done.

Be really careful when working with fabrics like velvet or chenille. The little fluff that comes off the edges can line your lungs and even suffocate you. Wear a filter mask and use an air filter that makes airborne particles fall to the floor so you don't breathe them in.

Take Care of Your Body

I get carpal tunnel syndrome and I have found that taking highly concentrated anti-oxidants, like those found in AstaFactor, tremendously reduce inflammation and pain. Other sources are, of course, berries and the colorful fruits but Astafactor is highly concentrated, natural and fast acting.

I am also a raw vegan. I find that eating a diet of predominantly raw, ripe, organic fruits and veggies (lots of dark, leafy greens) keeps my mind and body clean and healthy so I am able to work longer, more safely, and with much more enjoyment. Green smoothies are the easiest way for me to stay well nourished, hydrated, and energetic. I simply blend fruits and greens in the blender and sip as I sew. Be careful not to put your cup anywhere near your work.


I make sure to take frequent water breaks and eat plenty of fruit throughout the day. Staying hydrated doesn't seem that important when you are sewing, but this kind of work can actually take a lot out of your body.

It's these tiny, seemingly unimportant practices help me stay happy, healthy, and safe while I work. I hope you find some of them useful.


Marion McNealy

My mother always said that "A change is as good as a rest", and I've found that to be very true with sewing or handwork. When I get frustrated with a project, instead of pushing through, I'll take a break before I ruin it.

When I've reached the point of apathy with a project, then I'll just sit down and work through the apathy until I reach the "breakthrough point", then the work becomes easy again. If I'm really stuck, the only thing to do is to go for a walk, or do the dishes, or cook dinner. Sometimes your brain just needs a chance to mull it over at its own speed, and inspiration will strike later.

Recently, I've been practicing what I call "Doing the Opposite".  I alternate sessions of fine motor movement (handsewing, computer work, sitting etc) with gross motor movement (folding laundry, dishes, cleaning, going for a walk). I find that this helps stretch things out and prevent stiffness and injuries.

Getting a massage at least once a month to work the knots out of my shoulders, arms and hands is one of the keys I've found to keeping  carpal tunnel  and rotator cuff problems to the barest minimum.  William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Young Worker, 1869

When my hands and wrists really hurt, I'll wear the wrist braces to bed and sleep in them. This helps keep the hands in the right position while I sleep and helps them heal.

The other things I do are nightly arm, shoulder, hand, back, hip and neck stretches. I do these right before I go to bed, and I can really feel the difference when I skip the stretches one night, my back is killing me the next day! My husband used to complain about how long it took me to get ready for bed, but now he understands how important it is for me to do this.

Eating right is really important to me during times of high productivity. I eat a lot of protein, vegetables, whole grains and very little sugar. Honey is OK, but I cut back on the high fructose corn syrup and sugar since they make me sleepy and foggy.  I still need my chocolate, so I eat the 82% chocolate which doesn't have much sugar in it. I also drink a lot of water during the day, 10-12 glasses a day.

Sometimes you just need to take a nap and hit the refresh button. Even a 30-45 minute rest where you close your eyes and just focus on your breathing, or do a little meditation about something uplifting and NOT YOUR PROJECT can really help calm the nerves.



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 II
I agree, changing tasks is a good idea,and knowing when to quit for a while can save your sanity. If you have people in your workspace you do need to keep safety in mind. One thing that helps me when using the sewing machine is to sew left footed for a while. It's easy to get used to and lets my right leg have a rest. Julie B.
"Do not operate..."
"...heavy machinery" is a phrase I have started using when I get too tired. The rule is simply that if I'm too tired to drive or operate other heavy machinery safely, I probably shouldn't be using my sewing machine either! My brain is simply not working well enough to do these tasks well and so it's better to just leave-off and avoid needing to fix all the mistakes I would have made!


Health and Safety in the Sewing Room, Part II
Ack! Fail! First part should have been "Do not operate..." but the subject line does not show up. So, yes, "Do not operate heavy machinery". :P


Health and Safety in the Sewing Room, Part II
I also find audio books are great to listen to while working - I'm currently working my way through the Harry Potters! - which can work as a great pull to your work. If you're dreading doing some difficult/dull/repetitive piece the thrill of finding out what happens next can really inspire you to pick up that needle/man that sewing machine, when previously 'just a few minutes of TV' had seemed like a wonderful idea! I've found getting audio books from the library is the best way to do this as it's cheap and has a great range to choose from!
Health and Safety in the Sewing Room, Part II
I suffer quite badly from back pain since a traffic accident and these suggestions have been really useful. I have only recently got my studio, so I think of the first things I need to do is make it better!
Thanks for the good advice

health and safety in the sewing room
I invested iin a pair of chinese musical balls they really heelp the tightness in the hands and wrist. The other tip buy a parffin wax bath,after a 10 hour day it really eases any hand pain
Great post Paula

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