Sewing with Limitations

Young or old, many of us fall outside the normal parameters used by manufacturers.  For some, this can be as simple as being too short or too tall; others are dealing with physical limitations from accident or illness.  We have gathered letters from quilters who face these kinds of problems and have found solutions that work for them.  We hope you find this useful.  If you have a solution you would like to share with us, write to me at

Vision Problems:  If you or someone you know has vision problems, there is a mailing list to discuss sewing/quilting with vision problems (including blindness).http://groups.yahoo.com/group/touchablequilters

Too short:  Adjust your chair so that the top part of your body is at the correct and comfortable angle with your sewing machine or cutting board.  Then place a book or box under your feet to reduce strain on your hips and back.  -- Carol Miller

-- I like to sit higher than a regular chair, so I have a chair on wheels (secretarial chair) that adjusts up and down and mine is at the highest position.  However, because of that, it's tough to be comfortable with your foot on the pedal.  My husband built me a nice little box, about 2" high, carpet on both sides and a little Velcro on top, which keeps my foot pedal where it belongs and also at the right height.  Because of the carpet on the bottom, it doesn't slide around on the carpeted floor. - Dea

When I spent long hours at the sewing machine, I used to have pain in my lower back and hip that would last for days.  My chiropractor had some wedge-shaped foam cushions he thought might help to sit me forward on the chair. After trial and error, I discovered that if I used the wedge sideways, to support the leg that was using the foot pedal, the pain went away.  That was years ago, and I never sew without my cushion under my hip.  I hadn't realized that using the pedal caused strain on that hip, and now it is supported.  Added bonus: the wedge provides a 2 1/2" strip that has become my pin cushion as it is easily reached on my right side, when I need to pin a quilt, I take the wedge with me to re-use the pins. Wedge dimensions are 15 1/2" x 10 1/2" x 2 1/2" (on one side only)  - Barbara

-- My quilting table is one of those utility 5ft long tables. I am short, so if I raise my chair, my feet don't reach the floor.  My solution?  I had my husband cut the metal tube legs just below the bend, which shortened the table about 3".  Now the table is just the right height and my feet reach the floor. - Charlotte

My tip for sewing with limitations involves having a handy husband.  Not having a sewing room, I was cutting out on the dining table and making my back and shoulder pain worse.  My clever husband made a fold-down cutting table, at the right height, in our guest room.  The table is attached to the wall and folds neatly against the wall when not needed. The chest of drawers, which sits underneath it, has been fitted with casters and rolls out of the way so the table can fold down. This simple thing has helped my back and shoulder pain from getting worse. - Helen in Australia

Two tips - Tip 1: I needed a quilting extension table for my machine that was larger than the one that came with the machine.  My husband took a 3X5 piece of Plexiglas and cut it to fit around the bed of my machine.  He then added legs with 2X2 pieces of wood.  He countersank a screw into each leg so the screw would not catch on my fabric. Now I have a huge flat sewing area. Tip  2: I sew on a large adjustable table I purchased from Sam's.  With the addition of the new large flat sewing surface, the machine was now too high even with an adjustable chair.  When I lowered the table, it was too low for my knees to fit under.  There was no middle ground.  I solved this by buying a long piece of flexible-reinforced-hose and 4 clamps at the local hardware store.  I cut them the desired length and cut them down one side. I fitted the hose around the bottom of each table leg and clamped them in place. Then I lowered the table until it rested on the hose.  Now the table is the perfect height! - Sylvia Blissett

Bad joints, back pain, asthma:  I wear a thumb brace which helps keep the joint warm and less painful.  I bought some fly fishing scissors which are like embroidery scissors but have larger holes designed for men's hands. They help reduce cramping and pain.  I also use ergonomic scissors with springs made by Fiskars.  I take physical therapy once a week, including Pilates.  I have Pilates equipment here at the house--a reformer and a mat.  I take pain med.

In the studio, I have elevated the 2 large cutting tables to 36" to keep back pain at a minimum.  My son made some special wooden lifters.  At the sewing machine, I have elevated my desk chair and placed a platform under my feet. I keep a ladder in the studio for negotiating the high shelves and upper part of my 10 x 10 design wall.

For vision, I have full spectrum fluorescent fixtures, plus track lighting for the design wall, plus pool-table-type lamps over the tables, an Ott light over my sewing machine, and an array of lights over the sink.  All are full spectrum.  I also have huge north facing windows which is wonderful in daylight.

I cannot do one repetitive task for too long.  Must stop and stretch, get the mail, walk to the office and check email, get a cup of tea.  Just getting up and moving is important.  -- Suzanne Riggio

 have osteoarthritis from toes to fingers, three compressed discs - scoliosis and osteo in the spine as well.  I had a lot of trouble cutting out on the dining table so we packed it away and bought a second hand adjustable ironing board for $5.  My husband attached a28" x 52" piece of 3/4" thick  plywood on top and screwed it in place with screws through an appropriately sized washer.  It means I can now stand there for longer periods of time before pain says "Give me a break!"-  Michele-Marie Bloch

Missing fingers: I am missing three middle fingers on my right hand, so I must hold a needle between thumb and little finger.  I’ve tried most of the alternative thimbles and none work for me, so I make my own. The best ones are made with Elmer’s glue and strips of damp brown paper bag, paper maché style.  I make it about 3/8” wide and trim it to fit so my little finger will bend, then let it dry. It leaves the tip of my finger free to hold the needle. I have been known to invent a quick version with a couple Band-Aids sandwiching a small piece of plastic lid.  These are free, but easily lost.   -- Lily Kerns

Spinal problems: I used to adjust my body to my work space or environment.  If I wanted to paint, I could just go to dining room table or use a stool with me on the floor.  Now, sitting at the dinner table is a chore.  I have had to learn how to adjust the workspace or environment to my body limits.  For doing the batik in Marjie McWilliams' class, the height of the stretcher frame relative to my height in the chair has to be proportional to limit bending.  Sitting height has to allow for feet flat on floor to prevent low back pressure. Twisting limits are adjusted by height of wax counter and its proximity to the stretcher frame.  The stools shown in the pictures below work for me but a person of a different height would need other furniture, overturned pails, stacks of blocks or whatever.  --  Susanne Arbogast


Pictures show Susanne's set up for dyeing and batik

Bad back, disk problems: I have a deteriorating disk in my lower back.  Leaning over a standard height table to cut fabric aggravates the situation and causes pain.  We bought a full size, old fashioned free standing drafting board table at surplus.  The working surface tilts from horizontal to vertical and anywhere in between, and is motorized so it can be raised up/down at least 24".  I do all my fabric cutting and many other quilting tasks standing at the drafting table.  The drafting table was too big and heavy to get up the stairs,  so we simply put it in one corner of the living room.  It was easy to get to and always made an interesting conversation topic with guests.  --  Linda Lunt

--- I am a little less than 5' tall, with Degenerative Disc Disease in the upper part of my back.  Posture when sewing is very important and to accomplish this and keep a large sewing space, we got an old typewriter desk and adjusted the typewriter spot till my sewing machine would sit down in the space. My large acrylic worktable is level with the top of the desk, and I have room to machine quilt a king size quilt.  I also bought the best computer chair with arms I could afford.  The arms on the newer chairs are concave on top so you have a spot to rest your arm.

Also, I put a TV in my sewing room but raised up so that I have to look up at about a 45° angle.  This makes me straighten my back and stretch a bit.  I have my special ironing block table so that I have to get up to use it.  Moving is important to keep everything from getting stiff. 

My ironing table is a piece of plywood about 16" x 30". It has 2X3's perpendicular to the flat surface and they form the legs.  It is wrapped with batting and muslin and sits on another table so that it's just the right height.  I also use an old table from the 40's as a cutting table because it is higher than most modern tables making everything the right height for me..

Also important, the sewing surface should allow your feet to sit flat on the floor. --  Val Champ

At 15, I broke my back.  It took 2 1/2 years before I could get around on crutches.  About 6 months after I broke my back, I wanted to do some sewing.  I couldn't move my feet or legs and my arms were still very weak.  My mom put my sisters sewing machine on the table with the foot petal in front of the machine and I wasn't strong enough to push it down with my arm and have control over the sewing speed.  My aunt had an old sewing machine and they put an extension on the foot petal.  The extension allowed me to use all the strength in my right arm and shoulder to push on the petal and then I could control the speed of the machine.  It was a little awkward, but it worked.  My motto is, if there is a will there is a way and if one way doesn't work try another and another and another. 

Things that I have done that work for me:

1.  Get up and move every 20 minutes to half hour when sitting and/or sewing.  

2.  Don't stand longer than 20 minutes ironing or at cutting table.

3.  Use an L-shape for my sewing machine, serger and blind hemmer.

4.  Things that I use the most I keep within easy reach.   I set up mini stations for each task and have supplies within easy reach of that task.  If the task requires me to be sitting, such as sewing, all my threads are separated in bins under my table and can be reached without me moving my wheelchair while I'm at the sewing machine.  All sewing supplies , e.g., bobbins, foot attachments, needles and the like, are in draws to the right of my sewing machine.  Serger and blind hemming threads are stacked behind those machines.  Cutting mats and rulers have their own table.

5.  I put my ironing board on the other side of the room.  This gives me the gentle reminder that I have to get up and move.  I have all ironing supplies on a bookshelf behind the ironing board. 

6.  I use a wheelchair when sewing.  I have removed the legs from the wheelchair.   I have movement in my right foot, so I can keep the foot petal on the floor.  The wheelchair helps me move from my sewing machine to my serger and blind hemmer without getting up.  Currently I am working at a company and use an office chair but, I must say, the wheelchair works much better.

7.  Use a reaching stick.  If I drop something onto the floor it is easier to pick up.  It also works when doing laundry and other jobs around the house.   Lynn O'Flaherty

Lupus, other conditions that cause limited physical stamina:  I try to measure my activities so that I don't become overtired.  I prefer to work until about 1 p.m., rest for 2-3 hours, and then begin an abbreviated schedule in the afternoon.  I avoid sunshine, stay cool, keep my meds on an even schedule and rest when necessary.   This business of sitting down and working 8-12 hours just isn't possible; 3-4 hours are best.  Actually, for a woman over 60, my life is pretty stable. I take enough meds to keep my joints moving without too much aggravation.  With lupus, my body develops allergies to things in my surroundings or to my meds, so I accommodate these problems, exercise regularly, eat regularly and do my best to stay on an even keel.  When I am tired, I stop.  Jan Brashears

I have shaky arms - dystonia - and my extended sewing table around my machine is a great help, as my lower arms can rest on it.  Also I have a machine with a built-in walking foot, which probably helps to get better 'straight' lines!  Free motion machine quilting needs a sense of humour, though using a spiky style embroidery stitch and variegated thread can make the wiggly lines look as if they are supposed to be like that. 

It is best for to have as few different things as possible to have to control at the same time, so I was delighted to learn, in Sylvia Landman's 'Quilt As You Go' class, how to hand quilt with just fabric and needle (no hoop or thimble).  I use a size 5 milliners/ straw needle, which is long enough to grip for pushing it through the fabric without using a thimble.  It also has a large enough eye to use a needle threader with quilting thread.

I also agree with everyone who emphasizes not trying to keep going when tired, doing so just makes things much worse.  Lisanne Bainbridge

Vision problems: One of the things I did was to ask the optometrist to prescribe a special pair of glasses for me to use just for computer work. This eliminated two of the prescriptions from the tri-focals he was prescribing for everyday use.  I can read everything on the computer monitor and everything that is printed out and anything around me. When I need to see fine and up close, I just remove them and I can thread needles, etc.  When I'm at the sewing machine I can see the seaming process very clearly and am not bobbing my head around to get focus. Standing and walking with these reading glasses isn't wise as they effect my stability and perception, but while I'm seated they are great.  Maria Piitz