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Sewing chair ergonomics: why it is important for your health

As I have said many times, creating the perfect set-up for your sewing room isn’t just about aesthetics, it’s about ergonomics. Where you place things, the way you access them, and how you use them is important to your well-being, as it allows you to work comfortably in a space you love. In this article, I want to share with you how to find the perfect ergonomic chair for your sewing room and how to adjust your seating position for maximum health benefits.

Why sewing chair ergonomics is so important

We have already talked about cutting table height and ironing board height, well your sewing chair is just as important. You wouldn’t drive a car without adjusting the seat to the perfect height for you to drive effectively and for periods of time comfortably, so why sit at your sewing machine without adjusting it to your specifications?

When you unbox your new, (or inherited) sewing machine, it’s tempting to set it on a spare desk or table, pull up the nearest dining chair, and start sewing! Soon after you notice that your neck, shoulders, wrists, and back are becoming sore. The problem is that the dining chair is designed for the user to work and eat at the table, not 4˝ above it. The average sewing machine is 3½˝ from bottom to sewing surface and that measurement means more to your comfort than you know!

Chair ergonomics change with each situation you sit in and often chairs are designed specifically for situational purposes. A dining chair is designed to slip under your dinner table and lift you to a position comfortable to eat at. An office chair is designed in most cases to provide you, or office colleagues with more situation options (although any workplace ergonomist will tell you that each office worker should really be designated a specific chair that can be adjusted for their specific use in each situation they need it for). For example, with an office chair, you can often reposition your seat to comfortably sit under a number of different desks to work at, once you understand a few basics.

The consequences of sitting in a badly set up chair in your sewing room can lead to;

  1. Poor blood circulation

  2. Increased fatigue

  3. Back, neck, and shoulder pain

  4. Decreased concentration

Not great if you have a commission quilt due in the next week or so!

How to find the perfect ergonomic chair for your sewing room

More often than not we can adjust our sewing chair and not the table, so we need to find a chair that can be adjusted and moved to the correct position for our best posture.

If this is a new chair you are buying, think about how you sit when you are sewing. Then try it out! Position your hips all the way back in the seat with your feet flat on the floor, while maintaining a natural spine shape. If your feet aren't flat and the seat depth doesn’t adjust, you can place a cushion behind you. This is okay when using an existing chair, but not ideal if purchasing a new one. Run your hand behind your knees, there shouldn’t be any pressure on the front edge of the chair and your thighs should be parallel to the floor.

If you are thinking about repurposing an existing office chair into your new sewing room chair there are a few questions about its fit-for-purpose that are also going to need to be asked.

Either way, look for a chair that

  1. allows you to adjust the height. If you can’t lower your table, you can raise your chair. If you can’t adjust your chair high enough, you can always add an extra cushion.

  2. has an adjustable back that provides lumbar support and an adjustable seat base depth. A cushion can also help here. Ideally, you should be able to tilt back when not sewing to redistribute weight on your pressure points; if you can’t tilt, then wiggle, shift, or get up.

  3. has a waterfall edge at the front to eliminate pressure on the back of the knees which disrupts blood flow and circulation. Allow for a 2 to 3 finger gap from the front of the chair to the back of the knees. I've mentioned before that anything that was researched in the world of ergonomics wasn't done for us quilters, but lucky for you I've researched their research and put it to use for all of us. The one thing that came out of the secretarial pools of the madman days, of the fifties, was something known as the waterfall chair. The front edge of this chair was rounded and the seat depth or ‘seat pan’ as it's called was shorter than most other chair seats. This enabled users' legs to stick out past the end of the chair. Researchers found that this design lessened the impact of having the chair right up against the back of the knee which disrupted circulation. A lot of earlier industrial commercial furniture is made of high-quality plastic for ease of cleaning rather than textiles, an upholstered version of this chair is now mostly used as the padding proves to be beneficial.

  4. has removable or adjustable armrests, which you should position just below your elbows to prevent your shoulders from scrunching up. However, no armrests are better than the wrong armrests, so if they aren’t adjustable or removable, then choose a different chair.

How to adjust your sewing chair for better ergonomics

While there may not be such a thing as one perfect way to sit and sew, there is such a thing as good posture and the best height for your sewing surface. Center your body while seated in front of the sewing machine needle, sit tall with a neutral, natural S-shaped spine, and relax your shoulders. Keep your upper arms at your sides and bend your elbows to 90°, or right angles which is the easiest way to take this measurement.

If your sewing machine is too high, you must raise your elbows, which forces your shoulders to scrunch up and your wrists to bend, causing back, neck, and wrist pain. You will need to either lower, or raise the table which lowers/raises your machine, as well as or instead, raise/lower your chair until your hands are resting on the sewing surface with your elbows at 90°–110° (at right angles or slightly lower).

If you can adjust your table - To find that perfect table height, place your hands on your sewing machine bed and measure from the bottom of your bent 90-degree elbow to the floor to determine how high your sewing surface should be. Adjust your table height accordingly.

Then adjust your chair - Bring your chair to the table and raise or lower it until your seated position allows you a 90-degree elbow to the floor angle. If your feet are dangling because you cannot lower the table height, place a box under the sewing table until your feet are resting flat and your knees are at a 90°–110° angle. The pedal should be directly under your foot. If your legs are touching the table from your correct seating position, then it is possible you may need to switch tables as the table depth is too wide.

Using support cushions (plus my favourite product)

Using a support cushion can be particularly beneficial at any age, but especially as we get older. They are designed to help alleviate pressure points when sitting for periods of time, which prolongs the onset of aches and pains. In other words, we'll feel better, have more energy, less and quilt until our 100th birthday.

Not all of them are created equal, and I know, because I have tried a few! So here’s the one that I now use and recommend to my lecture attendees. It’s the Sp1ke Topper Cushion by Vigurus Technologies Inc. I find it to be comfortable, non-slip (which is great if you wish to use this on a number of chairs in your home) and the open grid allows airflow, making it an easier choice for all year round use.

If you would like to try one, use my link and receive a 20 percent discount

code: Healthyquilting20

A final word on seating posture at your new chair

As you get in the zone, chain piecing one block after another, your shoulders tend to roll forward, your head leans in so you can see better, your neck is bent, and your back is hunched. Not great! Instead, sit tall, roll your shoulders back, slide them down your back, drawing your shoulder blades together (don’t squeeze or tense up!) Make sure to keep your shoulders relaxed, and when you stitch, use one foot for a bit, then move the pedal over and switch feet. And don’t forget to get up and stretch whenever you can.

Make sure you sign up for my newsletter as I’m going to post an article (at some point soon) about finding your best ergonomic positions in your sewing room, which will help you greatly in understanding how other parts of your sewing room and your use of them affect your health.


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