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Before and after the holidays, I logged some long days at the sewing machine, making presents. I made lots of different things —quilts and double-sided napkins, fabric bags and pajama pants. One of the unfortunate side effects of all that sewing was a sore back and shoulders. I’ve also been reading depressing news about how bad it is for us to spend hour after hour sitting, and how much healthier it is to stand up while working. This is great news for those of you with quilting frames, but not so great for those of us who do all our piecing and quilting at sit-down machines.

I went to the chiropractor, who said I should get up every half hour to do some stretches and walk around. Of course this sounds like a good idea, but oh, how hard to do it, especially when I’m in the middle of free motion quilting. What, stop, now? My stipples were just starting to look curvy instead of jerky.  But oh, my aching back!

What’s a girl to do when all she really wants to do is keep on sewing? Here are some suggestions I’m planning to implement this year.

Check Your Sewing Position

According to the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a lot of us are causing ourselves aches and pains by sitting in the wrong position to sew. Here’s OSHA’s picture of the ideal position for sewing:

Source: U.S. Department of Labor

Source: U.S. Department of Labor

Your forearms should rest level on the sewing machine bed. Your upper arms, lower legs, and back should all be more or less at right angles to the floor. Your chair should allow you to sit close enough to the action so that your back can be straight and upright while you guide the fabric under the needle. You should also be able to clearly see the needle area without scrunching over. Things you shouldn’t do:

  • Lean forward or hunch over to sew. (I was guilty of both.)
  • Sew with your hands at a higher level than your elbows (guilty again!)
  • Let your feet dangle or stretch out one foot at an angle to use your foot petal. (Guilty!)

I realized that my sewing position was off, way off. And the #1 reason for my postural problems was my sewing chair.

Get an Ergonomic Sewing Chair

For several years, my sewing chair has been a dining chair I got at a thrift store. I liked the way it looked, and it had a comfortable padded seat. But in every other way, it was wrong, wrong, wrong. Dining Chair not ergonomic sewing chair

According to OSHA, an ergonomic sewing chair should have the following features:

  • Easy-to-adjust height.
  • Seat and back rest that tilt and adjust easily.
  • Padded back rest with rounded edges to support the lower back.
  • Either no wheels, or wheels that lock, to provide stability while working. It’s also desirable to have five built-in feet supporting the chair, for added stability.
  • Gently sloped or “waterfall” front edge to help prevent the chair’s edge from pressing into the backs of your legs.
  • Cushioned and contoured seat to distribute your weight evenly and avoid creating pressure points.

Here’s an example of an ergonomic chair from the OSHA website:  

An ergonomic sewing chair

An ergonomic sewing chair

You can buy special-purpose sewing chairs at sewing machine dealers. I decided to try a secretarial chair my mother-in-law didn’t need any more when she moved to a retirement home. It was free, and it serves the purpose much better than my dining chair. I adjusted the height and back to bring me to the right-angle position OSHA recommends. Here’s my current chair:

My sewing chair

Take Regular Breaks

I encourage myself to get up and move around by keeping a kitchen timer in my sewing room and setting it for 30 minutes. When the timer goes off, I (usually) stop sewing, get up and at a minimum, go to the kitchen to warm up my coffee or get a drink of water.  In the afternoons, I will take the dog for a walk or spend a couple of minutes standing in front of the refrigerator, wondering what on earth I’m going to cook for dinner.

When I come back to start sewing again, I set the timer for another 30 minutes.  It always comes as a surprise how fast half an hour goes by when you’re sewing.

Switch up from Sitting to Standing

While it is definitely convenient to have a small pressing station right at your sewing machine so you can press blocks after each seam without getting up, it is better for your health if you locate your pressing station across the room, so that you have to get up and walk over to press your project between seams. It’s also a good idea to switch periodically from sewing to cutting or any other activity you do standing up. If you’re like me, you have no shortage of unfinished projects to switch to when it’s time to take a break from sitting at the sewing machine.

Do I practice what I preach? Mostly. Sometimes I just get too caught up in what I’m doing to stop when I ought to. But one of my goals for 2014 is to be healthier in the sewing room.  I’m working at it! How about you?



Happy New Year from Quilter’s Diary

We have big plans for our quilting and for this blog during the new year. Well, little plans. Well okay, no plans. But lots of quilting and sewing projects already almost finished, some well underway, quite a few half thought of, and surely some not even imagined yet. This is the year we’re going to master a free motion quilting style that goes beyond stippling. The year to cut fabrics in new and challenging angles. To sew curves. To make clothes for ourselves and our children. To get our fabric and tools organized. To have fun in the sewing room!

We wish you the best of years in your quilting and in the rest of your lives.

Christine and Felicity


Work in Progress: Chinese Coins Quilt Top

Work in Progress: Chinese Coins Quilt Top thumbnail

When my daughter had her wisdom teeth out last week, she wanted to spend every waking minute in my sewing room with me so I could provide comfort and watch her favorite TV shows with her. I wanted to make her Christmas present (leopard-print fleece pajama pants) but couldn’t, because she was right there on the sofa, watching my every move.  Instead, I filled the time by making my first-ever Chinese Coins quilt.

This Chinese Coins quilt top used  one white print for the sashing and borders, plus  a lot of strips cut from my stash of fat quarters. In the early days of my fabric addiction, I bought a lot of fat quarters just because I loved their patterns and colors. Since then, I have found that I really prefer to quilt with width-of-fabric strips. Some of the fat quarters that went into this quilt have been sitting neglected on my fabric shelf for years. Now I am ruthlessly cutting them up into strips and using them to make scrap quilts. It’s very satisfying to make inroads on my unused fabric.

To sew the “coin” strips together, I started with a foundation fabric of long muslin strips. I added strips to the foundations using the same stitch-and-flip technique I use to make string quilts. You could also just sew the strips together without a foundation, but I like having the muslin to tell me exactly how long and how wide the strip set needs to be. Here’s a view of the strips before I added sashing and borders.

Chinese Coins Strips in Progress 12 2013

I went fabric shopping the day after Christmas and found some fabulous Minkee fabric to use as the backing for this quilt. You’ll get to see that when the quilt is finished (soon, I hope!)

The leopard-print pajamas got done late at night, after everyone else went to bed. They were a big hit!




Yesterday afternoon I sewed a Christmas gift for a good friend: this  set of 12 double-sided fabric napkins. I used one fabric for the front:
Cloth Fabric Napkins Large Front Side

and the six fabrics shown above for the reverse sides.

My friend and I chose the fabrics for this project together, but I am pretty sure she will still be surprised by these napkins,  because it’s been at least a couple of years since our fabric-shopping outing! It’s very satisfying to be able to cross this one off my list.

The batiks we chose are all quilting fabric, which is one reason I made the napkins two-sided. One layer of quilt fabric is a bit thin for the heavy use and regular washing napkins are subjected to. Using color-coordinated fabrics for the reverse side will give my friend a number of  color options to choose from when she sets her table.

How to Sew the Napkins

  1. Cut your fabric into 17-1/2″ squares. You will need twice as many squares as napkins. I cut 24 squares to make 12 napkins. If you want to make smaller or larger napkins, just adjust the size of the squares.
  2. Put a front side square and back side square with right sides together and outer edges aligned.
  3. Sew around the outside edges, using a 1/2″ seam. Leave a 3-4 inch opening on one side so you can turn the napkin right side out.
  4. Trim a tiny triangle off the seam allowance in each corner to reduce bulk in the corners.
  5. Turn the napkin right side out. Use a chopstick or stiletto to poke out the corners.
  6. Carefully press the napkin flat.
  7. Sew all around the outer edges of each napkin, using a 1/8″ seam so the opening will be closed securely. I like to use one of my decorative stitches for this.

And you’re done! It only takes a few hours to make a whole set of beautiful napkins.



Sewing Bags for Days for Girls International

Sewing Bags for Days for Girls International thumbnail

I haven’t sewed any fabric gift bags or wine bottle bags this year, but that doesn’t mean I have stopped making bags!  This crop of drawstring bags will be headed to the Days for Girls foundation, where they will be used to hold feminine hygiene kits for girls who would otherwise have to stay home from school when they have their periods.

Days for Girls Bags large

From the foundation’s website:

“What if not having sanitary supplies meant DAYS without school, DAYS without income, DAYS without leaving the house? Girls use leaves, mattress stuffing, newspaper, corn husks, rocks, anything they can find…but still miss up to 2 months of school every year. Worse, girls are often exploited in exchange for hygiene (see one girl talk about it ​here). It turns out this issue is a surprising but instrumental key to social change for women all over the world. The poverty cycle can be broken when girls stay in school.”

You can find patterns on the Days for Girls site for sewing all the components of the hygiene kits. I zeroed in on the bags because of my love of making bags.

I’d love to know what charities you all support with your sewing. Do you have one you especially recommend to the rest of us?



Work In Progress Wednesday: Rail Fence Blues Quilt thumbnail

It’s time for the mad dash to finish Christmas presents! Most years, I make a big stack of Christmas gift bags, but this year it looks like real quilts all the way.

On the spur of the moment, I decided to make a quilt for a nun at my daughter’s high school who has been a wonderful friend to my girl. Sister Mary told me her favorite color is blue, so blue it is!

Here’s a look at the quilt in progress. I have made all the blocks and sewed them into rows. And my back is killing me! I wish someone taught a class on the proper way to sit at the sewing machine without crippling yourself. Still, I’m pleased with my progress. Another long day and this quilt should be ready to go.

Rail Fence Blues Quilt in Progress 11 2013

Linking up to Work in Progress Wednesday over at the Freshly Pieced blog.

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