8 Tips to Prevent Back Pain While Sewing

8 Tips to Prevent Back Pain While Sewing

If you’ve ever finished a marathon quilt piecing session and wondered if your back and shoulders will ever feel relaxed again, I understand. I learned to sew as a kid – and you know how kids just adapt to whatever position they are in? Well, it finally caught up with me as an adult.

So I did a whole bunch of research to design my last sewing room and it definitely helped. But when I moved ten years later and got to create another sewing room from scratch I got even pickier.

Here are my top 8 tips to prevent back pain while sewing:

1 – Place your sewing machine at the correct height

Did you know that the correct height of the bed of your sewing machine is where your forearms rest when your elbows are at right angles?

Notice that I emphasized the BED of your sewing machine. This is where your fabric is moving under the presser foot, not the height of the table that your sewing machine is sitting on. Basically, the sewing machine bed should be the same height as a desk surface. But often we just place our sewing machine on top of the desk, or on table of a table. This raises the height of the sewing machine by 3-4 inches.

If you are sitting holding your hands up to guide your fabric through the machine, your shoulders will naturally creep up to compensate. This will cause your neck and shoulders to hurt after a long day of sewing.

3 Ways to place your sewing machine at the correct height

So sure, that sounds reasonable, but how are you supposed to make that happen?

1 – use a height adjustable chair or stool.

Raise or lower you sitting position until your forearms are parallel to the floor when you hands are resting on the sewing machine bed. If you raise yourself a lot, you may need to get a stool to place your feet and machine pedal on so that you are sitting with your feet flat.

2 – use a shorter table

You can go searching for a shorter table or modify one you have (cut off the legs?) so that your forearms are parallel to the floor. I would advise reviewing the correct sitting position here, and then measuring the height of your elbows when sitting in your chair. Make sure to take into account the height of your sewing bed from where the machine sits as well when searching for or modifying a table. In my last sewing room I had a shorter table and it helped tremendously. In my new sewing room I invested in the next option.

3 – use a specially designed sewing cabinet

Most sewing cabinets have a place to put your sewing machine below the level of the table top so that the bed of your machine is level with the table top. This helps get your machine at the correct height, although you still may need to find an adjustable height chair or stool to fine tune depending on your height. I just recently invested in one of these and I LOVE it. Having the sewing machine bed flush with the table also makes it easier to move large projects through the sewing machine.

2 – Sit close to your machine – centered on the needle

If you sit at a desk or computer all day, you don’t have your hands way out in front of you, right? But sometimes we sew with our arms outstretched towards the sewing machine.

The proper position for your arms while sewing is not only with your forearms parallel to the floor, but also with your elbows down next to your sides. Scoot up close enough to your sewing machine that your hands can do their job while still having relaxed shoulders.

It is also important to sit so the center of you is centered on the needle, rather than the middle of the machine. Otherwise you will end up leaning to the left to reach the needle. So when you set up your machine, make sure you have plenty of room to sit on the left end of the machine.

3 – Use lots of light

We all know that hunching our shoulders over anything brings pain, right? So we want to avoid hunching over our sewing machine as well.

The most common reason for hunching is that we can’t see. This is usually because the sewing machine light just isn’t quite bright enough to see what’s going under the needle. So add more light!

There are lots of lights made especially for sewing tables, but you can also just use an old swing arm desk lamp. It’s worth going to a little extra effort to get enough lighting under your sewing machine – you’ll see!

4 – Keep your pedal in place

The first three tips concentrated on keeping your shoulders in a relaxed position, but that’s not the only place you can develop pain from sewing. Notice in all the pictures of correct posture, your feet should be flat on the floor with your knees bent at a right angle.

But I bet your pedal slowly slides away from you during your sewing session until you just can’t reach it anymore and you go fishing with it with your foot.

Having your leg stretched out like that upsets the way your hips are sitting in your chair. So invest in a way to keep your pedal in place. I am currently researching the best way to do this myself. I’ve seen people suggest a piece of rubber shelf liner, mouse pads with wrist rests, and even specially marketed rubber mats just for foot pedals. I’ll update this post when I’ve found what works best. If you’re not on my email list, sign up below and you’ll be among the first to know.

If you have lots of low back pain, you may also need to make sure your hips are perfectly level. When you have one foot up on the foot pedal it will be slightly higher that the other. Figure out a way to keep both feet at the same height by using a brick or block under the other foot.

5 – Support your projects with a table

If you’ve ever machine quilted a large quilt, or sewn large projects of any kind, you know that all that fabric can be quite heavy. Make sure you are sewing on a large enough table that your whole project can be on the table, instead of sliding off the sides, or being held by you. Keeping it on the table also reduces drag on the fabric under the needle which can affect how well your machine can stitch.

If you do a lot of machine quilting of large projects, you may also want to put a small table to the left of your chair to help support the whole quilt as you sew.

6 – Set your processes up to encourage moving

I know it’s tempting to arrange your space so you can piece and press all from the comfort of your chair. But getting up to walk over the iron periodically can make a huge difference in how you feel after a day of sewing. When you sit down to work on a project, consider how you can make it using shorter stints at the machine interspersed with pressing, rather that doing all the piecing and then all the pressing.

7 – Set a timer

I definitely get lost in my projects. Usually my dog will come remind me when it’s beyond time to move.

If I set a timer for 30 minutes and just take a five minute break to let the dog out, make a cup of tea, change the laundry, or go get the mail, I get far more sewing done in a day than if I sit until I can’t move.

So use your phone timer, or even a cute little kitchen timer sitting right next to your machine so you remember to use it.

8 – Cut and press at the right height

There’s more than sitting at your sewing machine to give you back pain during sewing. Have you ever had pain after, or even during, a long session cutting the pieces out for your quilt or pressing 500 half square triangles?

Again, the ergonomic gurus have given us guidelines to make our tables the right height for all our standing activities. Since I am just under six foot tall, having tables that are the correct height for standing has made a huge difference. I no longer slouch. If you are shorter than average, working at a table that is too high will cause you to lift your shoulders.

How to find the right height for your sewing and craft tables

Measure the height of the middle of your elbow from the floor as you are standing in the shoes that you sew in.

Scissor work and crafts

If you also do garment sewing, the height of your cutting table to cut out patterns or do other counter type work should also be 3-4 inches below the middle of your elbow. I use this height of table for craft projects as well.


Your pressing surface should be 3-4 inches below the middle of your elbow. You can either set up your ironing board so it’s the right height, or you can use a pressing mat on a table or countertop that is the correct height. Please note that these are the official recommendations for pressing height. I find that with my newer iron, which is taller than 4 inches, that I need more than four inches below the middle of my elbow to be at a comfortable height for pressing. My pressing station also doubles as a rotary cutting station too.

Rotary cutting

You should do your rotary cutting at a table that is 6-8 inches below the middle of your elbow. This is because you have to use some downward pressure as you use the rotary cutter.

Any Questions?

I hope this helped. Feel free to email me if you have further questions.

Check out my other posts about beginner quilting. It’s a great way to learn to sew!

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