Saturday, January 19, 2013

What Height My Sewing Table? Ergonomics, Schmergonics!

Photo courtesy OSHA
All the experts agree that it's important to take ergonomics into consideration when setting up a sewing room.  If you spend long hours working at sewing, cutting, and pressing stations that are too high or too low for you, you're putting yourself at risk of injury to your back, neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, etc.  Since my custom-built sewing cabinet and cutting table have been dismantled and I am already redesigning them as part of my studio remodel, I have been researching the ergonomics of sewing in attempt to figure out the optimal height for my work stations so we can customize my sewing furniture to fit my body, kind of like altering a commercial pattern for the perfect fit before sewing a dress.  Or so I've heard from folks who actually sew dresses...

The trouble I'm having is that there seems to be more consensus in Congress about tax reform than there is from the experts on sewing ergonomics.  I've consulted five different sources (The U.S. Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines,, Carolyn Woods' Organizing Solutions for Every Quilter: An Illustrated Guide to the Space of Your Dreams, Leslie L. Hallock's Creating Your Perfect Quilting Space: Sewing Room Makeovers for Any Space and Any Budget, Lynette Ranney Black's Dream Sewing Spaces: Design and Organization for Spaces Large and Small, 2nd Ed.), and I'm getting wildly different advice from all of them about the correct height of sewing, pressing, and cutting surfaces.  Today, we're going to discuss the height of the sewing surface.

Proper Sewing Surface Height, per OSHA

I want to clarify that, in ergonomic discussions, the sewing surface is the STITCH PLATE OF YOUR SEWING MACHINE.  If your machine is recessed into a cabinet like mine will be, then the surface of the cabinet is the sewing surface.  However, if your machine is sitting on top of a table, then your actual sewing surface is going to be several inches higher than table top. 

All of the experts I consulted recommend that your sewing cabinet or table allows you to sit with your body centered on the needle of your sewing machine so you aren't constantly twisting your spine and leaning sideways in order to sew -- this sounds obvious to someone who sews, but the carpenter/handyman/husband building your sewing cabinet might think your body should be aligned with the center of the sewing machine if you don't tell them otherwise.  To determine the height of your sewing table or cabinet, start with a good, adjustable, supportive chair that enables you to sit with your knees and hips bent at approximately 90 degree angles, with your feet flat on the floor.  Once your chair is adjusted properly, sit down and bend your arms at right angles, palms down with your forearms parallel to the floor, and have someone measure from your elbow to the floor (some sources just said to measure from your elbow to the floor, others specified measuring from the bottom of your elbow or from the midpoint of the joint -- and this wass the beginning of the confusion).  Got that measurement?  Okay.  Depending on whose advice you're taking, that elbow-to-floor measurement is either your correct sewing surface height, OR you should add anywhere from 5 1/2 to 7" to get your ideal sewing surface height.  This means that my own ideal sewing cabinet should be anywhere from 29" to 34" tall.  Well, it was 30 1/2" tall before we took it apart, and the commercial sewing cabinet manufacturers offer their cabinets in standard heights ranging from 29" to 30 1/4".  I did notice that I was hunching my back and shoulders when I was free-motion quilting with my old setup, but that could have had more to do with inadequate task lighting than with the sewing surface height.  It's hard to know whether raising my sewing surface would be helpful or whether it would create a whole new world of pain and suffering! 

Koala's Quilt Pro Plus IV, 29 1/4" Sewing Surface Height

With the exception of the folks at OSHA, none of my experts has a professional background in ergonomics.  Woods is a professional organizer, Black's background is in kitchen and bath design, and Hallock (whose recommendations are closest to OSHA's) is a quilter herself with a background that includes mechanical engineering, professional organizing, and factory environments.  I know that the OSHA guidelines are geared towards assembly-line sewing in a factory environment versus free-motion quilting on a domestic sewing machine, and that someone sewing the same side seam in the same shirt over and over again might not need to get their eyes as close to their work as someone who is doodling thread pictures on a quilt for fun, but I still feel like the OSHA recommendations are more likely based on science than on hearsay.  I'm taller than average at 5'8" and I have a long torso, so I'm going to ask Bernie to build the new sewing cabinet 32" high, just an inch and a half above the "standard" cabinet height I had before.  That way my custom sewing cabinet will "fit" me the same way a commercial sewing cabinet from Koala, Horn, etc. would fit a person who was 5'5" or 5'6" tall.  One decision has been made -- wahoo!

Tomorrow we'll look at the correct height of the other two main work stations in a sewing room: the cutting table and the pressing station.  Onwards and upwards!

PSST!!  I'd Love to Quilt for YOU!

By the way, if you or any of your quilty friends has a quilt top or two that needs quilting, I'd be delighted to quilt for you!  My turnaround for edge-to-edge quilting is currently running about 2 weeks, and you can click here to find out how to book your quilt with me.


Jenny K. Lyon said...

I'm totally jealous that you are custom designing a real studio-harumph!

Anonymous said...

I love the look of your new studio.!!!! I was lucky to have a new studio in Florida .My husband and I tried to do as conservatively as possible and I have a 12 x 19 room. I have great natural light all day as the sun travels from the back to the from the front our home from one end to the other of my room. I love Shabby Chic so have taken a lot of good older furniture and retro fitted it to my new room.
I feel your excitement and anticipation in looking forward to being in your room as soon as you can!!!!I was lucky as in our retirement area we have a lot of people just giving away furniture which we were lucky to get so if you like go and check out my room I did it in pink and white.I was given the Horn of America sewing & quilting cabinet which has a gate leg back and a air lift and area for my Serger for free,It retailed for 2300.00 for a Viking machine.I could not believe the family didn't want any money for it but non the less is so nice. I have been looking at a Bernina Quilting machine for my new I am envious for your new machine!!!!! Thanks for sharing your new room with us and I will keep on checking in to see the end result.Here is my blog site
Quiltingly, Debbie Kelly

Kim said...

I'm considering buying an ergonomic adjustable desk to sew on. I own an alterations shop. I have wanted to sew standing up to give my back a break. Any thoughts on the idea? I know a may need to lengthen the cords to my sewing machine and foot peddles but I think these things can be accomplished quite easily.
River Falls,WI

Rebecca Grace said...

Hi, Kim! I’ve never tried that, but why not? I have a writer friend who has been experimenting with a standing height work station for her computer, and longarm quilters sew standing up all the time. I think they still get some neck and shoulder strain if they are sewing long hours without enough breaks for stretching. Before committing to an expensive new desk or cabinet, I might experiment by temporarily raising your existing setup. Let me know how it works out for you!

Nikki R said...

I feel your pain. My situation is a tad more complicated: I stand up to sew. That reduces the amount of jumping up to use the cutting table or the iron. Most importantly, it reduces the amount of lower back and hip pain at the end of the day. The best cair at the most ergonomic height will still put a strain on one's hips and lower back. Humans are built to stand and move, not sit and sew. Finding the best arrangement for one's personal sewing space is, well, personal. Experts can get us only so far.

Dayquilt said...

Now that you've had your ergonomic setup for a few years, can you tell us what worked?

Ken said...

Thank you so much for this post! Now, thanks to to you, I know one of the reasons, maybe the main reason, that I've tended to have bad lower back problems quite frequently after or during intense sessions of sewing (and at almost no other times). The ergonomics of my setup was way, way off. In the process of fixing that. I wish I had searched for and found your post way back in 2013 when you first posted it, but wow, so much better late on my part than never! I expect this post of yours has helped a number of people. Again, thank you!
Sincerely, Ken Carter

Ken said...

Thank you so much for this post! Now, thanks to to you, I know one of the reasons, maybe the main reason, that I've tended to have bad lower back problems quite frequently after or during intense sessions of sewing (and at almost no other times). The ergonomics of my setup was way, way off. In the process of fixing that. I wish I had searched for and found your post way back in 2013 when you first posted it, but wow, so much better late on my part than never! I expect this post of yours has helped a number of people. Again, thank you!
Sincerely, Ken Carter

Linda K. Anderson said...

THANK YOU! Thank you! Finally someone who looked into the proper height of sewing tables leaning toward more scientific proven ergonomics... Maybe it's because of a lifetime working in a field where research, properly designed is the only data worth relying on, and always better than a lot of anecdotal information! I'm recently retired and trying to turn a family room space into a sewing/craft space. As I stare at my different sewing tables, furniture, cabinets, etc and trying to decide which things go and which things stay, I'm getting 'analysis paralysis' and turned to the internet to help make a few decision on efficient use of space and most importantly, on workspace ergonomics- Sewing machine height, chair choices, etc. My eyes keep going to a huge Koala workstation that I picked up for practically nothing on Craigslist, I'm trying to not only optimize ergonomics, but figure out if I should adjust or modify the Koala so it doesn't fight with my carpet every time I open the doors... Or do I just set it up and accept I'll never close the doors once the palettes are attached? Do I pull up perfectly beautiful winter white carpet for modern luxury vinyl flooring so the koala table castors open and close more easily? What chair do I need that won't kill the back of my thighs or make my legs numb?? I'm nearly 70 and have learned I don't like to hurt while doing the things I love! Your blog has been a real breath of fresh air and given me a lot better information than I've found so far! I can't wait to dig deeper into the your blog!

blaiwesk said...

I’m currently trying to recover from elbow tendinitis which was caused primarily from free motion quilting. My sewing machine sits on top of a dresser, which is already at 30 inches and so that means the actual sewing surface is about 33. I’m only 5 ‘3”. Too high, I realize from the data listed in the above comments.Thus my injury. So I’ve pumped up my chair to compensate but now my thighs hit the bottom of the dresser drawer. Dang it. I love those drawers and all the specialized cabinetry isn’t quite the same organization. I wonder how the power tables worked out for the member in Wisconsin, posted above? Looking at all options, thanks for posting!