Quilting Is Tough

Quilting is tough but luckily quilters are tough too. Although to the untrained eye, patchwork and quilting might seem like a lovely, gentle hobby (and in many ways it is), but it is actually very physically demanding. Many aspects of making a quilt are tough on your mind and body, but today we’re going to focus on physical quilting fatigue and how best to over-come it…or at least how to reduce it.

Many of the steps to making a patchwork quilt are hard work on your body for different reasons. Sometimes they can be overcome with solutions like different equipment but this isn’t always possible and so we need to find ways to simply help the situation rather than completely resolve it.

Cutting

If you are able, it is best to stand when cutting patchwork pieces as being over your rotary cutter and quilting ruler makes accurate cutting much easier. If you are working on a dining table or sewing machine table then this will probably involve you having to bend a little to reach the table’s surface. This can become very tiring on the back.

The perfect solution is to cut on a higher surface (like a cutting table or kitchen island/work-surface) but this isn’t always possible. You may not wish to invest in a cutting table (or have the space for one…I certainly don’t) and a kitchen work-surface may be too small and/or not in a convenient location.

But an alternative solution is to take regular breaks when you are cutting patchwork pieces. Straighten your back to gently stretch it and move around a little so you don’t get stiff. If it works for your project, another option is to cut some patchwork pieces then sew them, then cut some more etc to vary the position of your body.

At the machine

Any sewing at a machine can be hard work on your back and shoulders. A bit like working at a computer all day, it can be common to start well and then slip into bad posture over time. And when you come to machine quilting, the weight and manoeuvring of the quilt adds to the stress on our bodies. Quilts are heavy and often we’re moving them through relatively small spaces to machine quilt (whether that’s straight line or free motion) and this is hard work.

These are my top tips to help avoid quilting fatigue when at the sewing machine:

  • position yourself so you are above the sewing machine and quilt (raise your chair or add a cushion so you are higher than the machine); this will give you a better view of what you are working on but will also help to maintain a good posture as your arms and shoulders won’t be as bent and hunched
  • sit with a straight back (but don’t over straighten!); you can support/encourage a straight back in a few ways…adjust the back rest of your chair so it supports you in an upright position, but if this isn’t possible then add a cushion between you and the back rest to achieve the same thing
  • keep your shoulders down…don’t sew tense because this will add to your fatigue; I’m terrible at raising my shoulders when I am free motion quilting and always have to remind myself to relax!
  • if you have a table where the machine can be set into it then this is great help as it lowers the working surface of the sewing machine; if this isn’t possible then a quilting extension table is also a great option and although it won’t lower the working surface it will increase the size of it which leads me to the next tip…
  • anything you can do to support the weight of a patchwork top or quilt will help to reduce your fatigue; working on a table with a good amount of surface behind your sewing machine will help as it will support a lot of the weight of the quilt that has already gone through the machine

Basting

The process of basting is hard work…there’s no way to sugar coat it! Quilts are often large, wadding/batting is heavy and it can take time to get the three layers of quilt top, wadding and backing fabric lined up and secured together. The three most common ways to baste a quilt are on the floor, on a wall or on a table. All of them cause fatigue in slightly different ways;

floor basting – tough on the knees and back because you are working down on the floor; stand up and take regular breaks, and kneel or sit on a cushion if possible

table basting – tough on your back and shoulders because you need to move the quilt around and work bent over a table; straighten up and take regular breaks

wall basting – tough on your shoulders because you spend some time stretching up to reach the top of the quilt; step away, rest and relax your shoulders

Some general tips

The best way to overcome quilting fatigue, no matter what your sewing set-up, is to take regular breaks. About once an hour, get up from your sewing machine and move around a little. It also helps to gently stretch your back and roll your shoulders to release any tension that has built up. I’d also recommend staying hydrated to help your body during the quilting process and afterwards too.

And remember, when you are feeling stiff and tired it’s probably time to take a longer break. It is understandable to do “just a little bit more” but taking a break and coming back refreshed will likely make the quilting process more enjoyable and that’s a really important thing.


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