Posted on 18 Comments

Learning To Cut Anew

I have been sewing for years, over 55 at least.  It began with hand stitching while my mom sewed on the machine.  She was great at conjuring up hand sewing projects for my dolls in an effort to keep me away from her precious sewing machine.  But, as soon as possible, I started cutting and sewing my own clothes.  It was such a passion I even took my sewing machine with me to the college dorm.

Over 30 years ago I officially turned my sewing hobby into a business and I have never looked back.  The problem is that my back is tired. It began to rebel about 7 years ago and even with the support of a wonderful Physical Therapist (PT) and a heavenly Massage Therapist, it continues to haunt my days and nights.

I am just beginning to experience some relief from a long bout with lower back and sciatic nerve pain and as I improve, my support team wants me to make some changes.  We are looking at my habits and repetitive motions in an effort to keep my spine from shifting around again.

Standing at my cutting table in my messy work room.

One culprit we have identified is the way I cut.  More specifically, the way I lay out and grain the fabric on the table, pin on the pattern pieces, cut out each piece and mark the notations.  These habits are deeply ingrained, as you can imagine, and it seems odd to assess them so closely.  But, I am taking note because I am determined to figure out how to stabilize my spine by changing my habits and strengthening my core.

Several years ago, I invested in a large cutting table that is an ideal height.  It was one of the changes I made after my first back problem, a herniated disk in my upper back.  But as I assess my movements, stretching across the table to grab a ruler or smooth a fold with my short arms, my tender back is irritated.  Reach with both arms, my PT says or better yet, walk around the table.  This means I have to slow down to think about changing a process that is second nature.

Cutting out a TRJ during Saturday’s Jacket Class at the Danners in Hanover PA

Then there is the cutting.  As I was cutting out several pairs of pants this week, I became mindful of my recovering back and my cutting habits. I am right-handed  and I begin to cut in front of my core then move across my body, twisting to the left (my bad side) to finish cutting the long legs.  Ouch! That is a bad idea.  Changing my habits, I am trying to take steps to the left to keep the twist contained in front of my body, or cut from the hem, straight ahead, shifting the fabric to keep from stretching too far forward.

Students cutting on tables elevated with leg lifts at Danners.

My PT says, stop and stretch to the sky, then slightly to the left and right.  Don’t cut for an extended period of time says my massage therapist.  Their voices repeat over and over in my head as I try to teach this old dog some new tricks.  I have to conquer this because I certainly do not want to give up sewing.

Do you experience aches and pains when you are sewing? Do you cut on an elevated table?  You should, even if you don’t have back troubles yet.  Purchase yourself a set of bed lifts to bring your table to a better height.  It is a quick and inexpensive way to make your cutting more ergonomically correct.  You back will thank you.

Happy Sewing, RAE

Another change I have made, typing blog posts while standing.

18 thoughts on “Learning To Cut Anew

  1. Please try acupuncture. It is really effective for this type of pain.

  2. Very interesting post. Thank you. I will keep these tips in mind.

  3. After 3 back surgeries I found a pillow at that I think is “sleepy hollow’ for $19.99. It is sewn down in the center so it gives your neck more support keeping you in better alignment for sleep. This one thing has changed my life! I rarely have any pain any more. I also cut things out at my kitchen island which is higher than my regular table. That helps also.

  4. Rae, I have found tremendous relief from back pain by wearing a back brace when I know my movements will agrivate it. Got it from my chiropractor, another huge relief when I’ve overdone it.

  5. Rae,

    Here’s hoping you can find methods that work for you. Trust your PT advisors; mine have been life-savers for me.

  6. I have back pain from sewing. Mine is about where my bra goes across so I will be watching for more hints. Thanks!

  7. This would be a really good topic for an eBooks, or at least an article in “threads”. There are lots of us with issues. Perhaps your PT and you could collaborate?

    1. Forgive the pun, but clearly this post has hit a nerve, thanks for all your suggestions and interest. Let’s all take care so we can continue sewing.

  8. I, too, have back pain and bought an adjustable table that is the same width and length as my cutting board. It has been a life saver.

  9. I have a book called Rx for Quilters by Susan Delaney Mech, MD. It talks about how to make every aspect of sewing healthy and pain free. It also talks about changes as we age. Look for it. I have been using bed lifters under my cutting table for years. I also had hubby bolt my sewing table to the wall at exactly the right angle for my seated self. I keep my legs and hips at a 90 degree angle, raising my feet if needed. Shoes are another thing to consider, as they influence your stance and support your back. A PT who listens and understands is key. Hang in there Rae! See you soon.

  10. Cynthia Guffey taught us to always keep the scissors between our bodies and the pattern. This means walking around the table or moving the pinned pattern and fabric. (Cynthia uses many pins at right angles to the pattern cutting edge.) She emphasized this method to achieve precise cutting. I’ve tried (not always) to remember her admonition and believe it does result in more accurate cutting. Now I know that it might help my back as well!

  11. Love your messy sewing room – we could be twins.

    I do a lot of sewing activity while standing. I move the serger to the cutting table – this works very well for me.

    1. Some week I will write about my messy space. Sure appreciate everyone’s chatter this week. I will keep you all updated. RAE

  12. Thanks for sharing this, Rae. When we’re engrossed in a project it’s so easy to forget to listen to our bodies! I’m in the process of reconfiguring my workspace, so your post is very timely. I’m interested in getting a saddle style stool as a sewing chair. Wondering if others have experience with these?

  13. My doc told me to never cross my legs when sitting, always have your feet flat on the floor to keep your spine straight.

  14. Thanks for your passion, persistence, and information through the years, Rae. Thank you, too, for all the details about how we can do our work a better way. What a blessing to have such good and thorough PT advise which I can see you are taking to heart. You’re what everyone in the medical field loves – a compliant patient! If you have any time for reading I think you would love God’s Hotel by Victoria Sweet. This is the story of the way medicine used to be practiced in the “good, old days” and in the nation’s poorhouses, one of which still exists today (Laguna Honda Hospital in the heart of San Francisco). What a great read!

  15. Thank you for sharing these tips.

  16. I do all my cutting out on the floor. Puts less strain on my back than bending over a table but I know crawling around on the floor is not for everyone 😉
    My husband gets to vacuum up the random pins.

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