Note: I’m not a doctor, and I don’t even play one on the internet. This article does not constitute actual medical advice — it’s just what I’ve done, what works for me, and what I think is a good idea. Consult with professionals so you don’t hurt yourself or make what hurts worse!
It’s a sad fact that sewing and computer use can be rough on the body. OK, these aren’t exactly contact football or extreme mountaineering in the level of potential injury, but you can wind up with pretty painful long-term damage all along your hands, arms, shoulders, and back from the repetitive activities involved in sewing and blogging. I’m combining the two because, well, I obviously do both, and I know a lot of you do too. The injuries sustained by each are so close as to be easily combined, and that makes a lot of the tricks for combating them somewhat similar too.
I’ve had off and on repetitive strain injury in my right wrist and forearm for the past 15-20 years — basically the length of my online career, plus my most active costuming life. Coincidence? I think not. Recently, after cancer surgery and treatments, I’ve been diagnosed with mild lymphedema in my right arm, and this, plus my new job’s desk setup have wildly aggravated my wrist as well (my left shoulder is also injured due to overcompensation from my right arm being weak; good times!). So I’ve been doing a lot of things to mitigate my own injuries, and then I noticed Samantha of The Couture Courtesan writing about new RSI injuries. Thus, this post.
Per my caveat above, I’m not a medical professional, and my advice is purely based on my own experience and research. Don’t take this as gospel. But DO address the issue early so you don’t get seriously injured and can pursue your hobby without (further) injury for years to come!
1. If something hurts, stop, and see a doctor! I mean it. Don’t just complain, don’t keep sewing and blogging, don’t try everything else first. Go to a doctor. Yes, it may be a bother, and s/he may say “rest, ice, take an NSAID painkiller.”
But the doctor may also have useful advice and take an X-ray to rule out worse problems, and maybe you’ll get a referral to a physical therapist. The later, btw, can be very helpful. I’ve been doing physical therapy now, and I’m learning so much and felt improvement after the first session.
2. If you’re seeing a doctor or physical therapist, follow his or her instructions. Do the exercises, wear the splint &/or compression sleeve, take the meds, apply ice or heat, drink water, make the follow-up appointments. Doooo eeeeet!!! Don’t skimp on your health. Don’t be lazy about it.
3. Set up your computer work station for optimum ergonomics. This is one you can and should do before you get hurt (yeah, I’m not a doctor, but if you listen to nothing else, listen to this!). There are whole books written about ergonomics, but the essence is that you should do repetitive tasks like typing (or sewing) in positions that keep your body in neutral, less stressful positions.
You should be sitting upright in a supportive chair with your feet comfortably on the floor (use a footstool if your feet don’t touch the ground). Your arms should hang loosely at your sides, elbows bent at about waist level. Your wrists should neither be bent far up nor down. Your head and neck should be upright, looking forward or only slightly down. Do click-through the links in this paragraph because they have detailed illustrations of proper alignment.
This is all easier to achieve at a computer with a monitor, keyboard, and mouse on a desk (or keyboard tray), as opposed to a laptop with integrated keyboard and trackpad. Laptops and tablets are horribly un-ergonomic, but you can buy wireless keyboards and mice all over at many price points. Even monitors aren’t that expensive (and they’re cheaper than physical therapy). Make sure your home workspace is as ergo-friendly as possible for whatever blogging you do.
If you’re on the computer for your everyday job as well, request an ergonomic assessment of your work station and follow up to get any necessary adjustments or different equipment. With large companies, this usually isn’t a problem — there may be a specific person or outside consultant who takes care of these requests. Just ask. At small companies, you may need to be more aggressive in making a case for any modifications to your work station. But something like a keyboard tray is cheaper in the long run than a worker’s compensation claim, so it’s really in the company’s best interest to help a valuable employee like you out.
4. Make your machine and hand sewing as ergonomic as possible. This is just as important as setting up your computer work station, and again, you should do this before you get hurt. It’s probably not hard to get your sewing machine in an ergonomic position. Following the same guidelines as for computer use, get the table height and chair height so your body is in neutral position. Consider getting a pad for the foot pedal if your feet don’t rest flat on the floor, or use a knee lever (with a footstool, as needed).
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration has a big document about ergonomic sewing station design. It’s intended for manufacturing, but many of the guidelines will work for a home sewing room as well, so do take a look at the website.
For hand sewing, a comfortable, supportive chair is important, and you may find putting your work on a pillow in your lap can help you achieve a good balance between wrist position and neck position. I have a cute sewing lap pillow in pink and white skull-print fabric made by my friend Donna. Something the size of a lumbar pillow or any smallish pillow can help.
Sewing at a table is possible if you can adjust the table’s height. Another good option is to sew at a table with your work in your lap (again, on a pillow, as needed, to keep both wrists and neck in neutral alignment) — this can be aided by using a sewing bird or a sewing brick.
These devices maintain tension on fabric by acting like an extra hand, and this means your own hands aren’t strained by that tension. Modern and antique sewing birds (also called a “third hand” or sewing clamp) are for sale, or you can make your own sewing brick, history and instructions here. I’ve found this very useful for sewing long hems by hand or applying long pieces of trim.
Don’t forget about your cutting board and ironing board. Adjust the height of these so you’re not bending over and straining your back. Use sharp scissors so you don’t have to work as hard to cut, and make sure your scissors have a comfortable, ergonomic handle that fits your hand well.
I know a lot of people love the big, old-fashioned Ginghers, but I find them unwieldy and they tire out my hands. I prefer lightweight Fiskers with a soft rubber, spring-action handle. Others prefer rotary cutters, which are also very lightweight, but do take practice so you’re not applying too much pressure (which strains your wrists and arms). Obviously, it’s very much YMMV, but you may consider trying a different tool to see if it causes less stress on you hand and arm.
5. Take a break at least once an hour. We all get lost in our work, so absorbed we don’t notice that hours have passed while we’re cramped in one position. Break this habit!
Set a timer on your cell phone, get an app for your computer, use a basic kitchen timer, whatever — just do something to remind you to get up, walk around, and stretch at least once an hour, if not more.
6. Stretch and strengthen, carefully. First, talk to a doctor or physical therapist about what exercises are safe for your specific condition. In general, you want to keep your wrists, shoulders, and back flexible and strong. Core exercises that work on these areas can be useful, and some people find yoga or pilates very helpful.
Even without a full exercise regimen, you can do a few small activities to relieve stress on your limbs when you take breaks during sewing or blogging. For example, this Yoga for Crafters: Seamstress Edition article has some intriguing suggestions, as does the Arms and Wrists article in the same series.
7. Consider wearing a wrist splint or compression glove, with your doctor’s or physical therapist’s advice first. The type of garment that’s right for you will depend upon your specific injury and prognosis. But you can find simple wrist splints and compression gloves at drugstores and online for around $20 each, so if you were to experiment with one, it’s not a huge investment.
The idea of a wrist splint is to immobilize your wrist and keep you from moving it in ways that can further damage it. However, you don’t want to wear it for prolonged periods of time or the muscles may weaken from disuse.
Compression gloves are supportive yet flexible. They’re also called “compression arthritic gloves” and can provide warmth as well as support, which may make the hand more flexible. Like a splint, you want to manage how long you wear it so the skin is ventilated and muscles remain strong.
8. Plan your projects in advance. This means no more sewing marathons, avoid last-minute sewing, and don’t push yourself to sew and blog furiously at the same time. Yes, we all have done it, we all put things off till the last minute, but that is a faaaaaabulous way to injure yourself or make a mild injury into a serious one. This is your health and your hands and arms we’re talking about! That’s important! Don’t abuse them — treat them gently.
Give yourself plenty of time to sew and blog. Plan your creations in advance so you can work slowly and carefully. When you have more time, you’re more likely to use good posture and neutral positions, take breaks, and stretch, all of which will lessen the chance of injury or re-injury.
Try creating a to-do list and a calendar to plan out what costumes you want to make for which upcoming events. Around the start of each year, I look at the calendar and see what SCA events, renfaires, reenactments, conventions, and other possible events I may want to do. Then I look at my closet and see what I have that I could already wear to those events, what might need repairs or rehabbing, and I look at my stash and project wish list to see if there is something I’ve been jonesing to make that would work for an upcoming event. Finally, I make a plan and estimate how long it might take me to make the outfits I most want to wear at the most important events.
Obviously, things change along the way, but this planning gives me some specific things to work towards, plus a timeline. I give myself drop-dead dates for projects — if I don’t start an outfit at least a month (sometimes more) before an event, I’ll have to drop it.
9. Do some load balancing. Sewing and blogging are bad enough, but if you play a musical instrument or a sport or you have other hobbies or even household chores that include repetitive actions with your wrists or arms, balance out when and how often you do each of these things in one day or week.
For example, don’t expect to work a full day at computer data entry, come home to practice violin for an hour, go knead a batch of bread dough, and then sew an 180″ hem by hand without causing physical strain. When you’re planning in advance, account for things like practicing for a concert solo or baking bread for an SCA feast. Those activities may cause just as much injury to your body as sewing and computer use.
10. Prioritize and make trade-offs. What hurts more, machine or hand sewing? Sewing or typing? Hand sewing on heavy materials and crafting things like hats or doing fine work like embroidery? Figure out what is most within reason for you to actually do, and focus on that.
Eliminate whatever you can. Maybe you do more machine sewing instead of handwork. Maybe you do less blogging in favor of sewing or vice versa. Maybe you only make a new gown for the Costume College Gala or the SCA’s 12th Night and wear costumes from your closet for the rest of the year. It’s no crime to wear the same outfit twice!
When you’re young and starting out costuming and blogging, you think you can do it all and keep doing it forever. We all feel that way, that’s typical. But time and over-use can catch up with you at some point. Play it safe so you can continue to enjoy your hobbies for a long, long time without injury or at least without making injuries worse. Good luck!
- Repetitive Strain Injury — Very informative page with info, advice, stretching tips, and more from Clay Scott.
- Ice or Heat, Which Treatment Should be Used for Injury? — Useful reminder from a doctor.
- How Bad Sitting Posture at Work Leads to Bad Standing Posture All the Time — Don’t hunch over the computer (or sewing machine), says the Wall Street Journal.