Select Quality Lighting and Glasses to See Your Sewing Better
Invest in quality lighting, lenses, and accessories
Those of us who love to sew often make significant investments in our tools, but paying attention to your vision can have a big influence on your sewing enjoyment.
I am a licensed optician and have helped many people with special visual requirements (glasses for musicians, plumbers, and pilots, for example). Sewers have particular visual needs, too. We often require magnification beyond that used for reading or other everyday tasks, as well as brighter light. I’ll explain why you may find it increasingly difficult to see the eye of a needle to thread it, and offer solutions for choosing eyewear that can bring your finest work into perfect focus. Some options are for those who need glasses, but others apply to almost anyone.
Presbyopia, the condition that causes trouble seeing small details starting around age 40, affects everyone. The decreased flexibility of the eye’s lens and muscles is inevitable, and the ability to change focus from distance to near diminishes beginning at an early age: 20-year-olds have more trouble than 6-year-olds. Presbyopia usually becomes more apparent around age 40 and continues to increase until around age 60. It’s the reason that people who always had perfect vision may start needing glasses for distance as well as reading after 40. In truth, your eyes always needed some correction, but when you were younger they could focus through it.
A common misconception is that using reading correction weakens your eyes and increases your dependence on reading glasses. This is untrue: Avoiding reading glasses only makes your eyes more tired. To enhance your pleasure in sewing, and possibly help you achieve better results, I encourage you to look into all the options for improving your eyesight.
Brighten your view
The more light in your workspace, the better you’ll see. Try these ways to optimize illumination.
Task and room lighting
I find the lighting on newer sewing machines causes troubling glare. You can lessen this effect with well-chosen lighting in the room overall. GE Reveal bulbs are especially good for ambient lighting in my sewing space. For close work, particularly at night, I use OttLite lamps (OttLite.com). I like Miady task lights for machine sewing at night. They offer a number of color and intensity options and cost less than $25 (Amazon.com).
Antireflective lens treatments
Lenses with a good antireflective coating (also called antiglare treatment) transmit more light than those without. Therefore, consider investing in antireflective lenses for better vision.
Focus on glasses
You may start with over-the-counter (OTC) reading glasses, but you’ll eventually find that progressive lenses give you the clearest view of all your sewing tasks.
In my experience, a typical person with good eyesight starts with an OTC magnification of +1.00 for reading, and gradually increases to about +2.50. Note that the power you need is a function of the focal length of the task you’re performing. The closer the work, the higher the power. Readers are intended for an average focal distance of 12 inches to 16 inches, and many sewing tasks are performed at a range of 6 inches to 12 inches. You’ll eventually find that regular reading correction isn’t good enough. There are a few situations where OTC reading glasses may not be optimal for you.
Pupillary distance. Glasses work best when the lenses are customized for the distance between your pupils. In lower powers you may not have a problem with OTC readers, but higher powered lenses may not work as well.
Prescription compromise. If you typically wear glasses to correct for distance viewing, or require different correction for each eye, OTC glasses may not give you the best vision.
Different focal lengths. You may need multiple pairs with different powers to perform tasks at different focal lengths, e.g. +2.50 for reading, +2.75 to +3.25 for sewing, and +1.75 for cutting patterns and fitting.
If you needed distance correction at a young age, you are likely to move to progressive lenses at some point after age 40. These lenses are called “progressive” because the prescription changes progressively from distance correction, at the top of the lens, to reading power at the bottom. Because progressives have incremental changes, you can move your head up or down to find the vision sweet spot for your task.
An average person aged 55 who has perfect distance vision can relieve eye fatigue caused by close work with progressive lenses. They may need a range of powers similar to those listed below. The highest power is at the bottom of the lens; the closer your task, the lower you look through the lens. Note that everyone’s eyesight and work are individual, so these powers may not be accurate for you.
See a car dashboard
Desktop computer monitor
Read a book
View a cell phone screen
Thread a needle
+2.75 to +3.75
Not all progressives are the same. The reading power in most progressive lens designs changes evenly from distance (top) to near (bottom). I am partial to Shamir lenses, particularly their InTouch design, because the higher power zone (for reading or close work) begins higher on the lens. These lenses were designed for use with handheld digital devices, and this more closely mimics the focal distance and position of many sewing tasks.
Computer and occupational lenses
Computer or workspace lenses are similar in design to progressives, but they have only a narrow sliver of distance vision and are designed to provide expanded intermediate and near vision. This type of lens is best suited for vision within a 10-foot radius, as in a typical sewing space. They have a much wider usable area and smoother transitions for sewing and related tasks such as fitting, draping on a dress form, and cutting fabric and patterns. If you often struggle to find good vision with your progressives, these could provide a real benefit.
Advice for working with your doctor
Because you have special needs as a sewer, it’s good to know how to advocate for yourself during an eye exam. Whether you see an optometrist or an ophthalmologist for a refraction (determination of the needed prescription), these guidelines can help you get glasses that will make your work easy and pleasurable.
Bring evidence of your usual focal distance
Have someone measure the distance from your eyes to your sewing machine when you are working, and take a picture to show the angle at which you like to work.
Show a sample of your work
Bring an example of tasks that you have trouble doing, such as threading a needle or hand sewing. Ask the doctor to put your prescription in a trial frame so you can test your vision performing these tasks. You may require a higher near prescription than is typical for normal reading, and you need to make sure the doctor understands this.
Keep the light realistic
Ask the doctor not to shine extra bright light as you evaluate the different powers; this provides misleading information, as you won’t have such a light at home.
Find a provider who listens
Just as you’ll get better service when buying a sewing machine from an authorized dealer than from a big-box store, you’ll likely get more detailed and personalized advice at an independent optical shop than at a chain. In addition, if you have any common complaints, such as dry eye, seasonal allergies, diabetes, or a family history of glaucoma, see an ophthalmologist.
Soothe Dry Eyes
Dry eye syndrome is most common in women over 50, in part due to hormonal changes, and in contact lens wearers. This syndrome can cause discomfort and blurry vision. Frequent use of lubrication can make a big difference. Serious cases may require medical intervention, but you may be able to see a real improvement with a few easy changes.
Skip the contacts. Give your eyes a break by wearing your glasses instead.
Blink. Sewing requires a lot of concentration and staring dries out the eyes’ surface. Take breaks to blink and look away from your close work.
Try eye drops. Over-the-counter lubricating drops can help clear your vision and make your eyes feel better. Avoid drops to “get the red out,” and use unpreserved drops or those with preservatives that dissipate. Brands I recommend are Refresh (Optive) and Systane. If you wear contacts, be sure the drops are suitable for use with contacts. Frequent use of lubrication can make a big difference in your vision as well as eye comfort.
Avoid environmental triggers. Air-conditioned, heated, or fan-driven air blowing directly on your face can dry your eyes—even when you’re sleeping. Divert the air flow away from the face.
Susan Kistler is an avid sewer and optician based in Nashville, Tennessee. SpecsNashville.com
Get the latest including tips, techniques and special offers straight to your inbox.