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Tips on sewing and quilting – arthritis

Sancin | Posted in General Discussion on

Hi all. Over in the dressing over 50 the discussion turned to difficulty sewing when one has arthritis but as so many of us have this cursed disorder or something similar I thought I would start a new discussion. What tips do you have that help you sew? What questions can we help with on how to solve problems when sewing, quilting or other crafts?

I have degenerative joint disease (everywhere), fibromyalgia and more recently discovered I have some spinal compression fractures due to osteoporosis, which on top of being painful when lifting or bending, is affecting my sitting. I have found that sitting on a pillow (a regular one or one that is meant for the car with a cut out at the base of the spine) helps for a little while.

I am 67 yrs old, was a floor nurse and nurse educator for nearly 40 years until I retired 4 years ago. My body paid the price for all that walking and lifting but also I inherited a good deal from my mother. I started to develop joint changes in my mid thirties and have been on a roll down ever since.

I have been sewing ever since I can remember, learning at the knee of my grandmother starting by hand sewing.

Some medications were mentioned in the last discussion. I take prescription diclofenac (voltarin 2x) /day. Someone suggested MSM and it seems to work fairly well, but I notice it most when I stop taking it. Glucosamine worked for years for my knees, but doesn’t anymore.

One sewing tip I can give is something to avoid. Sewing catalogs sell a ‘thingy’ that one wears like a pack on one’s back – supposedly adjustable and to help posture. I have never been in such pain as when I wore mine!!

Bring on the tips folks! – we will acknowledge that some things will work for some and not others but when you have chronic pain we are usually willing to consider many things.

Edited 12/13/2008 2:59 am ET by Sancin


  1. MaryinColorado | | #1

    Great idea to seperate this discussion into it's own heading!  Thanks! My history is very similar to yours, same medical dxs and I was also an RN.  I had to retire eary due to a neck injury and chronic pain.  It's a difficult career to let go of!

    I use a kitchen timer so I don't sit too long in one position. 

    Music soothes my soul.

    I "dis" organized my sewing studio so I have to get up and move around more to do tasks. 

    I bought a comfortable adjustable"drafting" chair so I can sit at the cutting table sometimes.  On sale for $10.00 at a used office supply store.

    I'd like to know if anyone has tried biofeedback or accupuncture and the results. 

    Tonight I bought a sightweight down comforter instead of hoping/waiting for Santa.  yay, staying warm is key for me.

    1. Sancin | | #2

      Boy. quick reply Mary! I have had acupuncture. In fact I am in the middle of a series for my back. It was that or cortisone injections. I have had series from 2 different practitioners with very different results. One fellow from China was not able to help me. He inserts needles in a variety of spaces and leaves them. Having to hold a position for 1/2 -3/4 hour just about killed me. My physician also does acupuncture the same way but he is really to busy to be effective. Currently the practitioner spends a lot of time diagnosing and uses lots of needles in lots of spots for only a second. He has been practicing since before it was legal so is experienced. He learned a Korean method as he also is involved in some sort of 'kung fu' activity/club. I find meditation is a life saver, but I have to do it daily and not just when I am in pain (which is lot) to train my mind not to wander. Visualization when meditating works very well as a rule. There is a nurse called Carolyn Clark who has published a number of books on alternate healing. I taught a course on healing the last several years I was teaching and there is a lot of good information out there.

  2. gailete | | #3

    Yet another RN sidelined 7 years ago by RA with OA (2 fake knees) and a hx of ulcers (due to the meds for OA) which left me out of the anti-inflammatory loop. I can use Predisone only during the worst flares. Also on Plaquanil, MTX, Hydrocodone and Fentanyl patches to keep the pain down enough to function, prior to the Fentanyl I was becoming a vegetable.

    I also try to do a combo of getting up to move and sitting down so the iron board is across the room from the sewing machine. I have a cutting table hubby built for my height and an adjustable chair also. I have a lot of foot/leg swelling and we haven't yet figured out how to be able to prop my feet up to sew, but I do most of my 'un-sewing' in the living room with my feet up.

    I sew with a Janome 6500 that has a knee lifter to raise the presser foot but I found that it doesn't help me as it hits the numb spot I have on my knee from the replacement--the spot that was supposed to be quarter sized eventually and so far (6 years) it is the whole side of my knee. I also learned to sew, kind of, in home ec on the old fashioned knee operated sewing machines so just having it there makes me want to push it with my knee to make the sewing machine go only it raises the presser foot instead, so I finally gave up with that and put it away.

    As I mentioned on the other thread using a rotary cutter instead of scissors for cutting out fabric has really helped my hands and since it is quicker and I use weights instead of pins, I get garments cut out very quickly before I'm exhausted just from doing that. Before I started using the rotary cutter I would lay out a pattern piece,  pin it down and cut it out and that one piece had left me too tired to do any more so that part was frustrating.

    I'm also trying to find and fit a number of 'tried and true' patterns to keep fitting to a minimum as that is also tiring. I don't particulary care about being in fashion and I just basically hang out at home, so I want to look nice for hubby and feel good about myself. Hubby bought me a dress maker dummy for my birthday this year and that helped with the last top I made.  I am trying very hard to learn to sew knits, but pulling tops up and over my head to check fit is a literal pain so I think I'm going to really like my dummy which I named Isabella. I'm trying to get a nice, well made selection of regular clothes made (most of mine are getting pretty old at this point) and once I'm caught up with those, try to spend more time doing some fun embellishment techniques etc. I have also eliminated all patterns that have back closures as I can't manipulate them and as long as possible I want to be independent with dressing. A well lady might like hubby pulling up her zipper and giving her a kiss on the neck to boot, but when you just can't do it yourself it lowers your self esteem. We had been married 3 weeks when I got hit hard and my hubby who had never been married before found himself having to help me dress, shower, eat and at times help me off the toilet. God bless him, he did it with a smile but I prefer to do those things for myself, especially the toilet thank you very much!!!

    For quilting since I can't get down on the floor to pin baste quilts and hubby got tired of doing it for me as his knees hurt too, he built me a quilt frame last year that I can use to pin baste quilts that I don't send out to the long arm quilter. That was a big help, but I realize not everyone has my kind of hubby in their back pocket who can make the most amazing things from leftover bits of stuff! He is a keeper.


    1. Sancin | | #4

      I understand about the back zipper - I have the same problem with side zippers which fortunately one doesn't see much any more. I like loose pattern tops that I can easily pop over my head or have front openings.
      I have a big tummy thus it goes without saying that my slacks and the few skirts that wear anymore have elastic waists. Turning toward the side zipper is painful on my back. Funny story told by a nursing classmate back in the dark ages: She was going home on the city bus when an older woman got on and sat down beside Julie in spite of a nearly empty bus. She told Julie that she lived alone in an apartment building filled with male students. She was being taken out to dinner for her 70th birthday by friends. If Julie would do up her back zipper she would be very grateful. She intended to ride the bus to get this done until the bus was back at her stop! And had done a similar thing in the past - great problem solving!!Re elevating feet: I purchased a secretaries stool for my foot control. I have one at my computer and another at my sewing machine. The one at my sewing machine has an adjustable angle control. I keep my foot control on backward so that my heel is putting the pressure on the foot. When my toe presses down it seems to pull my back muscles after a period of time sewing. The advantage of the adjustable angle is that it changes the pressure. As we know, when one does things the same way for awhile it causes a flare up else where. I think very few people without arthritis (or related conditions) realize what spasms are like. They are not even the same as sports spasms. I have recently started taking liquid magnesium and it is working amazingly well. OTC and prescription meds tend to make me very sleepy. I don't want to spend my entire day tied down to heat or cold applications, though I did make a bag similar to a back pack that I strap onto my back and hold a cold gel pack. I like the idea or using a timer and will start doing that ... at the computer as well! Anyone any other suggestions?

      1. gailete | | #5

        Smart old lady! I love that riding a bus to find someone to do up my zipper! I'm with you on the elastic waistlines and I rarely wear pants anymore, usually skirts. They are more comfortable and I feel a bit more dressed up even though I'm in the house most of the time. I do need to find some compression socks in colors other than black (I have big feet so have to buy men's) and that will be one of my on-line searches for the new year. I need 'tighter' socks than the usual support socks that are sold for women and I would laove to find some in a color other than black. They are so expensive though I hate taking a chance at an unknown item. The last place I got them from changed hands/names.

        I have a large picture window that goes almost to the floor in front of my sewing table so anything that might accidently crash through it won't work for my foot pedal. It is like sewing in a tree house so it is lovely, but every thought for the foot pedal, I'm nervous about breaking a very large window!

        It is so nice to know someone else understands about those spasms. Telling most people is like going to a male OB/GYN and expecting him to truly understand cramps and labor pains!


        1. Sancin | | #6

          I think you can get white stockings, but even at the height of white stocking fashion eons ago I refused to wear them - too much like going to work instead of a party - in the days nurses wore all white. Pure, you know, we were. How about getting some white and dipping them in tea or dying the kool aid way? Your window sounds heavenly, tho as it is 24 below C here with a wind blowing I am afraid I would be so wrapped in blankets I wouldn't be able to sew. I cover all my windows when it is like this. Fortunately only for 3-4 weeks a year.

        2. MaryinColorado | | #8

          Have you asked your doctor to prescribe special hosiery for you? 

        3. joyfulneedles | | #10

          If you are have problems with the foot pedal scooting away from you, I have just discovered the shelf-liner stuff that keeps things from sliding.  It works great for my foot control and I don't have to pull it back to me every hour or so. 

          Interesting to me that I am another retired nurse, LPN.  I retired 5 years ago and more than my knees going, I was forgetting things and I got scared I would hurt someone unintentionally.  Short term memory is still bad but I am staying busy and adjusting to keep safe.  I cook most things in the microwave, if I forget I only have cold food and can reheat or throw out.   Or I use the timer to remember that something is in the oven.  

          1. gailete | | #11

            My oven  and microwave timers are my friends! I used to be able to cook a Thanksgiving dinner for 20 with as I would say one hand tied behind my back. I could back cookies and cakes and never turn on a timer. NOW everything gets timed which is why I have to use both timers when cooking two different things. I have become more aware of how long it takes to do things when I have a timer going so I may put away dry dishes, do a little clean up, etc. but I have learned not to try to do to many things at once in the kitchen as I can't keep track of it all. At one point I had to put a note on my computer screen that I had laundry going as I would forget it in the washer and we all know what happens when laundry is left in a washer especially in summer. I had a weekly to do list so I wouldn't forget to DO the laundry, pay bills, etc. My brain was shot full of holes. Thankfully I've also been adjusting to that, but for a well educated woman it was certainly a blow to the old ego to not be able to remember to do those simple things in life.

            Probably my doctor could prescribe TED hose, but I want something that blends in. As it is now because I were skirts and black knee socks with my black shoes, from the waist down I look like our local Mennonite women--very nice women mind you, but I am going to have to find some in a neutral color and I'm down to only 4 decent pairs left so I have pick which days it is important to have them on and which days I can spend with my legs propped up.

            I tried the stuff under my presser foot and it still takes off. I'm sure someday hubby will finally get the spark to figure out how to prop my feet up and sew at the same time. I have a footstool for computer use, but it backs up to a marble wall! Not quite the same as a huge window. Actually I don't get cold with the window and it is fun watching the brirds and squirrels playing in the tree. Puts a smile on my face and I have found that the happier I am the better I feel (usually). I'm writing this at 5AM since I can't sleep tonight due to pain. I think I will go back to bed and try again.


          2. MaryinColorado | | #12

            I also get frustrated with the memory problem.  My family has been very supportive when I "lose my words" too. 

            Like you, humor is the best "medicine" so far.

        4. User avater
          JunkQueen | | #13

          I wear knee-high TED stockings. Since I am diabetic, I wear the open-toed ones so as not to cause circulation problems in my toes. The ones I get are beige, and they blend so-so. You don't need a prescription for them, although my MD did tell me to wear them because of excessive edema. Anyhow, I let my fingers do the walking and called various pharmacies and medical supply houses here locally so I could actually LOOK at what I was buying after being disappointed with an online purchase. They are not inexpensive, and different brands look and wear differently. I wear extra-firm support, and now that I am accustomed to wearing them, they are really not uncomfortable at all. When sitting at the sewing machine or the computer for long periods, they are life savers.

          1. gailete | | #14

            That is what I need to do, as I too would like to SEE what I am purchasing. My last couple pairs I got at the now defunct store are marvelous even if they are black and were $13 a pair. I've gotten them from other places and they haven't been nearly as good.

            Having a flare today, so I haven't gotten much done :(  Our weather can't decide what it wants to be after close to 5 feet of snow so far, in the last 24 hours everything melted and it is very rainy and windy with apparently a snowstorm coming in its wake. Looking forward to spring already.


          2. SammyDog | | #15

            Don't forget to switch hands - I have carpal tunnel problems, trying to avoid wearing a brace, so have learned to 'drive' my mouse left-handed when I'm reading email and browsing my garden/quilting sites. Took a little while to get used to it, but I was motivated to save those precious joints for my sewing projects :-) 

            Switch feet too. This was a huge and unexpected benefit to me when I got a new sewing machine with a knee lift for the presser foot and then the how-to classes taught us to put our left foot on the pedal and use our right leg to control the presser foot. Wow! I have crooked hips and scoliosis, and even though I keep a pillow on the left half of my chair to tilt my spine back to straight, I'd get a backache sewing - until I switched feet on the pedal - for some reason that is sooo much better for me.

            I knew a lady who kept her sewing machine on a dresser top (chest of drawers?) so whenever she walked by she could sew a few seams standing up. More of a way to sneak in a bit of sewing into her busy homemaking days, but might help somebody.

            A physical therapist told me once that ice (as cold as you can stand it, for 20 minutes, followed by heat if you want) is as good as Advil for certain types of pain - probably inflamation, right?

            Oh, hey, that reminds me - have you ever used a rice bag? You can find them at craft shows but it's more fun to use up some scraps and sew your own - about the size of a 1 or 2 # bag of rice, maybe longer, and fill it with ... rice!  It should be sort of floppy, but full enough that the rice is still there as you bend it to wrap around your neck, knuckles, whatever. You can store it in the freezer if you like a gentle ice pack type thing For even more fun this time of year: heat it in the microwave for just a bit (start with 15 seconds, a minute is probably too much).  Makes me purr just thinking about it.

            One more thought about the creeping foot pedal problem - how about laying a scrap of lumber on the floor just the right length to fit between the wall (window?!!) and where the pedal belongs. Just something so when you kick the pedal it hits a bumper, I'm thinking a piece of 1x6. Could even get that nice hubby to stain and varnish it for you. And carve your name in it - nah, that'd catch lint.


          3. gailete | | #16

            Oh yes, I use rice bags. I've lost track of how many I've made since when someone comes over with an ache or pain I send them home with one, although I was a bit disappointed when my hubby handed over my favorite to to someone. I make them in several sizes and shapes. I had mentioned in the other thread, and this might help you, I have two small ones that I use to keep my wrists from bending in bed. I don't even usually heat them up, I just use them to keep in anatomical alignment. Maybe I have long arms but my wrist tend to hit the point in my mattress that takes a bit of a dip due to my hips and I found it was making my wrists sore.

            My sister was visiting once and starting feeling like she was going to pass a kidney stone (she is full of gravel) and I gave her a heated rice bag to help the pain until she could get home and do whatever she usually does when she is passing one.

            rice bags are also good ice cold to kill that pain as you mentioned. When I had my last knee replaced, ice packs were the only thing that helped the pain and we reverted to rice in zip lock style bags keeping cold in the freezer so we could keep rotating them. Eventually when I was feeling better I made real rice bags with the rice.

            I'm afraid I have dyslexia and tend to have problems reversing things and since I have enough trouble with my left and right, I'm not sure how well swapping feet might work, but I could try that, but I wonder if my hubby could build something so the foot doesn't take off on me. As it is I sew with only a sock on or bare feet as for some reason I don't feel like I have control with my shoes on.

            the last time I stippled a lap quilt, I put the sewing machine on my cutting table and stood up to move the quilt. It had several benefits of not have to support the weight of the quilt myself as the table did that and I could stop and start and as you said just sew for a few minutes and then a few minutes, and in no time it was done. Much easier than sitting and trying to hold all that and keeping the wieght from dragging.

            I'd be sewing right now but I think I'm a bit to sleepy for the project I want to do. I finally figured it out while laying in bed trying to forget the pain so decided to get up and do something while yet another pain pill kicks in. I'm working on a series of 3 victorian style decorated throw pillows for the living room with machine decorative stitching, machine embroidery, applique, lace and frou frou. I wasn't sure exactly how to use a large peice of gold lace and it finally came to me. I will try to publish photos after Christmas as hubby is the one who does the picture taking and they are a present for him. I've gotten to try several techniques that I have been wanting to do after seeing some Jenny haskins quilts but it felt a bit daunting to do a whole quilt that way (mine are usually scrap quilts).


          4. MaryinColorado | | #19

            Great input!  I also adjust my wide ironing board to sitting height and set it next to the sewing machine to support the fabric for quilting. 

            I found an adjustable height comfortable drafting chair for working at my cutting table.  It was $10.00 at a used office supply store!  That's my "deal of the century".  I also have adjustable comfy ergonomic chairs at my sewing and serger tables now which really make a difference.  Being "petite" (height wise anyway) regular tables are too high for me so my sewing tables are at 25 inches from the ground.  That renewed my ablility to sit and sew.

          5. gailete | | #20

            Oh I forgot, seeing a picture in David Coffins Book on Shirtmaking, I noticed a picture of how he has his ironing board sitting parallel next to his cutting table. I always stood in between the ironing board and cutting table, but when I pushed the ironing board next to the table, the table held the weight of fabric and also was handy to putting iron pieces back on the table without twisting and turning. I felt dumb never thinking of that.




          6. MaryinColorado | | #17

            Ice for inflammation, heat can increase swelling. 

            Ice for an injury the first 24 hours.  Usually 15 min. on and avoid injuring skin.  Ice/heat/ice/heat after that is okay, altering them is good for some painful spasms.


          7. MaryinColorado | | #18

            Good ideas.  I bought one of those pentel things with a tablet.  I'm still getting used to it, but even the big roller ball mouse was irritating my joints.  I alternate them and leave them both hooked up. 

      2. MaryinColorado | | #7

        Hey, that's a great idea to turn the footpedal backwards, I'll try it!  It makes perfect sense, like wearing a different pair of shoes each day or preferably different heel heights.  Thanks!  Mary

      3. MaryinColorado | | #9

        Great zipper story! 

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