Yesterday I read that Tracy of Pink Purl was taking a little break from her sewing studio because her back was hurting. Often I've felt the very same way! When I was in my early 20s I didn't worry about this at all. In fact when I went to design school I often would do all my cutting and sewing while standing up! Of course I often would pull all-nighters so I didn't want to tempt falling asleep at the sewing machine. But now that I'm 40 I find that my neck, back and shoulders will ache if I sew for long periods at a time. So I've been experimenting and doing a little research on a subject that is near and dear to our hearts, uh, or rather our backs - sewing room ergonomics.
The dining room table just isn't the best place to cut out fabric unless you're sitting down and cutting small pieces. But if you want to cut out garments, or to cut quilt pieces with a rotary and mat then you'll really need to stand up so that you can reach farther. Unfortunately your back will begin to ache fairly quickly while doing this. If you have the room then a separate cutting table that is between 34" - 36" high is good. Of course this is only the average measurement that may vary with your height. To find the ideal height, stand up with your hands down at your sides and measure from the floor to a point 4" below your elbow. That measures 37" on me which would explain why I still think that my current solution is a bit short at 34 1/2". I placed a folding table on plastic bed risers from Bed, Bath & Beyond, but I still want it a little higher. Another 1 1/2" should make it just right.
Because irons are heavy equipment the ironing board should be about 3" higher than your ideal cutting table height. Unfortunately the average home ironing board doesn't go that high so you'll have to improvise by raising it as well. Make sure to keep it steady and safe. Another solution would be to make an ironing board with 3" legs that fold under. You'd be able to set it on top of your cutting table for an ironing station and then fold the legs and store it afterwards. Or for a quick fix go to Ikea and get a Pressa folding ironing board (only $3.99!) and then make a cute cover like Jenny of Allsorts just did here. Lisa of U-Handbag also has a tutorial for making a custom ironing board cover here.
If you prefer the traditional stand alone ironing boards Rowenta makes one that can extend to 39" in height. It's called the Rowenta IB-6200 Professional Ironing Board but it's pricey at $99.
This may be the most important component to maintaining a healthy back. First sit down with your knees bent at a 90 degree angle and your feet flat on the floor. Now bend your elbows at a 90 degree angle and measure from that point to the floor. That should be where your sewing surface or feed dogs rest. If you do this with the surface of a desk you'll find out that a typical sewing machine will be about 4" higher than this. What then happens is that your shoulders will raise while sewing and hours later when you should be admiring your handiwork instead all that you want to do is to take some aspirin and rest!
Solutions to this would be to raise your chair to accommodate this difference - if you have one that will go that high. You'll have to then place some type of platform on the floor for your feet and pedal. If you have the extra funds then invest in a sewing machine cabinet that's specially designed for this purpose. Fair warning that this will involve a large hit to your pocketbook!
Some people who have access to woodworking tools (or the people who use them) have opted to transform regular desks or tables with drop down sewing surfaces. Look at what Katie of My Sandbox had her husband do to a basic Ikea desk here.
A couple months ago I was fortunate enough to find a sewing cabinet for sale on craigslist. It's probably 20 years old so it doesn't have a fancy airlift that will raise the sewing machine for me. But since I like to have it out all the time that's not a problem. I do have to adjust where the lower shelf sits since my machine's sewing surface is a bit higher than the older machines. After a few measurements and a couple turns of a screwdriver that should be fixed.
Make sure that it is set to the correct height. Swivel chairs that adjust and have waterfall seats (that's when the edge gently drops down) are the best. They make expensive ones that are geared for the sewing industry but you can just as easily find a good inexpensive one at Ikea or Office Depot. If you don't like the drab black look, then recover it just like Emily of Joyful Abode did here or make a pretty slipcover like Vicki of Turkey Feathers did here.
So make your back happy and try out a few of these tips today!
Creating Your Perfect Quilting Space by Lois L. Hallock
Creating Your Perfect Quilting Space Studio Planner by Lois L. Hallock
Lois Hallock's Company, Clearview Designs
Organizing Your Craft Space by Jo Packham
Where Women Create: Inspiring Work Spaces of Extraordinary Women By Jo Packham
US Department of Labor OSHA Sewing Ergonomics
Ergonomics is Important for Machine Quilting
Maximize Your Mat Cutting Table (but still useful information for sewing room cutting tables)