We all have two sewing spaces in our head. The first is our dream quilt studio – spacious, well-lit, organized, full of wonderful fabric, and state of the art machines. Lots of storage. Lots of electrical outlets. A huge design wall. My dream studio looks kind of like this:
Unfortunately, in my real-life, it doesn’t exist. Not even close.
It’s easy to look at Pinterest and come up with all sorts of plans and dreams for the perfect quilt studio. It’s just as easy to think in your head, “One day when all the kids leave home, I’ll have my own space.” Or “When we upgrade our house, I’ll make sure I have room,” or “We just need to finish that basement! That’s my space!” Dreams are great. But reality is what it is and it’s best to deal with the sewing space you have now. That way when your dream space does happen, you’ll know exactly how you want to arrange it.
And this is what I want to talk about for probably the next couple of blogs – your present sewing area. This can be a corner of your bedroom or kitchen. A walk-in closet. A spare bedroom. When I first started sewing, it was a small area in my kitchen. Then it went to a finished room in an attic (which was so cold in the winter), to my living room, to the smallest bedroom in the house, to finally the old rec room – which is by far the largest space I’ve had to date. The one characteristic I have noticed about quilters is they tend to “make do.” They always put their quilting last – everything else must be done first. And they tend to work with whatever leftover space is available they can use. Our quilting is important. While your space may be limited due to the square footage in your home, that doesn’t mean it has to be subpar. And I’m not talking about spending huge amounts of money for upgrades. Nope. I’m just sayin’ your space should be safe, well-lit, and ergonomically friendly.
I want to be upfront here and say if you make garments and quilt, your needs are different from someone who only quilts. If you’re the type of sewist who dabbles in a lot of different types of projects, your studio will need more room for buttons, zippers, interfacings, and a dress form. These types of sewing areas need to be set up differently. For the sake of this blog, I’m only working with a quilter’s sewing area. And please do not think just because your quilting area is small, it can’t also be organized and awesome. Whether your studio is large or small or somewhere in between, it has the potential to be terrifically workable. It simply takes some effort and the ability to think outside the box.
Let’s deal with sewing machines first. According to the Craft Industry Alliance 2020 Survey of Quilters, the average quilter owns four sewing machines. This does NOT include long arms (which were up 11 percent in sales from 2019). I have five machines in addition to my long arm. Let your sewing space dictate how many you have out and available for use. My quilt studio could accommodate all five of them out at the same time. However, if they were all out, I would have precious little room for anything else. I decided which ones to keep out by weighing these factors:
- What machines must stay out all the time?
- Which machines do I use the most?
It goes without saying my long arm must stay out. Leighann has a 12-foot frame. This girl gets significant floor space and can’t be shifted or moved. Leighann dominates an entire studio wall. Big Red, my Janome 7700, also must stay out all the time because I do 90 percent of my piecing on her. I also tend to quilt small projects on Big Red instead of loading them up on the long arm. Not only does she have to stay out, but she also needs an entire 8-foot table to manage quilts as well as some tools.
Out of the five machines I have, I use those two the most. Therefore, they had to stay out. Now I had to decide between Jenny (my small Juki), Barbara (Babylock Spirit Embroidery Machine), Jerri (my Juke 2010Q) and Marilyn (my Featherweight). This decision was actually pretty easy. My embroidery machine has a large throat and a long carriage. And I use it a lot. It stays out on one end of my quilt studio, next to my writing area. I can scoot my laptop and Brother Scan and Cut over if I need to use Barbara. I also love sewing on Marilyn. There’s just something about sewing on an antique Featherweight and it’s connection to the past. Since I use her several times a month, Marilyn sits on the small sewing table my dad bought me over 30 years ago. Putting Jenny and Jerri in storage was an easy decision. The only time I use my small Juki is in classes (which during the time of COVID are not existent) and I honestly haven’t used my 2010Q since the long arm came into my life.
You will go through a similar process. If you have a couple of machines, it’s not a difficult choice. You may have room enough to leave them all out. If your sewing space is small, there may be no other option than to shift them around as you use them. If you do put a machine in storage, make sure it’s cleaned, oiled, covered and kept in a temperature-controlled environment (in other words, not the attic). The primary concept in this decision is to free up as much floor and surface space as possible and still keep your sewing area functional and easy to use.
Ergonomically speaking, it’s important to have your machine at a level which doesn’t put strain on your arms and neck. If you’re a young whippersnapper, this doesn’t mean much. But since the average quilter is 63, the machine set-up is important. Not only are our bodies older, we’re more prone to arthritis and a host of other aches and pains. I became personally aware of the ergonomic importance of my sewing area a few years ago after I took a hard fall. Despite intense physical therapy, my neck hurts nearly all the time now. I know surgery is looming on the horizon, but until then, I must pay attention to how I sit, look at my laptop, and sew in order to minimize the pain. Let’s take a look at how to set your machine space up correctly. If we minimize the stress it can put on our arms, back, and neck, we can sew for longer periods of time – which is something we all want. Ideally you should have your machine set on as surface which allows you to keep your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle.
You really shouldn’t have to look up at the throat of your machine or bend your neck to look down. However, the good Lord in all His wisdom, has not only made our bodies uniquely wonderful, He has also made them uniquely different. I’m 5-foot, 3-inches (on a good day when I’m standing up straight), but I’m very short-waisted. If I sit down in a regular chair at any of my sewing tables, I sit low. This means my arms aren’t at that 90-degree angle and I’m looking up at the throat of my machine. Both of those scenarios mean I’m putting additional strain on my back, shoulders, and neck as I sew. And I imagine your body is different from mine. Since it’s difficult to change the height of a sewing table (unless you’re prepared to spend scads of money for a custom-built one), it’s easier to change the chair you’re using.
Adjustable chairs or stools on casters are just what you need. In my space, because it is fairly large, I can use a chair. The back of it won’t brush up against anything. But if your space is small, an adjustable stool may work better. Both of these can be raised or lowered to adjust to the perfect height for you. And let me throw this in here – test drive your chair. Go to an office supply store which has adjustable chairs on display. Plan to spend some significant time sitting in them. Have a good idea of how big (or small) you need it and focus on chairs or stools that size. Remember your body will spend considerable time in the chair. It should support your lower back well. Also pay attention to the arms on the chair (if it has them). Arms add width and those additional inches can make a difference how it fits in your sewing area. And casters are a must. You’ll move the chair a lot, no matter how small the sewing area is. As a matter of fact, I think casters or glide pads should be on sewing and cutting tables, too. Those little items make changing things around so much easier.
While we’re talking about sewing spaces, let’s also discuss hand sewing areas. Their set up is just as important as how a sewing machine is staged. There are two crucial factors in a great hand sewing station: Somewhere you can leave your supplies and somewhere that’s ergonomically friendly. Let’s talk supplies first. When I sit down to either hand piece or hand applique, I’ll use assorted threads, needles, a pin cushion, water-soluble basting glue, applique pins, beeswax, a thimble, and scissors along with my fabric units. I like to keep all of these in one place – preferably close to a comfy chair, my heating pad (for my neck), good lighting, and the TV. I also want to be able to tuck them away at the end of a sewing session to keep the dust out of them and keep my den looking neat. There are lots of different storage ideas out there. Ott not only makes some great lights, but also great lights with storage space.
I already had an Ott light, but needed somewhere to store everything after a hand sewing session. I searched around High Point for a while (because I in live in the furniture capitol of the world) and found this:
This is a small end table, but it packs a pretty big storage punch, plus it’s easy to assemble. The top lifts like this:
And it has a drawer:
And a shelf at the bottom where I can park books I want to read and a small trashcan.
I can neatly store all my hand sewing supplies when not in use and it’s readily accessible when I want to spend an evening binge watching PureFlix and doing handwork.
In this hand sewing area, it’s also important to have a flat sewing surface – or at least it is for me. I find I hand sew much faster on a flat surface. I have more control over my fabric and my stitches when I either piece or applique on a tabletop or similar surface. If you find a great storage table with a large surface, then you really are set. As much as I love my little storage table, the surface isn’t big enough. To solve this issue, I purchased this from a thrift store:
It’s an over-sized TV tray which folds up when not in use, so it can be tucked away neatly.
Setting up a hand sewing station is much like finding out what works well with your sewing machines. You must analyze the space, the lighting, and your needs to come up with an area which works for you in your space.
Next let’s talk about tools and gadgets. It seems like all crafters have hundreds of tools and gadgets and quilters are absolutely no different. In fact, we may be worse.
There are tools you will keep stored. These are helpful, but not ones you use on a daily basis. Then there are the ones you use daily. And at this point, we’re not even considering rulers
raise your hand if you’re a ruler junkie like me. Tools such as seam rippers, scissors, basting glue, screw drivers, marking tools, pressing tools (other than irons), machine oil, pins, machine cleaning tools, and stilettos are items which are used on pretty much a daily basis. These need to be somewhere within an arm’s reach and organized so we can find them without a great deal of searching. To determine what I used regularly and how much storage I needed, I put a large plastic container beside Big Red. Then for two weeks, I would drop in that container every quilting tool I used. At the end of two weeks, I knew I would have a good idea about what tools I used regularly – which would give me a good idea of how much easy access storage I needed. All in all, I used about two dozen tools on a consistent basis. Which led me to purchase this:
The white Depression-era candy dish is wonderful. I can hang my stilettos, scissors, and screwdrivers in the holes along the side and a pin cushion sits neatly in the dish. An office desk organizer cleverly stores the rest of my stuff including a few small rulers I use on a regular basis while sewing on Big Red. The idea behind this storage is it should be small enough to sit near your machines and not encroach too much on your sewing surface. Hands down, the best place I’ve found such storage is either at an office supply place or a dollar store. I’ve seldom found such storage containers at a fabric or quilt shop. My advice is to think outside the box. Know what tools you need to keep out to make your life easier and how much storage space these require. Then peruse the aisle of both types of establishments with an open mind.
Next week we’ll have one more blog about your sewing space. Ruler and thread storage, pressing and cutting stations, and the nuts and bolts of your electrical needs (and safety) and lighting will be discussed — as well as the ultimate quilt studio sanity saver.
Until Next Week, Level Up Your Quilting!
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam