Sitting Pretty (and Painless): Craft Studio Ergonomics

20 Feb 2013

You may remember how my daughter and I are planning to share our creative space? Well, Meredith's got our home studio all figured out. For one of her classes, she had to sketch her ideal workspace, and she made the drawing you see here.

sewing craft room sketch by meredith prato
My daughter Meredith's sketch for how to
outfit the perfect studio.

Meredith has designed the kinds of furniture she wants and how her (ahem, our) supplies will be organized. Just one thing is missing: ergonomics.

Ergonomics is the science of fitting workplace conditions to the physical capabilities of the workers. In other words (in this art studio scenario), how to choose the height and placement of the furniture to avoid back and neck pain, eyestrain, and so on.

Now, I can see where someone who is 16 might not be as concerned about ergonomics as someone who is . . . her mother. But before we start outfitting the space, I plan to review the basics with Meredith. If you're setting up a new studio-or wonder why you need to call the chiropractor after an hour at the sewing machine-take note. (Tips courtesy of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.)

Furniture height. The standard for counters (where you'll be cutting fabric, making monoprints, etc.) is 36"; the standard desk height (where you may be sewing) is 30". However, you may not be standard height. So adjust the height of counters so that you don't need to bend over too far or stand on tiptoe to reach everything you need. And if you're sharing the craft studio with someone else or do many different kinds of tasks at your workstation, consider getting adjustable chairs and tables.

Lighting. Adjustable task lighting is key to avoiding eyestrain and to prevent you from hunching over to see detail work. If you can, choose lighting that simulates daylight; it's easier on the eyes and colors look more true under these lamps.

art studio design illus by evelyn hernandez
A bird's-eye view of Moorea Hoffman's vision of an
art studio she calls 'Cottage Bliss.'

Illustration by Evelyn Hernandez.

Setting your furniture at a comfortable height can help you keep the correct posture, but at the end of the day, you have to do a little work yourself. If you're sitting, sit up straight with your forearms level with your work surface. Your knee angle and seat angle should be between 90 and 110 degrees. If you do most of your work standing, you can reduce tension in your lower back by putting one foot on a low stool or investing in a stand stool.

Break time. Even if you have a state-of-the-art ergonomically designed art studio, you should still take frequent breaks. Stand up and stretch, rest your eyes for a few minutes (dream of how great your project is going to be when finished), take a short walk, and drink some water.

Ergonomics, furniture, organization, and design are all addressed in Moorea Hoffman's article on art studio plans, Perfectly Personalized, in the Spring 2013 issue Studios magazine. Moorea is a kitchen designer as well as a crafter, so she has great advice and lots of options for how to make a home studio work for you. Check out her design and those of 20 other artists in Studios. You'll be sitting pretty in no time.

P.S. Do you have an ergonomic craft studio solution you'd like to share? Leave a comment below.

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Dea Fischer wrote
on 20 Feb 2013 12:20 PM

What a great post and a really useful and important reminder of things to keep in mind in creating an ergonomic space.  Thanks for the reminder!

on 20 Feb 2013 12:28 PM

Great article..I bought some bed risers (place cutting table on these)to raise cutting, felting table as bending over is hard.

Available at target..wherever for 10-15 dollars.  Joan

on 20 Feb 2013 1:27 PM

I designed my major working table to standing hight. There are many chairs around to accomodate that hight when sitting is required. But to have the choice has proven wonderful ! Bigger & larger projects are so much more practical when you can stand up, bend over, when you need to engage armpower etc ...

My computer is on a desk of its own, normal desk hight.

My sculpture turntable has a typical small square working area of something like 15/15 inch. I can dramatically increase that by bolting on much bigger and sturdy piece of wood when needed.

bvavrina wrote
on 20 Feb 2013 6:11 PM

I have found that horizontal work surfaces can be really hard on my back. Adjustable drafting desks are easy to find and great for many types of art work. But much of my work is done at the sewing machine...I set my sewing surface at about 26" so I am actually working at about 30".

I also raise the back of my sewing machine & serger by putting an eraser under the back feet (the pink ones we all used in elementary school). That slight angle is enough that I don't need to lean over as far to see exactly where I am sewing.

on 20 Feb 2013 6:40 PM

It seems like every time I buy a lamp or light anymore, it is an Ott lite. Love them, and my eyes say, "ahhhh". Worth the money. One other gift I gave myself is a drafting height chair. I love it. My work table is waist high for me, and the chair adjusts to fit just right. My only obstacle is all the stuff I put UNDER my work table that makes putting my feet in the right place a pain.

Having had carpal tunnel repair, I understand the need for good ergonomics in my work place.

I second the comment on a drafting table.

on 20 Feb 2013 8:48 PM

I have my husband's old, wooden drafting table 72 x 44 x 37 high. It's a dream!

In addition, Traeger massage techniques do wonders for keeping the body comfortable. The most basic one is taking micro-pauses: stop every 10 minues for 5 seconds and let arms fall to the side of your body and lift head up like a helium balloon. Do this whether sitting or standing. Yes it's hard to remember to do this, but well worth it!

TGS wrote
on 22 Feb 2013 10:38 PM

I've designated a few separate areas of my art space for different tasks and have adjustable chairs set at various heights at each. The lighting is not the same at each station, either. I have a computer desk, an art table (for painting and card making) and a craft table (for paper storage, sewing and gift wrapping.) Think of it as instead of having one best friend who is expected to meet all of your needs, you can have three friends who fill different needs.

cristiana4 wrote
on 23 Feb 2013 6:44 AM

Great article, I bought a long arm machine with its frame, but I having problems with the ergonomic higth of it, do You Have  something about it? Thank's for so wonderful reminder .


DebDG wrote
on 23 Feb 2013 7:34 AM

Here, here! I have learned a lot about ergonomics in at work (poor ergo is a leading cause of injuries...think carpal tunnel syndrome) and have suffered from various tendonitises over the years. I also happen to be non-standard height (short). I have a lovely large sewing cabinet...but it is too high. I have a very comfortable height adjustable chair (no longer available or I'd say what brand (and buy another one for my computer)), so I raise the chair to get my arms right at the machine (the main machine, I have to adjust for the serger or the other machine). But now my legs would dangle. My very nice solution for that is an Ikea wooden shelf. It is about 2 inches high and fits the foot space under the cabinet. My foot pedal is on there, and I put a thick book for my left foot so that I am not unbalanced. Inexpensive and just right for me (5'2"). Sewers, don't forget the most adjustable thing in your sewing room - the ironing board. Mine often serves as a pinning table, too.

ctutt wrote
on 23 Feb 2013 11:57 AM

Hmm…I used to use my ironing board for doing projects while standing up…but I ditched it last time we moved. Might be time to pick up another one at the ol' thrift store.

[the only time I get out the iron is for craft projects, LOL - for the past 10 years I've used folded bath towels on top of the washing machine!]

individuelle wrote
on 23 Feb 2013 6:57 PM

My studio has been ergonomically set up for me (4ft11in) and the four machines I keep set up at all times. There is a different height for each machine,cutting table/ironing surface and computers.

I noticed in your daughter's sketches that she has the sewing machines set up at opposite ends of a table that is supported by filing cabinets. She might want to rethink this. You should be sitting directly in front of the needle on each of your machines as well as having support for the fabric/quilt on which you are sewing . There should also be adequate space for your legs underneath the table so that your knees are bent at right angles to your chair and the chair seat doesn't press on the back of your knees and without you having to lean forward to manipulate the fabric. The chair back should give you adequate support. Your best sewing accessory is an adjustable chair. It is also quite a bit easier if at each machine you have the hand supplies(ex,scissors,pins,etc)that you use most often directly beside the machine, those you need frequently within 10 in reach and those you seldom need 18 inches away. These last can be stored vertically for more user friendly space. There are many,many more tips for setting up your space ergonomically but I have found these the best. I also use a drafting light because it can be swiveled for use at several of the machines and still give you the best lighting for accessory lighting.