Crafting with Painful Arms and Hands

Photo of a white-skinned hand and wrist covered in a flexible blue brace, palm facing upwards. Text above the photo says "Crafting with Painful Arms and Hands" and the Sewcialists logo appears beneath the photo.

Confession time: I only started sewing seriously when my Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI) from knitting got so painful I had to stop. Yup, there but by the grace of RSI, Sewcialists could have been a knitting community!

My Experience:

My RSI started back in 2007 and continues to this day. If I’m careful, I can sew, blog, and do my day job, but it doesn’t take much to throw me into a spiral and hobbies are the first thing I have to cut. When my wrists were at their worst, I couldn’t hold a cup without intense pain. I spent almost a decade sleeping in arm braces and eventually (repeatedly) found physiotherapists who could help. I even filmed a video of my physio exercises back in 2013, and shared some of the strategies that my blog followers use to manage their chronic arm pain too. After a car accident a few years ago, I was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, which is a catchall diagnosis saying that my nerves are pinched in my upper chest and neck. It’s rather depressing that so many years later I’m still in pain as I type this.

I’m not the only one on the Sewcialists team with chronic pain in my arms, so here’s another perspective from Renee!

Renee’s Experience:

Hi! I’m a sewer, needlepointer, and machine knitter with chronic pain through my wrists and thumbs from tendinitis due to repetitive stress. I’m also a writer professionally and have to take care of my hands at every turn. Like Gillian, when my pain is at its worst, I can’t turn a doorknob or hold on to a pen. I used to lift weights and had to give up some of the bigger Olympic lifts and gymnastic moves because I couldn’t risk agitating my tendinitis.

So what have I done to help? I ice my hand/wrists after hand manipulating stitches on my knitting machine or hand sewing a garment. I limit hand sewing to 15 minutes sewing, 15 minutes icing. I wear a wrist support that isolates my thumb for working out and sewing at my machine. I use a rotary cutter to eliminate the repetition of open and closing scissors. I’ve really just learned to listen to my body.

I’m so very careful with my hands because sewing is my primary hobby and the thought of *not* being able to sew brings me to tears. Once, during a bad flare up, I couldn’t sew for weeks! It led me to seek physical therapy where I learned exercises to strengthen the tendons in my thumb and wrist. So, definitely seek professional help when needed and protect your wrists!

Ergonomic Sewing Tools and Tips:

I often see people in the crafting community saying that they have pain in their fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders and elsewhere. I’m here to say: PLEASE TAKE IT SERIOUSLY! Put that project down and take some time to heal. And while you heal, consider if some of these tools and tips could help you craft pain-free.

Blue ergonomic rotary cutter. It is bent--the blade is positioned at nearly a 45 degree angle from the handle.

Ergonomic Rotary Cutter: A life saver for my fingers and wrists! Lots of brands make these, but the one pictured above can be found here. Make sure you keep your blades sharp to reduce the amount of force needed.

Ergonomic stitch ripper by Fons and Porter

Ergonomic Stitch Ripper: A chunky handle with some grip makes this much easier to hold. Again, lots of brands make them but this one can be found here.

Left handed fabric shears made by Ernest Wright.

Quality (Sharp) Scissors: If every movement hurts, you want to make sure that you make life as easy as possible. Find some scissors that fit your hand and cut smoothly and easily. If you are a leftie, make sure you get a left-hand pair! (We have two posts on sewing left-handed, if you are curious: here and here!) This beautiful pair is from Ernest Wright.

White Machingers brand quilting gloves, size M/L.

Quilting Gloves: These gloves have a grippy coating so that it is easier to maneuver a bulky quilt through your sewing machine. I’ve heard gardening gloves can work just as well! My friend also swears by compression gloves to reduce arthritis pain.

Seven sewing pins sticking out of a green and white polka dotted pincushion. The pins have elongated purple grips.

Easy-grip Pins: Dritz makes these easy-grip pins which seem pretty cool! For years I used the flower-head quilting pins because they were easier to maneuver.

Illustration of proper posture while sewing. Forearms are level with table, knee angle is between 90 and 100 degrees, and the seat angle is between 90 and 100 degrees.

Well-sized Table, Chair, and Cutting Area: This image comes from the U.S. Department of Labor! It’s crucial to have a workspace that encourages you to sit or stand properly. I’m pretty sure we all end up hunched over and squinting at the machine sometimes, but don’t make that your default!

Infographic on the Spoon Theory, titled Understanding Chronic Illness Through the Spoon Theory. Infographic is from the lupus website www.Mollysfund.org. The text states:
Good morning! Here's to another brand new day! In your hands are 15 spoons. Each spoon represents the energy needed to complete a part of your daily routine. Once you're out of spoons, you're out of energy. But don't worry, tomorrow always brings more spoons. This is the spoon theory, an everyday reality for those who live with a chronic illness. So, how would you like to use your spoons today? 1 spoon = get out of bed, call your parents, or get dressed; 2 spoons = take a shower, manage meds, or make dinner; 3 spoons = visit your doctor, walk your dog, or socialize; and 4 spoons = grocery shopping, take kids to school, or go to work.

Choose how to spend your energy (a.k.a. Spoon Theory): Chronic pain limits how much you can do in a day, as can chronic illness, disability, and so many other factors. I love lots of crafts, like embroidery, knitting, and needle felting, but I’ve given them all up because sewing offers more reward for less pain. (And you know what? It’s crappy and makes me sad. I’m sorry if you too are giving up things you love because your body can’t handle it.) The key is to first cut the parts you enjoy less―maybe get your PDF patterns printed, ask someone to help you cut out fabric, skip ironing, or don’t bother changing your thread to match. I also save spoons by voice typing, having a good ergonomic set up for work, sleeping in certain positions, and so on. Save the spoons for sewing when you can!

Your Turn!

We would love to hear your experiences and suggestions for crafting with chronic pain! Renee and I are sharing our stories of arm pain to start the conversation, but it isn’t limited to any particular condition or pain location.

If you enjoyed this post, check our previous post on sewing with chronic pain.

Gillian is cofounder of the Sewcialists. She loves cats, bright colours, and sewing! You can find her at craftingarainbow.com and @craftingarainbow.


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