Being diagnosed with a chronic pain disorder feels earth-shattering. I know this from personal experience; when I was diagnosed with endometriosis two years ago, I thought my career in sewing was over. I sewed for 10 years before my diagnosis, was getting my degree in costume technology, and fully planned to pursue a career sewing for eight hours a day. Out of nowhere, the simple act of pressing a pedal was unfathomable on days when I could barely get out of bed. I couldn’t bend or crawl to make patterns, one of my favorite tasks of sewing. And forget about fitting a garment to someone else; contorting my body to see a garment from all angles and wrestling with awkward pins was out of the question. So I was left with one question; how do I do this now?
Many sewists with chronic pain may find themselves frustrated with the lack of community and resources available to them. For many, sewing might be a low-impact activity. For those of us with chronic pain, it can be the opposite. You’re hunching, moving, crawling, and bending constantly—not to mention sometimes dealing with fabric that fights back! If you live with a chronic pain disorder, such as endometriosis, arthritis or fibromyalgia, you know that there are days where these tasks are impossible. However, I find sewing and fashion as a creative outlet invaluable. After all, what would life be without pretty clothes? There was no way I would let endometriosis stop me from creating, even though I may not be able to sew in the same way. Below, I have outlined some tips and tricks that I have discovered along the way as I relearned how to sew with chronic pain.
Pace Yourself and Take Your Time
This is a mantra I definitely need. As a lifelong procrastinator, I became an expert at finishing week-long projects in three hours—just ask my college professors! However, with endo, I really had to rethink how and when I could sew. I certainly slow a lot slower than before, and I also can’t sew as long as I used to be able to. So, I pace myself and my sewing based on how I feel on that day. There are some days I can sew for an hour, four hours, twenty minutes, or not at all.
Listen to your body. If sewing doesn’t work for you that day, don’t force it. Your project will be waiting for you when you feel better, and if you are sewing for yourself without a deadline, there isn’t any pressure! However, living in a deadline-free world is not always feasible. If you find yourself facing deadlines, plan ahead; give yourself twice as much time as you think, so you have room for “off days.” If you’re sewing for a customer or school, be honest about what you can do and at what time. At the end of the day, your health is most important.
I also try to take stretch breaks when sewing. If I notice I’ve been sitting or doing one task for a while, I get up and do some light yoga. This gives me time to check in with my body and see how it feels, as well as make sure my blood is flowing.
If you still want to feel productive or engage with sewing and fashion on a flare day, try hand-sewing, sketching, or another low-impact activity. You can even spend that time researching fashion history online or watching a documentary to further your sewing and fashion knowledge. When you get back to the machine, you’ll be that much smarter and even more ready to tackle your latest project.
Invest in Tools that Work for You
All sewists know this one for a fact; the better the tools, the better the garment! Having sewn for a long time, I definitely have had the time to figure out what tools work best for me. After endo, I’ve made a few adjustments to make sure my notions fit my needs.
If the act of cutting with scissors is too much, try a rotary cutter. They’re great for long, straight cuts and a favorite amongst many sewists with decreased hand strength. In addition, Mood stocks ergonomic rotary cutters and shears that keep your hands cozy and require less strength to operate. I also prefer longer pins with a bold head that are easier to spot and grab. Try a magnetic pin cushion or wrist pin cushion to keep all supplies handy.
I keep my sewing space neat with all pins, needles, and thread near my machine. That way when I sew, I don’t have to move constantly in order to do each step; I can simply stay in one place and focus on the task at hand. When I’m cutting or pattern drafting, I try to use a table that is at a higher height so I can use a wheelable stool to minimize bending and hours on my feet. Same with ironing; if I’m ironing a huge project, I like to use a stool so I can rest while working. If you prefer to stand, find an angle that works for you so you aren’t bending and contorting your body.
Finally, I also love to keep a heat pad nearby in case I feel a flare coming. Sometimes it is a one-off and I can continue to sew with a heat pad, or sometimes I need to take a break and relax. Either way, it is never a bad thing to be prepared!
Be Proud of What You Can Do & Advocate for Your Needs
A cheesy self-help mantra, I admit, but it’s a very true one. Any day that you get out of bed and move your body with chronic pain is a good day. If you can sew, create, and design on that day, you’re basically a superhero. Many people don’t realize just how much chronic pain can impact one’s life. But you do, and you have been with yourself on your worst and best days. Be proud any day that you can sew, and if you can’t that day, don’t beat yourself up. It isn’t worth it; focus on yourself and your health first.
You may find that the way you sew with chronic pain looks different than sewing without it. Guess what; the way everyone sews is just a little bit different! Even if these practices are not exactly standard in the industry, it is what YOU need to do to keep your body in tip top shape. Stand up for yourself and don’t let yourself be bullied by what is “common” in the sewing world and industry.
At the end of the day, the person who knows your body best is you. What may work for others may not work for you, and vice versa. Experiment and try different types of sewing projects and tools to find what works for you and your body.
What are some tips and tricks you’ve learned as you sew with chronic pain? Let us know in the comments below!