Setting Up Your Sewing Space

Let’s be positive and assume that you have taken your new machine out of the box, tested it, and everything is fine. We are now ready to talk about the best ways to set up your machine for productive, creative sewing.

Sewing is like cooking in that you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to do the job, but the job is best done with good ingredients and under the right conditions. In both cases, time, place, space, lighting, noise, temperature, and energy needs are all important factors.

I am astounded at how many sewers invest thousands of dollars in a great appliance and proceed to use it in the most uncomfortable and unproductive places.

One person I know constantly complains of back problems when she sews, and no wonder She is sitting on a dining-room chair in poor light, with her feet barely touching the floor and her body leaning to one side because the table leg is in her way. After a few hours of this torture, I’m surprised she can sew anything. Here are a few suggestions for how to improve your sewing situation.

When to sew

These days a lot of us have to “steal” time to sew. This could be on weekends, in the evenings, in front of the TV, or when the kids are taking a nap or in school. Some people like to sew during the day to take advantage of natural light. Since there is no TV in my house, after-dinner together-time is when my family and I all “do” something.

It’s the perfect time to capture an hour or two for sewing, but those are not entirely uninterrupted hours. Most of the time, I like people around when I sew, but you may not. It’s a personal thing. And, of course, it depends on the project. If I’m mending a shirt, I can do it in front of anyone, but don’t disturb me when I’m cutting out the fabric, (I always try to do that part in the morning, when the house is quiet and I’m really focused.)

When you sew may determine where you sew. For example, if you enjoy sewing until midnight, sewing in the bedroom might not be possible if your partner is in bed by 10.

Where to sew

I’ve seen sewing “rooms” in the oddest places, and quite frankly, if an odd place works for you, what does it matter whether you are sewing in a closet, a corner in your bedroom, the kitchen, the basement playroom, or a new sky-lighted sewing studio? Your grandmother’s sewing place was anywhere she took her old fruitcake tin containing her few sewing supplies.

Wherever you decide to sew and whatever your budget and space constraints, I recommend one thing: Try to have your machine out and ready to use at all times. There is no greater damper of sewing enthusiasm than to have to set up your sewing “room” every time you want to sew. No matter where your sewing place is, try to make it permanent.

I know a woman who doesn't have a permanent place in her house to sew, so she keeps her sewing machine and supplies on a sturdy rolling cart and moves the machine where she needs to. That way the machine is always out and her sewing room is wherever the cart goes. If she can roll her cart up to the dining-room table, she has a huge surface to work on. If the kids are all over the table, she can take her cart into the bedroom or into the kitchen. Sewing in the guest bathroom, anyone?

smg_89.jpg Every sewer’s needs are different, but here’s an arrangement I like a lot: The sewing machine is on an adjustable computer table to make sewing comfortable. The table on the left is on wheels so it can slide to the bed of the machine to give me a huge sewing surface. The architect’s taboret on the right, also on wheels, holds thread, feet, and pieces of my current project.

Your sewing space

Where you sew (place) is one thing. The organization of the area around you as you sew (space) is another. The most important spaces in your sewing place are the ones around your machine and ironing board. I have spent a lot of time organizing the area around my sewing machine so that I can sew efficiently and comfortably (see the photo above). Since the area to the left of the machine must be clear for the sewing project itself, it's the small area to the right and front of the machine that holds my thread snips, seam ripper, and extra filled bobbins. If you have the space, an architect’s taboret or similar catchall is perfect to have at your right hand. It is out of your sewing way and holds all the sewing-machine equipment you need.

I like to put my sewing machine on a carpet square; it makes the machine quieter, and I can put small items like bobbins and a seam ripper on it so they won’t roll off the table. Another tip is to tie one end of string around the thread snips and the other end to your sewing machine or the table leg, so you will never run around your sewing room or house looking for them again. (Of course, you can tie them around your neck and they will follow you everywhere, but I consider scissors dangling in front of me as I sew annoying if not dangerous.)

While you can cut fabric any time and on any large, flat surface, you can't really place your ironing board too far from your sewing machine and consider yourself a sewer. The two skills go hand in hand. If you are a quilter, you know that you do just as much ironing as sewing, and if you are making garments, ironing and pressing are crucial to professional-looking results. For these reasons, you want your ironing board close to your sewing machine. But don’t plug the sewing machine and iron into the same outlet if you can help it; irons use a lot of energy, and this may affect the performance of your sewing machine.


Nothing is more critical to accurate sewing than the precise guiding of fabric through the machine with your eye and hand. This requires you to keep your eye on the needle or the edge of the sewing foot, but how can you do that if you can’t see well?

Even the best built-in sewing-machine lights are not adequate for comfortable sewing. They are dim, cast shadows across the needle, or create a strobe effect of rapidly alternating light and shadow as the needle goes up and down that's enough to give anyone a headache.

Place your machine near a window (north facing is best) if you sew during the daytime. Place your sewing table so the window is to your left and the light pours across the needle and your project. If you have to have a shadow, let it fall to the right, away from the needle area.

Buy a gooseneck or drafting-table lamp and clamp it behind and to the left of your machine to supplement the lighting on dark days or when sewing in darker places. While the

bases of these lamps are fixed, the

lamps are designed to stretch and direct the light where you need it most. If you don’t have room on the table for the light, buy one of the 1950s funky pole lamps at the Salvation Army. Put it in front of your sewing table next to your left arm, and aim one of the lights at the needle area.

Since I like to have some lighting to the right of my needle, I find that one of those little book lights does a great job. It’s small, flexible, and provides just enough light to make a difference. There are some interesting flexible, snake-like lamps on the market these days.

The ones I have seen are battery powered, which would eliminate the problem of a power supply and cord.

For overall shadow-free room lighting, nothing beats a 300-watt halogen light that's aimed at the ceiling (the light’s too bright to aim it directly at the machine, and it hurts the eyes if you look at it directly). These inexpensive lamps are available at home centers for less than $20 and come in clip-on, short-stand, and taller tripod models.


I usually have the radio on when I’m sewing, but I can’t tolerate it at all when I am writing. Is sewing a quiet, contemplative activity for you? Or do you like to sew to Abba? Do you want to answer the phone when you are in the middle of a sewing project, or do you let the answering machine get it?

In general, sewing equipment is pretty quiet unless you are using it. Some brands are very quiet, while some are real noisemakers with shrill beeps and rough-sounding motors. Remember that a machine will sound twice as loud at home as it was in the busy shop. In general, the top-of-the-line machines are quieter than the cheaper models, but even top-of-the-line machines can differ greatly in the amount of noise they make. (If you are a fanatic about noises, get a used Elna Carina made in the 1970s. It remains one of the quietest machines ever made.)

I have an older machine that wasn’t as quiet as I would have liked, so I pasted craft felt in every internal place where it wouldn’t interfere with the operation of the machine. I lined the bobbin door and the internal spaces adjacent to the foot. The top of the machine comes off, so I was able to paste felt up there too, using a UHU glue stick. The result was an unsightly patchwork of ugly felt, but it was inside the machine, visible to no one, and I reduced the noise by almost half. If you try this, just make sure you do a good job of gluing the pieces to clean surfaces of the machine; you don’t want that felt to pop off and get caught in the sewing mechanism. Check it once in a while to see that it's secure. To further reduce the machine’s noise level, put the machine on a carpet square.

Temperature and moisture

It’s funny how temperature becomes more important to you as you get older.

smg_92.jpg If your machine is noisy even after you’ve cleaned and oiled it, consider pasting some felt on inside surfaces to absorb the sound. Make sure the felt is secure and doesn’t interfere with any moving parts.

My sewing room and office is in the lower level—let’s be honest, it’s the basement—of my house. The room has full-length windows because the house sits on an inclined lot, but it’s still a basement. In the summer the dehumidifier extracts a few gallons of water out of the air every day, and in winter an extra heater is necessary.

Here’s how I handle this less than-ideal situation: In the summer I garden instead of sew. If I have to go into the sewing room, I wait for clear, humidity-free days and open the windows or I turn off the noisy dehumidifier.

In fall and winter when I really start sewing big time, I prepare the room for comfort a half hour before I actually start sewing. I turn on the space heater if needed and the lights on the machines I intend to use. Sewing machines are no different than your car (and you for that matter): They are sluggish when they are cold. The metal and the lubrication in the machines need to warm up before they will run smoothly. The little light inside the machine is enough to warm it up, especially if you keep the machine covered with a piece of cloth. (I always cover my machines with a piece of fabric to keep the dust and grit off of them anyway. Don’t use plastic because it traps moisture, an enemy of sewing machines.) After a half hour of sitting under the heated “tent,” the machine is ready to use no matter what the temperature is in the rest of the room.

Because my feet and hands get cold and stiff in the winter, I make sure that I don’t sew on an empty stomach. I usually sew after fueling up at dinnertime, when I have enough carbohydrates in my body to keep me warm. Sheerling-lined, ankle-high moccasins and heavy wool socks keep my feet nice and warm on the basement floor. Moccasins don’t have a stiff sole, so they are especially good at giving my foot a good feel for the sewing pedal. It’s the next best thing to sewing barefoot.

It also helps to have a nonskid rug under your sewing table. The rug not only keeps your feet warmer, but it also keeps the sewing pedal from sliding around, especially if you glue Velcro strips to the pedal’s bottom.

A lot of heat leaves your body through the top of your head, but most people I know would think it ridiculous to wear a hat in the house. I do wear one, and I encourage you to try it, In fact, I now make “winter house hats” for my friends. A hat is a small sewing project, and you can make decorative bands around the side with all those fancy stitches on your new machine! If you don’t feel like sewing a hat, just buy and wear a Polarfleece ski cap. You will be surprised at how a hat keeps your whole body warm.

If you find that your legs get cold, cut a “folding screen” from an appliance-size cardboard box that you can put around or under your sewing table. The cardboard will keep drafts from reaching and chilling your legs, especially if you sew near a window.


Because the floor would be cold, I didn’t want to install my preference for a great, easy-to-clean, sewing-room floor: linoleum. I used commercial, low, dense-pile carpet / squares instead (the kind used in airports), knowing full well that they would catch and hold threads and fabric fuzz. Actually, the electric carpet sweeper attachment for my vacuum does a great job of picking up after I’ve collected the longer threads by hand.

Aside from the hassle of vacuuming, there are some advantages to having the right kind of carpet in the sewing room. Not only is carpet warmer than linoleum but it also is a great no-skid cutting and prep surface for large projects. I place pins through the carpet into its rubber backing to hold the fabric or quilt in place.

If you have a linoleum or wooden floor, use a rubberized place mat (the mesh kind made for summer picnics) under the sewing pedal to keep it from sliding. I get the place mats at thrift shops for about 25 cents apiece.


Unless you are using a treadle machine and only sew in daylight, you need electricity nearby when you sew. Sewing machines don’t use a lot of energy, but an iron and a 300-watt halogen light do. As I mentioned earlier, try not to have your machine and your iron on the same circuit, especially if you are using a computerized machine. I have all my machines plugged into circuit-breaker “energy” strips so that any minor voltage irregularities will not damage my machine. But be forewarned: These strips won’t keep your machine from frying during an electrical storm. When those storms happen, I unplug the electric strips so all the electrical items are unplugged at once.

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Thursday, 2009-07-02 3:34