Sewing Safer

Are you a safety conscious sewer? Have you already tuned out this topic? Safety always seems boring until someone winds up in the Emergency Room or Urgent Care. Or your machine winds up in urgent care!

What do we need to focus our thoughts on sewing safety? A driver’s ed style montage of gory photos? I hope not, ’cause while I am great in an actual emergency and dealing with blood, I don’t like photos of the carnage.

The majority of sewing machine mishaps are related to needles…bent needles, needles that snap, needles that penetrate fingers, or a needle point that flies and finds an eye. Yikes.

Most of know someone who have sewn right through a finger.

This is probably one of the most common needle/machine accident. I witnessed this first hand when I was playing at the home of the girl across the street when I was 10. We snuck into her mom’s sewing room and I convinced her to try the machine. Bingo! She sewed right through her finger and immediately fingered me as the instigator of this crime. I was declared a “bad influence” and banned from the home and playing with the neighbor. Have I ever sewed my own finger? No. This was a lesson learned early in life.

Usually this is a relatively benign injury that heals quickly, but if the needle penetrates the bone, it can be serious. In either case, we may not be sewing for a while.

Tips to sew safer and NOT pierce your finger:

  1. Stop. Really stop. Take your foot all the way off the pedal when you stop sewing, if it is “just for a moment, we tend to let to our foot hover above the pedal rather than moving our foot away from the pedal. Some machines, like my Tiara, have a hair trigger and can take off at high speed in a nanosecond. I swear it will trigger just from the closeness of your foot to the pedal. Then there is the “California Stop” on our machines as well as in our cars. (For those not familiar with the term, it means to pull up to a stop sign and move very slowly through it without really stopping.)
  2. Use a tool – a stylus, stiletto, a Purple Thang, chopstick, orange wood stick or similar tool if you need to manipulate fabric close to the needle. Catching a bit of applique that has popped up, grabbing a wondering seam line, reaching to flip a cross seam the right direction. We think we are fast enough, we have a foot lightly enough on the pedal and then we are snagged. Stop. Use a tool.

SNAPPING and breaking needles are also a cause of sewing mayhem. Usually we just cringe and get a new needle, but breaking needles should NOT be a common problem. It should be very rare. Broken needle pieces can fly into an eye or lodge into the innards of your machine. I wear glasses all day, and I absolutely know that my specs have saved me from bits of flying needles.

  1. Change your needles. I say this all the time in my blog and my sewing groups. Change your needles about every 8-10 hrs of sewing. For me, that can be every other day; at minimum, it is twice a week. Could I cheat? Sure, but I don’t. Is saving 50 centers or a dollar really that critical? The cost of a needle versus the cost of a physical injury, or machine repair, or damage to my project is way more than the cost of a needle. Why this often? Needles dull and a quilt sandwich with all its layers will dull a needle within that time frame or quicker. Applique stitching with stabilizer, glues and tiny close stitches will certainly dull your needle quicker than piecing. Dull needles can break the threads in your project, too, causing an actual hole in the fabric which is another excellent reason to change them frequently.
  2. Watch your pins carefully. Sewing over a pin (straight or quilting) is a common cause of needle breakage. Hitting pins can throw a machine out of timing, especially our more modern machines. The last time I hit a quilting pin, it cost me $169 in machine repairs on my Tiara.
  3. Use the right size and type of needle for your project. People seem to like using the smallest needle possible (to keep “the holes” small). If your needle is sharp and the right type for your fabric, the point will separate the fabric threads and the threads will close up around the stitch. Washing the project, or misting with water will further relax those “holes”. Match your needle size to thread weight, your machine and type of fabric. A too small needle will cause shredded thread, skipping and will snap too easily. And don’t forget deflection! As your needle passes through a top layer of a quilt (including those seams with multiple layers), the batting, and then the backing, it deflects or bends slightly. Repeated deflection will cause your needle to bend and eventually hit the needle plate (another reason to change your needles!). A larger needle is a stronger needle that will not bend as easily. Do you have skipping, shredding or thick seams? Perhaps double batting? Go up a needle size. Those of us with sit down quilting machines will need a larger size needle than we used in our domestic machine for the same task.
  4. Don’t PULL on your fabric when FMQ or piecing or applqiue. Now this is a bit tricky. For domestic users, this means letting your feed dogs move your fabric while you “guide” the fabric using two hands. If you are pulling, there is a reason. Thick seams, batting or fabrics? Adjust your presser foot pressure. Or use a “hump jumper” to transition between thicknesses. Pulling your fabric will cause needle deflection and lead to broken needles. For FMQ sit down quilters, with no feed dogs, we move the fabric under the needle. But we still need to be careful to move it and not to “pull” it aggressively. Do you have a lead foot or are you trying to FMQ faster and moving your fabric to keep up? Slow down. Your stitches will look better and your needles will be straighter and snap less often. Pulling on the fabric repeatedly can cause your needle to bend and then you get that snap.
That needle may still “look” sharp, but get in really close and this is what you will see! This is NOT a progression over time photo…it is the same needle on the left as the right, just seen with increasingly closer magnification. Photo from Schmetz Needles USA Blog.
Matching thread weight and type to needle size (domestic machines). You can use a different needle brand, but the needle size for thread weight remains the same.
Long arm and sit down quilter needle size and thread weight table. You can use any thread brand you like, the needle size size will still correspond to the thread weight.
My favorite domestic needles for piecing and applique.
My favorite needles for my Tiara sit down long arm machine, $35 for 100, which is only 35 cents/ needle!

Quilting rulers

Aiming a sharp needle quite near an acrylic ruler with a motor running has the requisite elements for accidents. Machines are powerful and rulers are quite sturdy and break resistant, but when they collide beware!

1. Use a quilting ruler for quilting, not a cutting ruler. Using a cutting ruler to quilt is a dangerous practice. Rulers can shatter when hit with by sewing machine needle, sending shards flying and runing your machine timing.

2. Use the correct thickness of quilting ruler for your machine. Rulers are not cheap and domestic rulers are not the same thickness as sit down quilter or long arm rulers. You cannot interchange them safely. The thinner domestic rulers can slip right under a sit down quilter foot. I rarely use rulers, but if you love them, you must be prepared to invest in the correct type of ruler in the correct size for your type of machine. Sit down quilters need long arm or 1/4″ thick rulers.

Two excellent – and cheap – safer sewing tools

Hump Jumpers

Needle accidents are common when transitioning from say two layers of fabrics to a flat fell seam, or sewing over really thick multiple seam layers that come together in a quilt. How to deal with it? Take a running start perhaps and close your eyes? Pfaff and Janome maker their own style of height compensation tools, aka “hump jumpers”, but I love my Bernina Hump Jumper (once I got the manual out and learned how to use it.

This what I use, the Bernina Hump Jumper! It came with my machine, but you can buy one for under $10 and it has three different thicknesses to use when bridging from a thin sewing surface to a thick sewing seam or area. Instructions on how to use in the link below.

That Purple Thang

In addition to stilettos, stylus and the point of my seam ripper, we now have a cheap and highly effective little tool with a funny name.

That Purple Thang! Weird name, but it is a good tool. And now comes in a variety of colors. You can buy a set of 5 for under $7.
I use my Purple Thang all the time!

My personal safety sewing crimes. Is confession good for the soul? Well, here is mine!

  1. Sewing without shoes. Really, this is at best a misdemeanor. Sure, I could pick up a needle in my foot. Yes, this has happened. But in my defense, with size 11 feet, finding things with my feet is one of my super powers. I just can’t sew with shoes. Socks, yes. Perhaps a light weight sandal at most. I have sewn shoeless on the machine for 57 yrs. Can I learn new tricks? Yes, but not this one.
  2. Parking straight pins in my mouth. I know, horror stories and gory photos. I have cut down, way down, on this one. And I have adopted a safer method for my unsafe habit… I put the flower or round/platstic end in my mouth now, rather than the sharp end, which I did for decades. Using a magnetic needle holder helps too as I can grab a needle very quickly.

As we age our reflexes slow. Yes, I said the “age” word, but it’s true! Arthritis and other physical factors come into play. For me, medication also slows my danger response time. I am on immune supressing meds and really DO NOT want to devlop an infection or have minor surgery to repair a sewing injury if it can be avoided.

Most of us did much of our sewing learning on our own and “may” have picked up some sloppy habits along the way. Reviewing our safety practices and buying some new sewing tools to help is never a bad idea!

Safe sewing!


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