How to set up your work space for successful quilting at home

Posted by Anita Ellis on

Last time we ticked off the things you need to look for in a sewing machine for quilting your own quilts.  This time we will address the emotive subject of the sewing space.  We have all coveted the beautiful places that people create for their sewing adventures.  I can swoon over these just as much as the next quilter.  But we all know this is not necessarily reality.

For one we all create differently, I am a messy thing whose focus remains totally on the task in hand with no regard for my surroundings.  Sometimes when I finish a quilting project I look behind me and cannot recognize the place as I have thrown threads and fabric to the wind as I have been working.  I would love to be a tidy person but a leopard doesn’t change its spots.  About the only time my studio is tidy is when I clean up to teach a class and more than me needs to fit into the space I have.  I am such a spreader!

You may be a very tidy person who can only work with order around you.  That is great but sometimes the best way to set up your space for quilting success isn’t necessarily the prettiest.  The View out of your window may be wonderful but if you can’t position your desks so that quilts do not fall off while you are working, then it isn’t going to work.

On the subject of being tidy, it does really help if you keep your work table free from clutter that can catch and drag your quilts as you work on them.  Even I manage to do that!

You may be lucky and have a huge dedicated studio or maybe your creative space is just the corner of the dining table that the family allows you to have for yourself.

When setting up your space you need to consider the final goal, finished quilts.  We need a space that allows the quilt sandwich to flow as smoothly as possible with the least amount of drag to get in the way of the quilting process.

There are several factors that play a part in reducing the drag on the quilt and I will look at each in turn.

Table height; the height of your worktable is critical.  Our best work will never be done if we are uncomfortable and our arms are hanging in midair unsupported.  The ideal table height to work on for most people is the normal dining table height of around 28” to 30”. If you then set your sewing machine on top with the extension table attached, the height has been raised by several inches, leaving you in an awkward position.

There are some lovely cabinets and tables that allow you to drop your machine down to the level of the table and fill in the space around with custom inserts that leave your sewing machine at the right height.  If you have room for these that is great, some of them are also portable but more on that later.

But what if that isn’t an option for you?  One way you can create the right height table is to literally cut a hole for your sewing machine towards the right corner and add a supportive shelf at just the right height.  Maybe not one for your best dining table, but a good Ikea hack.  By creating this you will have the machine at the right height and space for the quilt to flow to the left. 

Another good option is to look for kids desks that lower below the normal table height so that when you position your sewing machine and extension table on top, they then reach a much more comfortable height for sewing.  Many adjustable tables only go higher than the regular height and this isn’t going to help in this situation.  You need to be able to go lower than regular height. Just be sure that your knees fit under.

How to arrange your quilting tables; As we have discussed it is all about drag.  If we can stop the quilt from dragging, we are half way there to successful quilting.  Using more than one table is often a way to create more flat space.  So your machine is housed in your lovely custom designed table (bought or created) set at the right height for you, now we need to set up the space so that the quilt cannot fall off the table and drag our stitches with it.

Building your workstation into a corner is ideal so that when the quilt is moving around it cannot fall off onto the floor, with the wall or window behind it providing support for the weight of the quilt.  You need the most space to the left of the machine for the quilt to flow.  If you are using extra tables, trestles or ironing boards for this, they need to be at the normal table height so that they are level with the sewing machine.

If you are the corner of a dining table person, you could have your sewing machine set on its own table at the same height as the adjacent dinging table and butt the two tables together.  This will increase the free-flowing space for your quilt so much.  Your sewing machine table might be a portable one that folds up out of the way at dinnertime and can also travel with you to workshops.

Sometimes quilting can be the most fun when you are connecting to family in a shared space, rather than locked away in your own room.

But what about when you go to classes and workshops?  It is not always possible to have the best set up everywhere, however there are ways that you can improve your work space ergonomics no matter where you are.

Setting up comfortably in class spaces; I have mentioned portable tables that set your machine at the right height and these are great to take to class if you have them.  You can often butt your table up to your allocated space in the classroom, so that you are working at the easiest height and have extra space for your quilt to flow.

Whilst ideal, this isn’t always possible.  You may be stuck with your machine and its extension table set on top of a regular height classroom table. This is going to get uncomfortable very quickly and the drag on your quilt when it catches on the edges of the extension table is going to be annoying.  You can usually stack a couple of chairs on each other to give you a more ergonomic work height.  This will raise you up a couple of inches which can really help.  Make sure you feel stable though.  To help with the drag position an additional extension table or some books next to you to extend the level workspace.  Anything that stops the quilt drooping over the edge of the table and getting caught. Another shout out for keeping tidy, it really helps if your workstation isn’t cluttered with all your quilting paraphernalia. 

Lighting; Task lights to supplement the lights on your sewing machine can be very handy.  They can illuminate a much larger area of your quilt and depending on the angle you have them, cast a useful shadow on your stitching.  If your thread and fabric are very close in colour it can be hard to see the stitches.  If you cast a shadow from a side lamp it really helps to define them.

Chair height; A quick note on chair height.  An adjustable chair is very useful for fine tuning your quilting space set up.  And another tip, if you are a little short on stature and you need to raise your seat so high that you cannot reach the sewing machine pedal…put the pedal on a box.  Problem solved.  If I am going to a retreat or class and it is at all possible, I take my own chair so that I can make ergonomic adjustments to suit me.  This results in many happy hours of quilting.

So, there you have it, my thoughts on setting up a quilting space that may not be perfect but will have you well on your way to creating beautiful quilts as easily as possible.  And hey if you have the view enjoy it, you just might not get as much done as you plan.

If you find this article useful check out How to choose rulers and templates for quilting design

Happy quilting

Anita Ellis


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  • Thank you for sharing Anita, I am currently In lockdown in London so I have been planning the layout of my new studio on paper and your thoughts and insights are extremely helpful. I had most things covered but now will work on modifying a table to suit my needs, at the right height! Hopefully we will make it back to Australia in the new year and I can set up my machines after two years in storage!
    Also looking forward to coming to Warrandyte 🤞2021.

    Cornelia Maddern on
  • I needed this last week. I have never quilted a large quilt before and found I had to do lots of customising to make it all work. I have a table at the back of the machine sitting on jigsaw boxes, a custom cut out box at the back of the machine to fill the gap and the machine is sitting on some rulers to get just that little bit more height to make it right. It has indeed been a feat just to get it all right but it’s working for me now. :)

    Patti Pocock on
  • Great advice Anitja. Just doing some rearranging to my sewing room. Really do need to think things out before major changes. Was looking good but overlooked space for a Brother Dream Machine 2 . It’s sitting on the dining table and it’s not a problem, plenty of room for the two of us to eat. Might be a bit of a crush after we are allowed visitors. Looking forward to March. 🤪

    Kathleen Thompson on
  • Thanks for the tip about positioning the sewing machine to the same height as the craft table. Also, it warmed my heart to learn that I am not the only messy quilter on the block.
    Cheers Carol.

    carol lacey on

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