Helful tools for sewers and crafters with chronic pain?
December 9, 2008 1:26 PM   Subscribe

My mother-in-law loves to sew and knit, but fibromyalgia is slowing her down. Can you recommend any tools or gadgets that might help her?

My mother-in-law has been suffering from fibromyalgia for quite some time. When she has a good day, the first thing she does is bust out her sewing machine. She also loves to knit. The trouble is, the repetitive motion involved in sewing and knitting is really hard on her body, and it exacerbates her symptoms. The day after a bout of crafting, she aches like she's run a marathon.

Can any of you crafting, stitching, and knitting gods and goddesses recommend some tools that might make her hobbies a little easier for her? For instance, are there especially gentle and well-designed scissors out there? Ergonomic knitting needles? Etc.?

I'm not much of a DIY-er myself: I have a bare beginner's understanding of sewing and no knowledge whatsoever about knitting, so I don't even really know how to look for this kind of thing.

Thanks so much for your help!
posted by palmcorder_yajna to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know of any ergonomic knitting needles, but perhaps getting her a knitting machine would help her make some garments without the same type of repetitive motion?
posted by gnat at 2:06 PM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Working with bigger needles might be easier for her to work with. You could get her some that are size 13 or larger with some bulky yarn. Depending on what she likes to knit, you might get her a copy of Big City Knits. It's full of patterns that use big stitches and knit up fast.
posted by i_love_squirrels at 2:07 PM on December 9, 2008

Best answer: I always find cutting things out to one of the most exhausting parts of sewing, especially when it comes to my back and hands. My father-in-law bought be a pair of these electric scissors a few years ago and they have been one of my favorite tools ever since. I've used them on lots of fabrics, from cottons to heavy canvas and vinyl, but they are especially wonderful for the heavy stuff.

They are even fantastic for breaking down big cardboard boxes that would take ages to flatten. I especially like the speed; it's like having a mini buzz-saw in your hand.

They won't completely replace a good pair of sewing scissors, but they are better for me than rotary cutters.
posted by Alison at 2:14 PM on December 9, 2008

2nding the big needles. You can get her some size 50 needles (they're akin to turkey basters, seriously) and get her stitchin' up some afghans, which do well with larger needle sizes. They're called Lion Brand Speed Stix and can be purchased at Michael's, AC Moore, and via the Lion Brand site.


(Although I don't have fibromyalgia, in my experience, the larger needles don't cause the wrist pain the smaller ones sometimes do for me.)

As a side note, the Lion site has some decent afghan patterns, but IMHO their yarn *sucks*. So swipe the patterns but use different yarn. I digress.
posted by December at 2:18 PM on December 9, 2008

For knitting I'd recommend smaller projects on shorter wooden needles. They're warmer to the touch and more flexible than metal. Shorter needles and smaller projects are the key. When I first started knitting I'd get the longest needles possible because that's what knitting looked like to me in the cartoons... now I realize that they're such a hassle to work with. They're difficult to maneuver, get tangled in things, are just not worth the effort.

I actually think jumbo needles are worse. I'm in my mid 20's and knitting anything on jumbo size straight needles gets me sore after a few hours of work. Bigger needles make bigger, bulkier things that pull down on the needles and then your hands and arms and shoulders and back. It can be quite a workout trying to move something so large and clumsy into a tiny little stitch.

Circular needles can be a blessing too if she'd like to knit larger things. The cable keeps the majority of the weight in the center (on the cable) and not on the needles (and therefore not on your upper body)... and the actual needle itself is really short and fits nicely in the palm of your hand.

I'd say anything between a US 9 and 15 are good sizes in about a 10 inch needle.
posted by simplethings at 2:41 PM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

A knitting machine may be a good choice. If she likes to make socks, they have sock machines that are smaller than a big knitting machine. Knitting machines can be a bit of an investment, and do require a sometimes lengthy set-up, so they're best if there's someone in the house that she could instruct in the set-up so she doesn't have to use her own hands.
posted by fructose at 2:44 PM on December 9, 2008

Best answer: If she ever does any kind of hand sewing spiral eye needles are great because they're so easy to thread (if you feel bad and your fingers are stiff it can be incredibly hard to thread a needle).
posted by hydropsyche at 3:22 PM on December 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Um, I'd caution against getting her a knitting machine before having her test-drive one. Many reasons:

1. Machine knitting is not like hand knitting at all, and you don't get the same soothing feeling of crafty hands at work.

2. It's not portable, and many people like to knit while commuting, waiting for appointments, etc.

3. The learning curve is steep and frustrating for anything beyond simple stockinette. You need to think more like an engineer than a crafter. Previous hand-knitting experience doesn't really help.

4. A given machine usually can handle only a fairly narrow range of yarn thickness, so you need 2 or 3 machines to accommodate all the types of yarn a hand knitter might have. (The super-bulky yarns that are popular now won't run at all in any machine that I know of.) Many skeined yarns have to be rewound onto cones so they'll feed smoothly into the machine, which eats yarn at an enormous rate. (Of course, you can get coned yarns especially for machines, but probably not at her favorite yarn store.)

5. They're expensive, rather delicate, easily borked, and dealers/repair shops are few and far between.

6. Unless you get a motorized machine (more expensive and prone to borkage), you have to pull the carriage by hand. This can be hard on hands and wrists, both from stress and vibration.

7. Fancy knitting (cables, lace, intarsia, etc) is slow and fiddly on all but the most expensive machines. It's often hard to see when you've made a mistake, and a pain in the butt to correct it.

8. Mistakes happen fast on a machine - you can drop the entire piece on the floor in a moment's inattention. No daydreaming allowed, and kids and pets are just trouble waiting to happen.

9. The results look, well, industrial. You can get a very smooth, polished look but a lot of crafters don't want something that looks like it came from a factory. The quintessential "handmade" stitch, garter stitch, is a complete nightmare on most machines, ironically. It also takes a bit of thinking to translate a hand-knitting pattern to "machine language", and some construction methods, like knitting in the round, just don't work.

Knitting machines are great for gearheads who love intricate machinery, and for production knitters or anybody else who wants to crank out lots and lots of knitted items. But they're not really "crafty" and many hand knitters who buy machines find they don't enjoy them at all. This has one advantage - a good supply of used machines for sale. (There's always used machines on eBay but I don't recommend that route - they're heavy yet fragile and easily damaged in shipping. Try to get something local on craigslist or from a dealer if you can.)

Definitely have your MIL try a few machines before buying one, since there's a good chance she might find machine knitting is not her cup of tea. If she decides she likes it, try to find a support group in your area, like a machine knitting guild. A few community colleges offer classes in machine knitting in their fashion departments, so that would be a good place to look. If you buy from a dealer, they can also give lessons. I don't mean to scare you unconditionally, but definitely try before you buy.
posted by Quietgal at 3:40 PM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I got a Knitting thimble when my arthritis started to bother me. It keeps the yarn in place and at the right tension without having to bend my fingers as much. Depending on how her hands feel, she may like these therapeutic gloves as well.
posted by saffry at 4:16 PM on December 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Bamboo needles are more flexible than metal or plastic, and might be more comfortable for her. I don't know much about fibromyalgia, but I recommend them to people with arthritis (I work at a yarn shop).

If she crochets, there are crochet hooks with bigger handles, most commonly in the smallest sizes (1.5 - 3 mm). Brittany Birch crochet hooks also have bigger handles on all sizes, they might be more comfortable.

I hope you / she can find a way to keep crafting, I know how comforting it can be! I would also advise against a knitting machine; it's just not the same.
posted by OLechat at 5:03 PM on December 9, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks a lot, guys!

Those Black & Decker power scissors are exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to hear about. I'm also really digging on the idea of bamboo knitting needles.

RE: the knitting machine-- that sounds like a great idea for some people, but I doubt my MIL would be into it. Most likely, it would make its way out to my FIL's shop, where he would use it to make engine-block cozies out of Kevlar yarn. (Which wouldn't be a bad thing,necessarily, but it's not really a solution to the problem at hand.)
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 8:04 PM on December 9, 2008

Another way to look at it- look at hand care. If massaging her hands helps them feel better... get her a gift cert for a manicure, with paraffin treatment.

I don't know if fibro symptoms differ from normal RSI, but I remember paraffin manicures as a nice way to make my hands feel better when tendinitis flared up in college.

would hand strengthening exercises, with squeezing putty or stress-balls help? or tai chi? (I've heard tai chi and the like is good for fibro symptoms)
Again, this may not be where you want to go with your MIL, just thinking out loud about the hands.
posted by SaharaRose at 9:17 PM on December 9, 2008

Make sure the places she sits when she knits/sews are comfortable and supportive, as well; this can make a big difference in how she'll feel after a session.
posted by jtron at 9:37 PM on December 9, 2008

I saw this knitting aid advertised in a British knitting magazine--I've never tried it myself, but it looks like something worth checking out.

You're very thoughtful to try to find ways to help her continue her hobbies--I know I'd feel pretty sad if pain were keeping me from knitting.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:03 PM on December 9, 2008

Knifty Knitter Looms might be a change of pace. They're sort of the bastard child of knitting and crochet.

There's a limit to how much you can vary the stitch, but I find them more comfortable than needles over long periods.
posted by the latin mouse at 7:37 AM on December 10, 2008

If she's cutting a lot of stuff out, she might actually prefer a Rotary cutting system rather than scissors. OLFA is the name of names in rotary cutting.

They're often used by quilters, but I *love* mine for cutting out regular sewing patterns. I find it much easier and much neater than using scissors.

You do have to get a very giant self-healing cutting mat for doing fashion cutting, but those are available (or get 2 not quite so giant ones, but one giant one is better) if somewhat expensive.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:00 AM on December 10, 2008

Some more on Rotary cutting, since I see Google gets you a lot of sales results and not a lot of information.

Olfa's main page for home sewers.

My recommendation would be for a Deluxe Ergonomic 45mm rotary cutter. 45mm blades are sort of the standard, mid-size blade. She could get a smaller one which is better for finicky details but would take longer to do all the cutting in general. A larger one would probably not offer the control I'd prefer for the curves on a fashion pattern. I'm suggesting the ergonomic one simply because it's safer and easier to hold.

Rotary cutter replacement blades don't come cheap, so you might want to buy her a few, or get her a sharpener, so she can bring her old ones back to life.

For mats, they get more expensive as they get larger. For fashion sewing, I'd recommend OLFA's largest size, 35x70 -- though, it's really 3 mats joined together. Two of their 24x36 mats is what my mother has, and that works, as well, though without the proper clips, not ideally. I have a 30x60 mat that's all one piece from Unique Notions, that's just about perfect, but I've not been able to google up a link, and I'm not sure they're still available.

This is one of the less expensive sites I've found for cutting mats, but I can't tell you anything more about them than that the prices look okay based on size. I'm not familiar with the brands or the site itself.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:17 AM on December 10, 2008

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