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Quilting with a Disability

Sandra Hatch

Quilting With a Disability


Virginia writes: "I didn't have a need for someone to cut quilt pieces, but I did have a need for speed in cutting. I invited a small group to participate in making 32" x 36" lap quilts for charitable purposes. At this gathering, we have pressers, cutters and ladies to coordinate colors. I bring the cut squares home and complete the quilts except for tying the layers together. The other ladies do that part and then the quilts are given to needy people.

"Since July 2005 we have cut, pieced and tied 143 of these lap quilts. This works for us, so maybe it would work for Arlene as well."

Naoma shares: "In response to Arlene's quest for help, I have had aggressive lymphoma in my right armpit. I am now 'clear,' but it resulted in lymphedema in my right arm. I also have arthritis in my right hand. The solution to help with cutting fabric came in the form of a Christmas present from my son and daughter-in-law -- battery operated Black & Decker scissors. These zoom through material with little effort and certainly make the cutting process easier on my hand and arm. I am sure these would help Arlene, too."

Patty has another suggestion. "I was so touched by the woman who had edema from her surgery. I am a two-year survivor. I had surgery, and my right shoulder and arm hurt for the longest time. My arm and hand would swell. I tried all the things that people told me to try. My radiation technician told me that taking the omega-3 supplements (all of them) and garlic would help with the circulation. She also suggested walking my fingers up a wall to stretch my shoulder and arm gently. The exercise helped, but I think the nutrients helped me more than anything.

"I now cut, sew, do handwork, and when I get tired or achy, I just take a few minutes to reflect and ponder my projects and how very blessed I am to be able to do them again. I wish Arlene luck and love and the best of wishes from a sister in Breast Cancer Survivorship. You go girl!"

Jeannie shares Arlene's pain. "I have a rare neurological disease that causes me pain all the time. I have found the following things help me be able to maintain some of my independence. If you are determined to do this project by yourself, plan it for the first thing in the day, don't try to tackle it after a full day of activity; you will already be tired. Next, switch off tasks frequently. Cut a couple, then sew, then iron, then go onto something else. You may only be able to do a small amount at a time, but the point is you WILL be able to do it. Take breaks, have some coffee, or a snack, plan your next step and go from there. That will give your body time to recover from the recent activity. Finally, never give up! If it makes you happy, and it is something you love, set your mind to it and go for it."

Linda has some advice for Arlene. "When I broke my wrist, I couldn't use a rotary cutter or scissors. My hubby bought me electric scissors. They are great for cutting out almost anything. Hope this helps."

Jane also suggests using electric scissors. "Could the lady who now has trouble cutting use electric scissors? The good ones are expensive, but worth the price. I bought a fairly inexpensive unit, and it would cut only lightweight fabric. I was hoping to be able cut velvet, as this was quite tiring even with a rotary cutter. Most quilt fabric is not as heavy and with a power cutter one might be able to use the other hand."

L.M. writes: "This might be helpful to Arlene who has a problem using the rotary cutters. Try a Martelli ergonomic cutter. It is designed to take a lot less pressure for cutting. I just bought mine at the Nashville Quilt Show and love it! It is so easy to cut many layers of fabric at one time.

"Check out their Web site at and look for the ergonomic rotary cutter. Hope this helps."

Barbara shares: "My heart goes out to Arlene who wrote asking for ideas for cutting quilt squares. Congratulations to her on her recovery progress. I wonder if she knows some teenagers who wouldn't love to learn, and consequently cut and patch for her? I teach 12- and 13-year-old girls in church, and they are so eager to help and are such fast learners. Someone is just waiting to be asked to help."

Sandra has a simple suggestion. "I have very weak wrists, and just cannot get anything to square up. I order all my fabric precut off e-Bay. Look for a couple of sellers that will work in any size you need. Some of them will even find a special fabric you want and cut it to your specifications."

Pat has a unique suggestion. "Some of the die-cutting machines that card crafters and scrapbookers use can cut fabric. Sizzix is one brand of die cutter I am familiar with. Using their block and geometric dies, Arlene could cut blocks for quilts. It's a possibility that she can look into to see if it could work for her."

Annie has some medical advice. "Arlene should ask her surgeon or cancer doctor to refer her for lymphatic drainage by a specially trained massage therapist or physical therapist. This is not regular massage. It requires an additional month or more of training. The results are nothing short of a miracle. She can also be fitted for an arm-long, elastic-like sleeve very much like the special gloves for quilters with carpal tunnel. She can get relief and should not have to suffer. Good luck and keep on quilting!"

Diana had a similar problem. "Nine years ago I lost my right hand and most of my forearm in a car accident. I am a stubborn quilter and have been for 25 years (before the accident), so I could not give it up. I use clamps that my husband bought for me to use to hold the ruler down on the fabric and cutting mat. You can use two clamps, one on each end, to hold the ruler so you could cut with a rotary cutter and your other hand. I hope this helps."

Wanda shares from experience. "Though my issues with cutting are nearly as serious as Arlene's, I have had fibromyalgia for over 25 years now, and sometimes just getting out of bed is an issue if I have bad onset.

"In the past I have been a manager of a fabric store. We had four customers with different disabilities. All who worked in the store literally 'lived' for sewing. We talked about and developed great friendships with our customers. I put forth the suggestion that perhaps we could help out a couple of our customers who needed help by custom-cutting their fabric during slow times, or maybe taking it home and bringing it back the next day. It worked wonderfully for all involved. The customers got a little help when they felt the needed it, and we got the reward of being able to do something for someone else without a great deal of effort.

"Perhaps Arlene could check around at some of the local fabric stores or quilt shops. There is always a good Samaritan just around the corner -- we just need to look."

Mary has another idea. "Congratulations to Arlene on being cancer free!

"My suggestion for her is to buy quilt kits. There are many on e-Bay (search under 'quilt kits') and other sites. These are precut and ready to piece and sew. I've had really good luck with them and no disappointments. Many come from quilt shops. JoAnn's fabric stores also have a block of the month with two new designs every year. Pieces are precision-cut and come with excellent instructions. My first quilt was one of these."

Jo Ann writes: "Arlene can contact the American Massage Therapy Association toll-free at (877) 905-2700 or via their Web site at for information about where to find a massage therapist who works with people with lymphedema in her area. The therapists do wonderful work and can greatly reduce the swelling."

Kamala shares: "I must not have read about Arlene's disability problem with cutting, but I must say that I was very fortunate to be able to read the replies directed to her. My best friend is a C4 quadriplegic, but she just amazes me with the patchwork quilts that she makes. She has been doing this for probably 10 years, and like myself, is quite addicted.

"To this day, she says she cannot believe how many years she wasted reading books and watching TV because she thought that was all she was capable of doing. I'll be honest, like the rest of us, her first efforts were pretty 'naive' but today she makes beautiful quilts, some of them quite intricate. She gives most of them away as gifts.

"Let me elaborate on this for those who understand the amount of work that goes into bringing a quilt into fruition. My friend does not have the use of her legs, so therefore the 'foot' pedal goes on the table and is operated by her right hand, which then leaves just her left hand to hold her materials together and feed them under the foot.

"As you may realize, the break being so high, she also had limited use of her arms and hands, always having to use both hands to operate a pair of scissors. That was until just a couple of years ago when she was unfortunate enough to be involved in another car accident, which exacerbated the nerve damage to her arms. She now finds the cutting of her fabric bordering on the impossible.

"So now you can understand why I am so happy to have read those letters. My friend and I have never thought of electric or battery-operated scissors, and I cannot wait to ring her and tell her.

"Thank you to other respondents and may I also tell you how much of an inspiration my friend is to (able-bodied) me. How easy it is for us to take a simple thing like using a pair of scissors, for granted."

Carol talks about her blind friend. "I am helping a blind friend learn to quilt. While I'm an experienced seamstress and embroiderer, quilting is new to me, too. We have been working on developing our own method to help my friend accomplish this very rewarding pastime. I'm sure we've reinvented the wheel and would love to hear how other blind quilters accomplish their quilting.

"My friend will soon be quilting her first quilt top as soon as I get it sandwiched and back to her. She is working entirely by hand at this point. We would also like to hear from blind quilters who use a machine as my friend, Patty, is also interested in attempting to try that. Thanks in advance to everyone for their sharing and kindness."

Cora writes: "I'm in my 30s and have Parkinson's disease; my hands shake all the time. I enjoy everything from sewing to cross-stitching. I am wondering if any Quilt Connections readers know about anything that could help me to sew, such as, for example, a new type of device or tool." Jen writes: "I, too, have tremors that make intricate quilting difficult. Copious pinning helped initially, but I have grown tired of the tediousness, and I found myself sticking my own thumb more times than I want to admit. I have found paper piecing is still possible, and I can always enlarge the patterns.

"As far as quilting the top/bottom sandwich, I use a few of the new gripping tools available (disks and U-shaped) but have found the most success with the U-shaped grip aid. It tends to balance out the tremor of one hand with the tremor of the other. A relaxed hold on the U seems to translate less of the tremor to the stitches. I can no longer stitch a straight line by hand, so by default I machine quilt."

Rose shares: "Some of the newer sewing machines have a button on the front you can push to make the machine sew by itself. When you want to stop, you just push the button again. This would allow a paraplegic to use both hands when sewing. It takes a little while to get use to, but is worth it in the long run."

Sharry has a comment for the quilters with limited use of their legs for using the foot pedal on the machine: "I have arthritis in both of my legs, and find it painful to use the foot pedal. I found a sewing machine that has a manual button control. A BabyLock machine can be used without the foot pedal. After getting used to it, I learned to love the ability I now have to quilt and sew all day without pain! I only have to push the button once to go forward and again to stop and in the interim I can use two hands to control the fabric. There is a speed control as well. I hope this is helpful to others out there who need this."

Thanks to Sharry and Rose for telling others about the start and stop button. I have several models of sewing machines with this option. I don't take advantage of it myself, but I can see where it would certainly be a Godsend to stitchers who can't use their feet or legs.

Linda shares: "I am disabled, so it is hard to move around to the different areas needed when quilting, such as from table to ironing board, so I use my coffee table. I have a small portable ironing board that I put on one end of the table. I place my cutting board beside it. After everything is cut, I place my sewing machine on the cutting board so I can sew and iron at the same time. My coffee cup goes on the further end with the other small things. And, when I get tired, I can just turn and lie down until my strength comes back. It is compact, but it works for me.

"I put off finishing my son's quilt because of this problem with moving. Now, not only am I finishing that quilt, but I am making another one for my daughter at the same time. I store the pieces in a box under the coffee table and switch back and forth as I feel like it. It works for me, and that is all that counts."

You are right about that, Linda. What works for one person may not be the perfect method for another. But sharing the many different ways that quilters adjust to accommodate themselves and their environments to allow them to quilt might help another person adapt as well. Thanks for sharing information about your personal quilting space.

Andrea Carol writes: "My friend Patty, a budding quilter, is blind. To help her with hand quilting, I apply masking tape or painter's tape in the desired stitching pattern (for example, a grid). For machine piecing, we bought a magnetic seam-allowance guide which almost guarantees a consistent seam allowance."