Knitting Comfortably: A Chair Is a Tool
Would you attempt to run a marathon wearing snowshoes? Of course not. You’d research shoes designed for long distance running, that perform well on the terrain of the course, that fit well and feel comfortable, and that provide your feet the support they need. For your safety and performance, you’d find the right tool for the job.
So, why is it that most knitters put little thought into selecting a chair to use for knitting? We tend to sit in a comfy chair designed for relaxing, not working. We probably use these chairs because knitting is usually a leisure activity and comfy chairs are for lounging. But—from the perspective of your body—knitting is work, and chairs designed for relaxation make working in them much harder thereby causing muscle fatigue, discomfort, and even soft tissue injuries.
A chair good for knitting—or any work—is one that:
- aligns you with gravity;
- provides even force distribution across the thighs and buttocks where weight bearing occurs;
- and allows your feet to be in contact with the floor to further decrease force and to provide stability.
Chairs that have reclined backs are so designed because that recumbent position relaxes us and makes us less alert. Knitters who aren’t alert are good at frogging.
Put it in Neutral
Ergonomics talks a lot about neutral postures; these postures feature joint angles that align you with gravity to reduce the need for additional muscle contraction, thus lessening the work of simply being in a position to perform the task of knitting. They provide the least strain on joints and soft tissue, and they allow for minimal obstruction to circulation and nerve conduction at both the gross and micro-anatomic levels. This is a huge benefit, because this disruption is a major cause of injury. When tissue isn’t well oxygenated due to compromised circulation it doesn’t perform well and it will fail sooner.
Not sure about this? Try doing two minutes of knee squats and then hold a knee squat for two minutes. Tell me which is more difficult. You can bet it’s the latter. Now let’s learn about these neutral postures and how to select a chair that will provide and support them.
Always start with a chair that will allow your feet to touch the floor. The reduction in the force on your thighs, buttocks, and lumbar discs this provides is significant. Choose a seat height that provides a 90-degree angle at the hip and knee (assessed with the ankle positioned under the knee). Another way to say this is that the knee joint should be slightly lower than the hip joint, and the pelvis needs to be tilted slightly forward.
The lower back needs to be supported to maintain a lumbar curve and to support the ribcage, but the backrest should not be higher than the bottom of your shoulder blade lest it obstruct your ability to sit tall, and to align your shoulders, back, and neck. Your shoulders should be at rest with elbows at your sides.
The ORANGE line shows the direction of gravity. The TEAL ANGLES show neutral hip and knee posture (90-degrees). The knitter uses a cushion on her lap to support the forearm so the shoulder muscles can relax and she can see her work in front of her.
A chair that encourages a recumbent position will require you to actively hold your arms in front of you while you work, causing shoulder fatigue and contributing to a static and sustained posture, adaptive muscle shortening, and postural changes. Those sore spots between your shoulder blades are related to holding your arms in front of you for long durations. Your elbows can be flexed to about 90-degrees, wrists slightly lower than elbows. This position reduces strain on your finger flexor tendons which are busy holding your needs, and your ulnar nerve (aka, funny-bone).
The ORANGE line again shows the direction of gravity. The TEAL ANGLE shows postures not aligned with gravity causing the need for active muscle contraction to be maintained. Extra work for the knitter’s body. Note the crossed leg which compromises circulation, and the lack of floor contact.
We like nerves to be stress free to avoid numbness, tingling and all sorts of other unpleasantness. If the ulnar nerve is upset you’ll likely feel discomfort at the elbow and numbness and tingling in your pinky and ring finger. Because of the vulnerability of this tissue, arm rests are verboten. When you’re knitting, your hands and forearms need unencumbered circulation to muscles and nerves, so use arm rests only to rest!
Different posture, but still problematic: the ORANGE line again shows the direction of gravity, and the TEAL ANGLE shows postures not aligned with gravity, causing the need for active muscle contraction to be maintained. Extra work for the knitter’s body. And again there is the lack of floor contact AS INDICATED IN PINK.
Finding a chair to fit this bill can be challenging especially if you’re looking for it in the living room section of your furniture store where you’re not likely to find one. The style of the day is low and soft—great for relaxing, but not conducive to supporting working postures. Mid-century modern furniture is more likely to meet the criteria because of its defined angles and minimal upholstery. If that’s not your style, office chairs offer what you need to attain these neutral postures because they are designed for working at a desk. Office managers don’t like sleepy workers who are going to get injured on the job.
Now this is not to say that you can never sit in a non-neutral posture, curl up on the couch, or chill out in your recliner to knit. But non-neutral postures shouldn’t be your default, most-of-the-time choices for knitting. Injury is related directly to our exposure to risk, so the more time you spend in these awkward postures working, the more likely you are to wear yourself out. Get up and stretch more often while you knit if you use this furniture. And if you have a known injury or trouble spot, you’re wise to stick to a neutral posture for most or all of your knitting time.
A physical therapist with over 30 years’ experience studying and treating musculoskeletal injuries, Carson has brought ergonomics to knitters around the world both in workshops and in his path-forging book Knitting Comfortably. Follow him here on Instagram.