Are sewing machines designed for the left handed?

Posted by Kathleen Fasanella on May 6, 2013 at 10:46 am / Sewing / Trackback

right_hand_sewing_machineI had no idea that sewing machines favor left-handed people. Did you? Quite a few people do, I guess I was late to the party.  One explanation is that the inventors of the modern sewing machine, namely Elias Howe and Isaac Singer, were both left handed but this is disputed by Rex Pulker*, inventor of a right handed sewing machine. His explanation is a bit difficult for me to follow (a matter of writing style?) but the claims that machines were originally optimized for right handers -there was a crank on the wheel on the right side- but once technology improved and the crank was no longer needed, machine design did not follow suit and reverse the buttons and what not to lie to the left.

To be sure, modern day home machines have evolved to be more right-hander friendly. Many have a front loading bobbin, the needle is threaded front to back, and the foot lifter is often on the right side. But it is with industrial machines that I have doubts with the idea that machines were originally designed for right handers but failed to evolve. With industrial machines, bobbins nearly always load from the left, needles must be threaded from the left,  foot changes only unscrew from the left, and lastly, the default pedal installation is left of the needle, so minimally, one could think there is some ambiguity. Then again, it is possible that this design is another case of form following function with the conclusion being that left handers should find industrial machines easier to use than most other handed technologies.

Does it really matter these days? For industrial machine operators, I’d say it wouldn’t because we’re accustomed to it. However, being more aware about handedness explains some problems I’ve had in training people to sew on industrials.

Typically, someone who has only sewn on a home machine will position themselves to the right of the needle path -I could never figure that out, I have to direct them to sit directly in front of the needle (I sit to the left of it). Handling of the materials is another, larger problem. For the most part, neophytes only use their left hand as a clamp of sorts, to hold down the material, directing the material in the seam path with their right hand so the work never feeds neatly without unnecessary attention paid to the task. With industrial machines,  dexterity of the left hand is very important because it should lead in feeding the materials and lining pieces together. It’s an interesting problem to consider if you’re gravitating to an industrial or training new users on them. Do you have any ideas or tips as to training?

*Rex Pulker is also left handed.

30 Responses to “Are sewing machines designed for the left handed?”

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Jessica M.
May 6th, 2013
11:31 AM

Interesting. I’ve always thought sewing was great for building ambidexterity, as you really need to be comfortable using both hands in a number of different ways.

charlie merrow
May 6th, 2013
12:18 PM

I too am left handed, and I consider designing new sewing machines that favor our small fraternity, to something of a ancient mandate :)

Kathleen
May 6th, 2013
12:27 PM

Charlie: Mandate or conspiracy? :)

I would find it awkward to sew on a right handed machine. I have enough trouble habituating to the straight on (presumably ambidextrous) machines.

charlie merrow
May 6th, 2013
12:42 PM

We occasionally make a ‘right-ended’ machine for industrial processes that require simultaneous edging on bolts of material. I can say without any qualification, that these machines are not easier to sew on.

And at Merrow, after a quick company vote: Conspiracy.

Theresa in Tucson
May 6th, 2013
1:09 PM

Interesting premise, but I’m far too old to relearn how to sew on a right hand machine.

Doris Waldschmidt
May 6th, 2013
1:48 PM

Interesting topic, and worthy of debate. I like having the controls to the right of the needle because I am right-handed. I don’t think I could adapt to the machine posted above, but surely I could if I had to.

A left-handed friend of mine hates the home sewing machines that have a presser-foot lift mechanism to the right of the needle, under the harp. She was thrilled to find a machine with a presser foot lifter directly behind that part of the head.

I think a lot of people sit to the right of the needle because that is what they’re used to, after sitting at a home sewing machine cabinet (the type where machine can fold away) that centers the machine and not the needle. It was a real problem in my case, as I tended to lean left when trying to center my eyes in front of the needle, thus causing low back pain. Once I got a new machine and modern “Horn” style cabinet, I could move the machine to the right in that hole and sit correctly.

Callum Lamb
May 6th, 2013
2:19 PM

If you watch the video in the ‘home’ section of Rex’ site, you’ll see he addresses mostly secondary issues. Threading, needle change, cleaning, etc. are much less important than material handling. If he is a mechanic, Rex may spend a disproportionate amount of time on those tasks.

Kathleen had the wisdom to address the dominant task, material handling. I’m not sure I agree that the current arrangement favors the left-handed, but will need to give it more thought. I do agree that it is natural to sit to the left of the needle, so that one’s right hand is aligned with the edge of the goods being sewn. Typically, there are two layers and I guide one with each hand, so both are important!

Regarding the issues Rex addresses my take is:

– Threading. Thread path is right-to-left. This is the direction a thread end points when held in the natural way with your right hand. Not that it matters, since re-threading is only required when the thread breaks, which you should arrange to happen as little as possible.

– Presser foot lift. On domestic machines it never struck me as difficult to lift the presser foot with my left hand (although some newer ones have you reach under the arm with the right hand, which I find awkward). Morover, hand-operated presser foot lift if so vastly inferior to knee or foot pedal lift that I don’t think it worth considering.

– Cleaning. I don’t see anything asymmetric about what he’s doing in that part of the video.

Furthermore, he ignores the following function that which may actually used during sewing, and are all operated with the right hand:

1) Reverse.
2) Changing stitch length.
3) Adjusting thread tension.
4) Cutting thread (while the left hand pulls the work away from the machine head).
5) Computer controlls, which need to be mounted somwhere, most naturally on the body of the machine, rather than in the way of the goods.

The only things I see as being truly left-hand preferred are putting in/taking out the bobbin case, changing the presser foot, and threading the needle (on industrial single needle—this is completely symmetric on domestics). However, these are all low-dexterity and low-strength operations. It took me fewer than 10 tries to become proficient at changing the bobbin on a single needle, which time is completely dwarfed by the learning time for sewing a curved seam.

Arguably, it was the old machines that were backwards: material handling requires more dexterity than cranking the hand wheel. Strength can easily be acquired, whereas centuries of schoolteachers’ efforts have shown that dexterity is less easy to force on the off-hand.

Kathleen
May 6th, 2013
2:36 PM

Callum: Thank you so much, definitely something to think about. I appreciate the effort you made in writing your comment.

Doris: Interesting, I hadn’t thought of habits being formed due to the machine table design.

Charlie: No thread for you!

Callum Lamb
May 6th, 2013
3:07 PM

Thanks, Kathleen. I’m all about trying to optimize machinery and methods, but Rex’s video struck me as irritatingly misleading! And in such situations, it can be hard for me to not write that much.

Doris: I’ve never used a machine in a cabinet, but I can certainly believe what you’re saying. The waste chute on my overlock makes me sit at a less-than-ideal angle, and I imagine I would sit the same way at a different machine unless I made an effort to correct myself.

Charlie: I once saw pictures of a right-ended overlock (Pegasus) for sale, and found it disturbing to look at, though it took me a minute to realize what was wrong!

Another thought: It should be relatively inexpensive for a domestic machine company to make a backward machine: mirror image all the CAD files, and have everything that changes milled out of nylon. And many things (drive shafts, gears, presser and needle bars, must be symmetric to begin wtih). I’m no expert, but would be surprised if it couldn’t be done for less than $10k. I would be interested know which machine new stitchers find easier to learn.

Diane
May 7th, 2013
4:45 AM

I’ve thought a lot about machines favoring lefties. I was forced to be right handed as a child, but can only do some things left handed (opening combination locks for one). I’ll not sure how I arrange myself in fromt of the machine, I’ll have to sit down and see. I think I could sew on the ‘right handed’ machine, because I’m used to switching the sides of my brain (but I don’t want to). I teach kids and quite a few of them start out trying to put the material on the right of the needle and need to be shown how to keep the bulk to the left.

Zabelle
May 7th, 2013
5:44 AM

I have though sewing to left handed and right handed kids and adults. I didn’t see a difference in there comprehensions of the machine. I find that it is a waist of time. My students that have seen someone sew have a better understanding of the machine. I don’t see why we would need a machine to be for right or left handed person, handling fabric and learning how to sew needs practice like anything else and sewing uses both hands. I understand the foot lever being on the right side being a problem for lefties thought.

Mary Honas
May 7th, 2013
6:35 AM

As a lefty who teaches, often my students will struggle to change feet or needles while I have no problem since the screw is on the left.

Considering all the other things that lefties have to switch, my students agree that dealing with a sewing machine where the righties have to “switch” helps them to have a little of empathy for the left-handed person’s every day issues.

Jen Rocket
May 7th, 2013
7:20 AM

This is a cool invention. I have never had trouble with the orientation of a machine but I am a lefty gone ambidextrous anyway.
I agree that sewing requires equal dexterity from both hands.
On a side note I often switch hands even when hand sewing as needed from fatigue or whatever angle is suited to the purpose-I sew crazy things sometimes :)

Taja
May 7th, 2013
10:05 AM

Hmmmm… Interesting! I never thought of a sewing machine being right- or left-handed. They just are! I’m not ambidextrous, but I do some things left-handed and other things right-handed. I think that is a function of who taught me to do what–my father was left-handed and my mother was right-handed. I never gave it a thought until people began pointing it out a few years ago! *LOL*

In terms of material handling, I always remind new stitchers that if they have two hands–use both of them!

Judy Gross
May 7th, 2013
2:16 PM

“Most” home machines are not placed in a flat bed table, so people tend to center themselves on the machine rather then the needle – I teach 4-H kids and I’m constantly moving the machine (or the student) to center them correctly on the needle. Also, being that the home machines are often sitting on top of a table, with a teeny tiny little ‘flat’ surface area by the needle it does make handling fabric much more difficult when it’s draping up and down the bed of the machine. Teaching the kids how to handle the fabric and guide it so that it flows straight is the hardest thing to do. When I’ve had them on my machines in a flat bed table, they seem to do so much better.

This topic just came up at work since I recently hired a left handed stitcher. It’s interesting to watch how she handles tasks differently – when she has to wind a bobbin (on the right side of the machine) she has to twist all the way over to use her left hand. I just have to lean a tiny bit and use my right hand.

Frances
May 11th, 2013
7:24 PM

I’m a home sewer and right-handed. My machine, an old Elna, has the foot lifter at the back and I find that quite comfortable to use and I would think that it would be equally comfortable for a left-hander. My bobbin case is directly behind the needle and the bobbin drops in from the top but the slot that guides the thread is on the right which would certainly favour the right hand. My presser feet unscrew on the left and I do it left-handed without trouble. The reversing lever is on the right. As for winding the bobbin, I place it on the spindle with my right hand but I guide the thread through the top opening with my left. I can’t imagine why the left-handed person mentioned above doesn’t train herself to use her right hand to place the bobbin; it’s not as if it takes great dexterity.

All things considered, I don’t think that sewing machines favour the left-handed.

Mary
May 11th, 2013
9:42 PM

I’m very left-handed, and have sewn on a lot of different machines, and have taught lots of people, left and right, and find very little difference. Controls are on the right, which can cause some awkward reaching. Foot lever on the back is preferable, of course, because it is ridiculously awkward to the inside. Bobbin winders on the right are no problem.

Where I find problems is in using some of the special feet. Rolled hemmers are close to impossible for me to operate. The right hand controls the roll and by myself, I have never been able to fully regulate it. When I had to use one on a job, I was able to get acceptable results on a heavier fabric, though not that I was happy about, after I was shown how to operate it by another operator. But on dresses, unacceptable, especially as a hem works its way between straight grain and bias.

The hardest to operate was a cornelli/bonaz machine with the right hand crank under the cabinet to drive the hook and walking foot, but, as was mentioned before, that was mostly strength and endurance with my weaker arm, and lots and lots of practice!

Emily O'Brien
May 14th, 2013
2:20 PM

I’m not quite ambidextrous, but I do a lot of things with either hand depending on which is more convenient. It never occurred to me to consider whether a sewing machine was biased for one hand or the other, and a lot of things I might often do with either hand. But I’ve always thought it would be nice if I had a mirror image machine or if I could reverse it and hop around to the other side of it so that I could do the same operation on two sides of something from the same direction with the same piece on top. It matters less with an industrial machine that has more room under the arm, but when I used to use just my old home machine, I often wished I could just turn it around and do the same thing from the other side. Partly because it would be convenient on something that’s bulky, but partly just because it appeals to my sense of symmetry.

Natasha E
May 16th, 2013
3:49 PM

It never occured to me that a sewing machine was left handed though that may mean that I actually am left handed which is possible since both of my parents are. Not sure if left handedness is inheritable or not.

Sarah S
May 16th, 2013
10:31 PM

I actually find it vaguely stressful to look at the picture of the right handed machine and try to imagine operating it. The muscles in my right shoulder and neck all went tense! Thank goodness I’m a lefty!

nowak
May 17th, 2013
2:58 PM

I couldn’t stop thinking about sitting in front of the needle or not… so I’ve tried to observe myself and found that I am sitting in front of the needle. Where else? That’s the way I was taught to do by my grandmother and also in my eyes the only sensible way to do if you want to sew straight.

Then I checked some photos from former sewing meetings. There are not too many with people acutally sewing, but they are all also in front of the needle.

Which, I think, favors Doris idea of the sewing cabinets. We either never had that kind of sewing cabinets or they got out of fashion in the 1960s or so. So my generation never used them.

(I use my left hand to load the bobbin from front, to change the foot (which doesn’t have a screw, but a lever at the back) and also to lift the foot (lever also at the back). If I am not using the knee lifter system. The right hand for the controls like stitch choice, stitch lenght, width,…. And usually I am doing both things at the same time… one task for the left, one for the right hand.)

Brian Thomas
June 4th, 2013
3:26 PM

I have just had a very interesting read of the comments regarding this topic. I am right handed, aa sewing machine mechanic and in reflection I did have to learn to use my left hand very early in my career (40 years ago now & I am still passionate) I found many tasks difficult until I became competent with this. Now I do advise young people starting out in sewing that it will be much easier if they can learn to do the same. My partner is a Sewing Educator and when asked she did make the same comments, she does sit her students in front of the needle which would seem to be a must from an ergonomic point of view. The time is right to try a ‘right handed’ machine and I wait with interest to see which company will lead the way for our young up and comers in sewing to have this logical, next step, choice.

Rex Pulker
June 9th, 2013
3:06 AM

Dear Kathleen, Thank you for your recent positive comments (May6th) regarding our proposal to introduce a choice of configurations for the domestic sewing machine.

I would like to emphasise at the outset, that this change is primarily for the benefit of household machine users only, and of course, the new generation entrants into the sewing fraternity : new students and starters who have not had to learn to adapt to the existing design. Our target market is for the right-handed neophyte who ergonomically need to place the working area in front of their dominant hand to avoid the continual crossing over to the left in order to carry out sewing tasks that currently favour the ‘Lefty”

Sarah.S is typical of any of us left handers if faced with the prospect of having to use the configuration we propose. We would have to move to the right of the machine (centre the body in front of the needle), Set up,remove, control, guide,cut,pin, fold the fabric, all with the right hand.

The set up, threading,bobbing case,feet,cleaning, oiling and all other functions demanding dexterity,would have to be carried out more easily with the RIGHT HAND !

Being lefties accustomed to adapting to the right handed world, we would manage. However, having a choice for both left and right handers, has to be a reasonable preferred option. This proposal ironically, is for the benefit of the majority of users who happen to be RIGHT-HANDED.

Thousands of global comments from sewing teachers in the home economics area along with feedback from the private sector, state that students experiencing the awkwardness faced with the initial set-up and use of the machine, is enough to deter further involvement with sewing.

Callum quite rightly mentions that the main game, is the actual sewing process and the fabric handling. However, for the right handed starter, the fabric is placed to the left of the needle and therefore, guiding, folding ,cutting and control is more easily carried out with the Left hand !

Controls that involve reverse,stitch-length, other functions generally could be operated with either hand regardless of the machine’s bias as no dexterity is needed.

As Australia’s largest independent retailer/marketer of domestic sewing for over 20years, I , along with several other market leaders (combined 200years) can suggest confidently that having a choice of configurations to suit both LEFT and RIGHT- handers, would be a distributor’s dream. To cater ergonomically , for 100% first time users, rather than 10%, would have to create an enormous uptake in the use of future household machines.

Thank you Kathleen and all of your contributors to your site, for some very positive input.

For the Moment, happy sewing and “LETS GET IT RIGHT”
Kind regards.
Rex Pulker

Glen
June 19th, 2013
10:21 PM

Why is it that it seems right handed people think its too hard if they have to do a little with their left hand. And left handed people are just meant to adapt

Glen
June 19th, 2013
10:29 PM

I feel the machines we use at home now are for righties. All the buttons and dials are on the right power switches the lot. We hold and guide with the right the left hand limply sits on the bulk of the fabric helping it to stay out of the way……just sew and have fun

rama narayanan
June 24th, 2013
8:06 AM

Has anyone created a vertical sewing machine? Something like the button machines only the clearance and the elbow space is wider. I never really understood why now one has worked on this? it would make sewing ergonomically an easier operation.

Steven Layt
July 5th, 2013
9:12 PM

I am a designer and have worked in the clothing indusry in Australia for over 40 years. Having taught people to sew, both left and right handers, I have noticed that some tasks are difficult for some people learning to sew for the first time.
For the first time sewer a choice of left or right handed sewing machines to try would provide a choice that can only be an advantage as it would give the learner a chance to use a sewing machine that would suit their dexterity. Hope that the retail sewing industry and the distributors of domestic sewing machines embrace the reverse configuration sewing machine for left handers. I am right handed sewer and would luv to have a play with a machine that is the reverse of what I am using at the moment.

Tony Quayle
July 7th, 2013
1:56 AM

Having just read through the comments of your correspondents, I have come to the conclusion that most of them seem to be missing the point. Rex Pulker’s proposal to produce a reverse profile machine is not intended to convert experienced users. The proposal is to present a choice, primarily to new buyers. All you older lefties must remember having to use ‘normal’ scissors until left-handed ones were made. Did you notice the difference? In my experience of over 40 years training people to use sewing machines, it was always easier to teach lefties than righties. Callum Lamb tells us it took 10 shots to get the bobbin case in! A leftie gets it first or second shot. To all the retailers out there, how wonderful would it be to be able to sell the customer the machine that they find easiest to use be it left or right?

Callum Lamb
July 7th, 2013
8:59 AM

Mary: Interseting point about folders. Hadn’t given it much thought, but I’m sure it must be true that they often favor one handedness over the other. I’m right-handed, but found roll-hemmers difficult to use until I saw a pro doing it (at Advance Pleating in San Francisco). He actually used his left hand to guide the inside of the roll, while his right seemed more occupied with controlling the bulk of the fabric and providing tension.

Emily: Being able to use the machine from either side sounds awesome!

Rex: I’m happy to see you post here. Though I still don’t think material handling on standard machines favors the left-handed, I do think it would be worthwile to have the mirrored machine available. I would be very interested to see the difference for new users, as well as experienced ones. I wonder if you have any thoughts on Emily’s idea…seems especially well-suited to home machines, which could just be rotated on the table!

Tony: I had assumed the main difficulty in putting in the bobbing case was not being able to see it, but perhaps you are right: I may well have been able to do it in one go with my right. But I believe my point still stands: even with the off hand it’s only about takes about a minute of training to reach proficiency, and the difficulty of the sewing itself should be the first concern. Though overall, I’m with you: why not give people the choice. I think the new machine would be better for the left-handed, but there are lots of them about!

Kathy gUMPEL
November 14th, 2013
9:04 AM

Since my stroke[s], I only have use of my left hand. Is there a machine that does not require me to start by turning the wheel on the right, is self threadinh?

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