How to Work a Sewing Machine: Easy To Follow Beginners Guide

There’s a lot to get your head around when learning how to use a sewing machine, it’s not all needles and sewing! Before you begin any of your sewing projects, you need to get to grips with the hardware of your machine.

We’ve all been there – let’s face it. No one is born knowing how to use a sewing machine, and if you’re surrounded by people who are keen sewists it can seem intimidating to ask ‘guys – how do I use this?’

So if you’re wondering, “how do I use my first sewing machine?”..this post is for you! Let me show you all there is to know in how to work a sewing machine!

What is a sewing machine?

A sewing machine is an incredible piece of engineering and is a specific machine for functional or construction sewing.

A sewing machine stitches layers of fabric together with a needle which moves in an up down motion, which is typically powered by a foot pedal and motor.

Learning how to work a sewing machine requires some hardware knowledge, you need to know what you’re working with! Let’s dive a little deeper into a sewing unit and take a closer look at the anatomy of a sewing machine.

Anatomy of a sewing machine

Anatomy of a Sewing Machine
Anatomy of a Sewing Machine

Naturally each sewing machine model will have a specific construction method and machines will differ in features, but this goes through the main parts of the most common sewing machines so you know what your machine has as you learn how to use a sewing machine.

Power cord

Unless you are using a manually operated machine, your sewing machine will include a power cord and power cord plug usually on the right of the machine. Depending on where it was manufactured and bought will depend if it is a 3 or 4 prong plug powered at around 1-1.5amps.

Hand wheel

The hand wheel is one of the most important parts of a sewing machine. It is located on the right side of the machine and is usually the highest wheel if you have more than one dial.

It allows you to manually lift and lower the needle of the sewing machine.

The needle needs to be raised for threading, and then lowered when working with the fabric. You’ll then need to lift the needle again to remove the fabric and clean your machine.

Needle

You cannot hand or machine sew anything without a needle, which is screwed into the head of the sewing machine.

The needle is essential to pull the thread through the fabric, and needle size will depend on the fabric and thread you are using. Sewing machine needle sizes vary from 60/8 all the way to 110/18.

NOTE

You will need to use different needles depending on different fabrics. The smaller the numbers on the needle, the thicker fabric it has been designed for. The larger the numbers on the needle, the finer fabrics it will be used for.

Needle plate

Needle Plate
Needle Plate

A needle plate is made from metal and sits underneath the sewing machine’s needle and presser foot and features a hole that allows the needle to pass through it as it stitches. These often have measurements to help with ¼” and 1/2” sewing.

Foot pedal

The foot pedal is a separate function that needs to be plugged into a manual sewing machine. My foot pedal has a split cord where one end is plugged into the machine, and the other into a power supply.

It’s found on manual sewing machines, but might be absent on a computerized machine.

Speed Control

The pedal is the speed control, the harder you press the faster the needle will make stitches, and the softer you press the slower the needle will make stitches. It leaves you with your hands free to help guide the fabric.

Work slowly, moving up to a high speed. Jumping straight on to your sewing machine and sewing really fast is likely to cause an accident.

Feed dogs

The feed dogs sit in the metal plate, and have little teeth to help pull the fabric along as you are stitching. They help guide the fabric so you won’t have to pull it by yourself. The speed of the feed dogs are controlled by the foot pedal.

Presser foot

A presser foot is a genius invention, which keeps the fabric down and prevents it from slipping while sewing.

The foot keeps the fabric on top of the feed dog when the machine sews and are interchangeable, but most sewing projects use a walking foot for straight stitches.

Stitch selector

Usually found underneath the hand wheel is a dial also known as a stitch selector. Most modern sewing machines come with different decorative stitches, so this dial controls which stitch is employed.

You may also have a stitch length dial and stitch width dial on the machine. These will set the length and width of the stitches.

NOTE

My old little brother machine’s stitch selector only selects the stitch style e.g. zig zag or straight stitch. I have three dials at the top of my machine: a thread tension dial and stitch length and width dial.

Thread cutter

When you use a sewing machine, it may or may not have a thread cutter.

This is an accessory usually made from metal with a slant cut from it built into the machine where thread can be cut when pulled across it.

Some advanced sewing machines have an automatic thread cutter which will cut the thread when the needle is up and sewing has stopped. Other machines will be built with a thread cutting button.

YouTube video
Sewing Machine automatic Thread Cutter Function

Whilst it is common for your machine to have one thread cutter, some machines can be built with up to three!

NOTE

I rarely use my thread cutter built into my machine as I think it wastes too much thread over time to pull the threads through! I keep small sewing clippers on standby so I can cut as close to the fabric as possible.

Bobbin case

The bobbin case lives in the clear space which is underneath the plate of the needle. You can see or feel it whizzing around when the machine is in use, and requires a smaller spool of thread.

A bobbin spool is wound with thread and acts as the bottom thread when you are sewing. It lives in a bobbin case.

Most machines are front loading bobbins, but newer models have a top drop in bobbin. There is a tension disc in the bobbin housing which helps keep the thread from the bobbin taut.

Bobbin winder

When loading the bobbin it sits on a mini spool holder called the bobbin winder. When the bobbin is empty, remove it from the bobbin cover and attach it to the winder which is usually located on the top of your machine close by the spool pin.

Move it to the left until it clicks. Pull the desired thread from a thread spool up through the center to the top of the bobbin, hold tightly, then press the pedal with your foot and watch the magic happen!

Spool pin

The spool pin is a long narrow piece of plastic that is located on top of the sewing machine to hold the spool of thread you are using. Sometimes these can be horizontal and thread is held on with a spool cap.

Reverse stitch lever

Reverse Stitch Lever
Reverse Stitch Lever

Most machines will have a reverse stitch lever (or button on a new machine) that will backstitch. Usually this will need to be held down while these stitches are performed, to help backstitching when starting or finishing a stitch.

Bulb

There is a light bulb, situated in the head of the sewing machine next to the needle. This light normally flicks on and off with the power, and in the dark it will save your eyes from straining to see what you are doing underneath the needle.

Removable storage

Some sewing machines come with a removable storage unit that can be accessed by removing the flat bed attachment. These are really handy to store bobbins, mini screwdrivers and spare needles. Some storage units can be found in the top of the sewing machine close to the handle.

Handle

Most sewing machines will have a carry handle at the top so you can safely transport your machine around.

Thread path

On a lot of sewing machines there is a numbered thread guide that may be printed or engraved onto the machine. This helps the user guide the thread from the spool of thread into the needle on a specific path.

It’s important to pass through the numbered thread guide to prevent any mishaps during the sewing process.

Setting up the sewing machine

The first step before you use a sewing machine, is to read the machine’s manual to help familiarize yourself with all of the components and know how the machine works, especially if you have a new sewing machine. Make sure you have a sewing machine needle, thread and your foot pedal.

Insert the needle

The first step is to insert the needle. You’ll notice that unlike a hand sewing needle, sewing machine needles have two sides to its shank – one is flat and the other is curved. Make sure the flat side of your needle is pointing towards the back of your machine, with the point facing down.

You will need to find a small hole in the needle head of the arm, it will usually have a screw next to it for loosening and tightening.

Make sure the needle position is straight, and once you’ve inserted it tighten the screw as much as you can to hold it in place – this might be a little tricky, or even frustrating the first time you use a sewing machine.

TIP

You will need to use different needles depending on different fabrics. The smaller the numbers on the needle, the thicker fabric it has been designed for. The larger the numbers on the needle, the finer fabrics it will be used for.

Attach the presser foot

Presser Foot
Presser Foot

The foot will be a metal or sometimes plastic piece that is attached to the head of the sewing machine close to the needle. It almost hugs the needle when the foot is lowered.

Your presser foot will either be a snap on, or attached with a screw. My machine is a snap on, so for this, I place a snap on the presser foot under the shank, aligning this carefully.

Then I lower down the presser foot lever and the presser foot snaps onto the shank automatically.

Screw

If your machine is built with a screw on the presser foot it would be a similar process, but there will be a screw on the machine that will be loosened and then tightened when the presser foot and machine are aligned.

Thread the machine

This honestly took me about 100 tries before I felt like I nailed it, but don’t worry with time and by following the thread path carefully you will be able to do it blindfolded! On a new machine you may have an automatic threader to help you start sewing more quickly!

Bobbin thread

Place the thread of choice for the bobbin on the spool pin and an empty bobbin on the bobbin winder, secure it by moving it to the right until you hear a click.

Pull the thread from the spool and follow it around the thread guide, making sure it is wrapped around a tension disc.

Place the thread up through the center of the bobbin and pull it through until you have a few inches.

Firmly hold the thread tail and press on to the pedal with your foot until the bobbin thread is equally dispersed. Then cut the threads, remove the bobbin and insert it into the bobbin holding!

Here’s a video to give you an idea…

YouTube video
How to Load a Bobbin | Sewing Machine

Top thread

Each machine will have slightly a different thread feed but generally:

  1. Place the thread spool on the spindle at the top of the machine.
  2. Drag the thread through the thread guide and pull it around the tension knob, then bring it up through the second guide and insert the thread on the eyelet lever (this is a bar that moves back and forth with a small hook at the end).
  3. Pull the thread down and follow the thread path through the thread, take up lever, and lastly thread the needle. You can make a small loop and double up to help with this, or your machine may have an automatic needle threader.
  4. Pull gently so that the thread comes through the back of the needle.

NOTE

A take up lever supplies thread thread from the spool to feed it through the machine and lifts the thread back up out of the cloth after a stitch has been made. Simply put, it’s the part that goes “up and down” as you sew.

Now move the wheel up and down until the bobbin thread is brought up through the plate with the threaded needle. Pull these two threads together to the left, giving yourself around 3 or so inches. (We do this so that thread doesn’t get tangled at the back of our fabric during sewing).

Plug in and switch on your machine if you haven’t done so already.

Stitch settings

When you use a sewing machine, you need to adjust the stitch length and desired width and stitch type using the dials or touch screen on your machine. If you are using a computerized sewing machine, you might just start with a default stitch pre-programmed.

The stitch length control will usually indicate what a stitch is in mm, so if you turn the stitch length to 2, it will mean your stitch will be 2mm in length.

Stitch Width

The stitch width will set the swing of the needle from side to side when sewing zigzag stitch or other stitches. It won’t affect a straight stitch as it will always create a straight stitching line. This is important to master when sewing seams.

Thread tension

When we use a sewing machine, we talk about thread tension, which refers to the amount of thread that can pass through the machine in each stitch.

The more thread in a stitch the looser the stitch, the less thread the stitch would be tighter, so if you are sewing on thicker fabrics the higher the thread tension settings will need to be.

How to use a sewing machine

Using a Sewing Machine
Using a Sewing Machine

Ok, so you’ve got the basics here, and you’re threaded the machine.

Once you are happy with your stitch and tension, get yourself some scrap fabric for your first few stitches!

Place the fabric under the needle, lower the foot and lower the needle into the fabric using the wheel dial on the side of the sewing machine. You can finally use your sewing machine and start sewing!

Put a little amount of pressure on the pedal and hey presto – look at you go!

Finishing

When beginning and finishing a stitch, backstitch by holding the reverse button for a few stitches to secure the thread and prevent unraveling.

When you have finished sewing, remove your foot from the pedal and raise the needle. Lift the presser foot, and guide the fabric out gently to the left of your sewing machine.

Cutting the thread

You can either use your thread cutter built into your sewing machine, or you may use some sewing scissors to trim away the thread!

You can lower the needle back into the needle plate and power off the machine.

Congratulations, you now know how to use a sewing machine!

NOTE

When I first started to use a sewing machine, I found I could easily feel out of control with the speed. Remember to work slowly and carefully, you are in complete control of the speed!

Conclusion

Be patient when you are learning to use a sewing machine. Make sure that you follow the sewing machine guide and install everything correctly which will really help make the machine running smoothly.

The instruction manual is your best friend on your sewing journey.

I promise it’s worth spending time getting to know your sewing machine parts and understand how your sewing machine works down to the ground! When you begin sewing, sewing machine work really steps up the game from hand sewing patterns.

If you know anyone who wants to learn how to work a sewing machine, could you share this with them?! I love to help new sewists learn how to use a sewing machine!

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Kris Daub
Kris Daub
[email protected] byCurated I'm a maker at heart! I love to create and tech others to create. I particularly sewing and hand crafts like ebroidery. I also love larger home decorating projects. ✂️ ?