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Design & Style

How to Use a Sewing Machine: A Guide to Sewing Machines

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Sep 21, 2020 • 6 min read

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Whether you’ve got plans to become an expert at quilting, or you just want to work through a few basic sewing patterns, sewing can be a fun and rewarding hobby—but learning how to use a sewing machine can seem daunting. Here are a couple things to know before you make your first stitch.

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What Is a Sewing Machine?

A sewing machine stitches fabric together using a needle and thread working together in an up-and-down motion. While early sewing machines were powered manually—usually with the operator spinning a wheel—modern sewing machines are powered by electricity, and operators press a foot pedal to determine the stitching speed.

What Are the 3 Types of Sewing Machines?

There are three main types of modern sewing machines, all of which are powered by electricity but differ in their other components:

  1. Manual sewing machines. The cheapest and simplest of the sewing machines, manual machines use knobs and levers to determine things like stitch lengths and widths.
  2. Electronic sewing machines. Electronic machines employ push buttons to determine things like stitch lengths and widths.
  3. Computerized sewing machines. Computerized machines are the most expensive and complex, and they have a touch-screen display to determine stitches. Computerized machines also have memory cards to allow you to save presets and download stitches and patterns.

11 Sewing Machine Parts and Their Functions

To learn how your sewing machine works, you’ll need to understand its parts. While every machine is a little different—especially depending on the type of machine you have—the basic components are the same and serve the same purpose across most models.

  1. Power switch and cord. All sewing machines will have an on/off switch and electrical cord, usually at the back of the machine, to supply electricity to the machine.
  2. Foot pedal. The foot pedal determines how fast your machine works—if you press it firmly, the needle will move quickly and you can stitch a line in a short amount of time; if you press it lightly, the needle will move more slowly and it will take you longer to stitch one line. The foot pedal attaches to your sewing machine with a cord.
  3. Needle. The needle is the key to your sewing machine—it’s the part that brings the top sewing thread through your piece of fabric. Most sewing machines can take a wide variety of needles that you can switch between.
  4. Spool pin. On the top of the machine is a pin or spindle, which serves as a spool holder and allows the spool to spin with the appropriate thread tension to feed the needle.
  5. Presser foot. The presser foot is a two-pronged metal piece that you lower down onto your fabric using a lever to hold the fabric in place.
  6. Bobbin case. Beneath the needle and presser foot is a bobbin case, a compartment where you place a small spool of thread called a bobbin. The bobbin is the source of the lower thread for your stitch—when the sewing machine needle pierces the fabric and brings the top thread down through it, a bobbin driver inserts the bottom thread into the stitch to lock it in place. Many bobbin cases will also have a bobbin winder, to help you wind thread onto empty bobbins.
  7. Needle position knob. When you need to manually determine how high or low your needle is (for instance, raising the needle when you want to take your fabric off), your machine will have a hand wheel or button that will do this.
  8. Reverse stitch button. When you press the foot pedal, your machine will stitch forward through your fabric. When you want to make a few stitches backward (for instance, when finishing the end of a line, in order to keep it from unraveling), your machine will have a button that changes the direction of your stitching.
  9. Stitch-type knob. Most sewing machines allow you to select from a number of different stitch types—from straight stitch to zig-zag stitch. Manual machines will do this with a knob; computerized machines will have a touch-screen display.
  10. Stitch-length knob. The stitch-length knob will determine how much space your needle will go before it pierces the fabric again—long stitches mean fewer holes, while short stitches mean more holes closer together. (On computerized machines, you can choose stitches through the computer display.)
  11. Stitch-width wheel. The stitch-width wheel will determine how wide on either side your needle will go when piercing the fabric—for straight stitches, this will be zero, but for zig-zag stitches can be increased to increase the width of each stitch. (On computerized machines, you can determine stitch width through the computer display.)
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How to Set up a Sewing Machine

While the initial set up of a sewing machine may seem overwhelming at first, don’t worry—after a few sewing projects, it’ll feel like second nature.

  1. Thread the machine. To start sewing, you’ll first need to thread your sewing machine, which involves pulling the thread from the spool through a few thread guides, take-up levers, or hooks until you finally pull it through the eye of the needle. Every machine will be slightly different, so check your instruction manual when threading for the first time. Most sewing machines will have little guides and diagrams printed onto the machine itself, so look for those if you get stuck. Don’t worry—after a few tries, you’ll get the hang of it.
  2. Load a wound bobbin. A bobbin is a second spool of thread for your machine that goes in a little compartment underneath your needle. Your machine will have an arrow showing which way the bobbin should be placed to unspool correctly.
  3. Catch the thread. Once both your top thread and bobbin have been set up, you need to connect the two threads to be ready to sew. Using your needle position knob or button, lower the needle all the way down and back up again—when you do this, the needle will catch the bobbin thread and pull it back out in a loop. Pass a flat object like a ruler underneath the needle to grab both thread strands and position them away from where you’ll be stitching.

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How to Use a Sewing Machine

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Queer Eye cohost Tan France breaks down the principles of great style, from building a capsule wardrobe to looking pulled together every day.

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After you’ve set up your sewing machine, you’re ready to begin sewing. Here’s a quick step-by-step of what you can expect:

  1. Make sure your needle is raised. Depending on your machine, you can raise your needle either with a knob or a button.
  2. Place your fabric. Place your fabric beneath the needle where you’d like to make your first line of stitches, and lower the presser foot to keep the fabric in place as you sew.
  3. Gently press the foot pedal. When you press the foot pedal, the needle will begin stitching—press harder to speed it up, or slower to go slowly and carefully.
  4. Lock your beginning stitches. At the beginning or end of a seam, a best practice is to lock your stitches (also called “backstitching”), in order to keep them from unraveling. To do this, sew a few stitches forward and then press the button on your machine to sew in reverse (or the “lock stitch” button, if your machine has one), doubling up on the first few stitches before releasing the reverse button and sewing forward again.
  5. Guide your fabric. To stitch a straight line (recommended for beginners), keep the edge of your fabric lined up with the seam allowance guideline on your machine. Your machine will automatically pull the fabric through (using feed dogs) to stitch it—no need to push it through yourself.
  6. Lock your ending stitches. To make sure your seam doesn’t unravel, reverse sew the last few stitches of your line using your machine’s reverse button (or lock stitch button, if it has one).
  7. Raise your needle and presser foot up. After you’re done stitching, raise the needle and presser foot up and away from your fabric.
  8. Slide your fabric away. Pull your fabric out from the machine. This will pull more thread (both from the top spool and from the bobbin) with it, which you should cut using scissors or, if your machine has one built-in, the thread cutter on the side of your needle case.

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