Maybe you’re looking to purchase your first sewing machine, and you’re doing some research to find the one that’s best for you. Or maybe, like myself and most of my sewing friends, you inherited a machine from a family member or rescued a vintage workhorse from a thrift store (I’ve done both) and you’re trying to learn the ropes. Not to worry—while there are countless options currently on the market with more and more special features and snazzy attachments, the basics are pretty universal. Here are the main parts of a typical sewing machine. Please note: All machines are different, so please consult your manual for specifics and instructions on operating your model!
Threading the Machine
The first step toward getting your machine ready to go is loading it up with thread and a bobbin. You’ll want to find the correct type of bobbin for your machine, as there are a few slightly different shapes and sizes that are compatible with different brands of machines. Begin unwinding your chosen spool of thread, and place it on the spool pin/holder. My machine’s bobbin winder is threaded this way:
I put the thread through one of the small holes in the bobbin, holding onto the end so it doesn’t fall out. I then place the bobbin onto the winder shaft and slide it to the right, and then flip a switch on the balance wheel (the knob on the side that raises and lowers the needle) to switch from sewing to bobbin-winding mode. Still holding the thread, I gently press the pedal to begin winding. I pause once I feel the thread is secure in the bobbin and clip the tail so it doesn’t get tangled, and then I continue to wind the bobbin until I’ve loaded it with as much thread as I think I’ll need.
Note here that you don’t want to put too much thread on the bobbin for a couple of reasons. First, overloading it makes it easier for the thread to become tangled, potentially getting snagged inside the bobbin casing and damaging your machine, or at the very least messing up your stitches. Second, you may end up with a bunch of leftover thread on a bobbin in a specific color you’re unlikely to use again.
Clip the bobbin, leaving about a 3-inch tail. Remove the bobbin casing from the bottom of your machine and insert the bobbin, then replace the casing, being sure to line up the small arm in the notch to secure it. Close up the door to the bobbin compartment, depending on your machine. Now that the bobbin is ready to go, thread the needle.
Now, some of the newer, snazzier machines are self-threading. If yours has this option, great! But for those of of us operating on machines that are voting age or older, here’s how it’s done. Grab the tail of your thread you cut the bobbin from, and wind it through your machine as the instructions recommend. Here is how mine is threaded:
Carefully put the thread through the eye of your needle. Done!
Speaking of needles: Always make sure you are using the correct type of needle, in the correct size, for your fabric. Never, ever use a bent or otherwise damaged needle, as it can mess up the timing on your machine and overall performance. At the very least, I’ve had almost imperceptibly bent needle points affect my bobbin to the point that I couldn’t sew a single decent stitch until I realized what was wrong. You should change needles after each project for the best results.
There are a few different kinds of needles you can use, but you’ll likely be starting out with a plain ole universal needle. Read more about choosing the right needle here.
Adjusting Your Stitches
At first, you will probably be using a straight stitch most frequently in your sewing. This is the basic stitch used when sewing pieces of woven fabrics together (more on fabric types here). However, your machine probably comes equipped with numerous stitch patterns to choose from, either by turning a knob (mine is the smaller one on the bottom right side of the machine) or selecting a stitch number on newer digital machines. These patterns include various decorative borders, hem and joining stitches, zigzag and other stretch stitches as well as the overlock stitch I will describe in future posts on finishing techniques and sewing with stretch fabrics. Play around with these different types of stitches, and always consult your machine’s manual if you’re unsure what type of stitch is best suited to your fabric.
Other settings on your machine should include stitch length, stitch width, and upper tension. These should be adjusted according to the type of fabric you’re working with and the kind of stitch you’re using, and I detail how to do that – and when – here.
Always test the above settings on scraps of the fabric you’re using for your project before you dive into sewing the real thing!
Other Odds and Ends
The presser foot is the standard foot on most machines. You’ll lower it using a lever near the shaft before you begin making stitches, and it will apply a slight amount of pressure to hold the fabric steady while you sew.
The feed dogs are the serrated, moving parts beneath the presser foot that help to “feed” the fabric as you sew. Thanks to the feed dogs and presser foot, you need only hold the fabric lightly as you sew to guide the seams—you never want to try to push it through or apply any force at all, as this will cause your stitches to be uneven and your fabric to stretch.
Reverse Sewing Button
Pressing this causes the machine to sew in reverse, feeding the fabric in the opposite direction. This is how you’ll secure your stitches when beginning and ending a seam. Sew a couple of stitches normally, then tack over them by pressing this button and sewing two or three stitches in reverse. Release the button, and continue sewing your seam. When you’re finished, sew a couple of stitches in reverse at the end, then sew a couple more normally. This will prevent those hard-worked stitches from trying to come undone.
That’s it—you’re ready to sew! Take your time, and don’t push yourself when you get tired. Nobody ever became an expert sewist overnight!
Does your machine have any special features besides these that you just love? Let me know in the comments!