Learn How to Use a Sewing Machine

I know how daunting it can be when you learn how to use a sewing machine for the first time. That overwhelming feeling can be enough to ban your machine to closet exile for years! Well it’s time to break your machine out, dust it off, and give it some TLC. Before you know it, you’ll be a pro!

How a Sewing Machine Works

As you press on your foot pedal, the needle and take-up lever immediately lowers. Just as the needle lowers down below your fabric, the take-up lever releases the tension on your thread so that the bobbin can hook onto it.

Then the top thread passes over your bobbin making a loop with the bottom thread. Finally, the needle and take-up lever come back up tightening the threads and making a nice stitch! See it in action:

Parts of a Sewing Machine

This guide will help you identify all the different parts of your sewing machine. You can reference it for any sewing terminology you don’t know.


Setting up Your Sewing Machine

Power On

First, let’s plug in your machine. Your sewing machine likely has two cords – your foot pedal cord, and a power cord. Plug-ins for those are usually on the right side of your machine. Depending on your machine, you may have one plug that forks out – one side going out to the pedal and one to your outlet. Or you may have two separate cords. Either way, it should be clear which plug goes in which socket. This is mine.

After you’ve plugged those in, just flip that little power switch and you’re in business.

Winding Your Bobbin

Need video assistance for this part? Watch our bobbin winding and installation video here:

Like pictures better? Continue on…

After powering up, you’ll be setting up your bobbin. First, you’re going to need some good quality “all purpose” thread. You’ll wind this thread around what’s called a bobbin. A bobbin is a small spool that fits perfectly inside your machine. Remember, you’ll need thread for both the top and bottom in order to make a stitch.

All modern machines (and many vintage machines even) have what is called a bobbin winder. This is usually located at the top of your machine. Follow your machine’s instructions for threading your bobbin winder.

After threading your bobbin winder, wrap it around the bobbin a few times to get it started. Then push your bobbin to the right to engage it.

Now press on your foot pedal and watch the magic happen. Once your bobbin is full of thread, cut your thread to separate your bobbin from your top thread. 

Loading Your Bobbin

There are two styles of bobbin holders depending on what machine you have. I have a top loading bobbin but you might have a front loading. Loading a bobbin can be a little tricky but with practice, it’ll become breeze. Follow your machine’s instructions depending on what style you have.

Threading Your Sewing Machine

Now let’s thread the top part of your machine. Regardless of what machine you have, threading it is usually very similar. First, take your thread over to your top thread guide and then go down the slot, around the bottom and back up. 

Next, loop your thread into your take-up lever and back down again. It’s really important that your thread catches that lever. Making sure your needle is in its topmost position (making the take-up lever stick out of the machine like you can see in the picture) will make this easier. Then there’s one more guide right above your needle. Not sure what kind of needle you should be using? Then read our sewing machine needles article next.

If you’re ever feeling lost when threading your machine, look a little closer. Nearly all modern sewing machines have your threading path guided by numbers. Just follow the numbers and you’ll be just fine.

Once the machine is threaded, you can go ahead and thread your needle.

Next, we need to bring the bobbin thread up to the top of the machine. Locate your handwheel on the right side of your machine. While holding onto your top thread, turn your hand wheel towards you to manually lower your needle down to its lowest position. 

Then raise it up again. When you bring your needle up you’ll see your bobbin thread come up through your needle plate. I usually just slide my scissors under my pressure foot to bring the thread to the back. It’s a good idea to start with both of your thread ends going to the back of the machine.

Phew! Okay, we’re getting close! The machine is all threaded, now let’s get to sewing.

Sewing Your First Seam

Selecting a Stitch

Your sewing machine may have hundreds of stitch options or just a few. There are straight stitches, zig-zag stitches, buttonhole stitches, decorative stitches and many more! You might turn a knob to select your stitch or you might have a digital screen. Select a straight stitch to start. That is either 00 or 01 on my machine.

Psssst! If you are wanting to learn how to sew knit garments on your machine, you’ll want to learn how to sew a stretch stitch. Check out our guide to the best stretch stitches on your sewing machine here.

Your machine can also adjust how long those stitches become. A good middle place to sew for a straight stitch is at about a length of 2.5mm. If we were to sew a zig-zag, we could also tell our machine how wide of a zig-zag to sew.

All of these settings will be displayed differently depending on your machine. My recommendation is to get your hands on your manual and look for the section that outlines where to adjust your machine’s particular settings. Bought your machine second-hand and don’t have the manual? No problem! Most sewing machine manuals have been digitized and can be found online. Just Google your make and model to locate yours.

Here are the locations of these settings on my machine:

Sewing a Seam

Ok, we’re all set to start sewing! Grab two pieces of fabric and line up their edges with the right sides of the fabric facing each other. Place pins along the edge so that your fabric won’t budge while sewing. Place the end of your fabric under your pressure foot and lower the pressure foot lever. This will sandwich your fabric between the pressure foot and the feed dogs. While sewing, the feed dogs will rotate up and down to continually move your fabric along. 

Now press on your foot pedal to start sewing! Your foot pedal works just like a car, the more you push on it the faster it goes. Go slow at first until you get the feel of things. Remember to backstitch every time you begin and end your stitching so that your stitches don’t come apart. Your machine will either have a backstitch button or a lever. Just a few stitches will be fine. 

There are seam guides on the needle plate you can use to line up the edge of your fabric with your specified seam allowance. Keep your eye on this line for an even seam the entire length of your fabric. 

A seam is what you just created when you sewed your two pieces of fabric together. A seam allowance is the distance from the stitches to the edge of your fabric. When using a professional sewing pattern, it’ll tell you how much of a seam allowance to use.

And those are the basics to get you started sewing! 

Troubleshooting Your First Stitches

If you started sewing and quickly started cursing, you probably ran into one of many common errors. Go through this list of tips to troubleshoot what may be happening:

  1. Stitch looks like a bird’s nest #1  You may have incorrectly threaded your upper thread. Make sure you have pulled the thread through all of the correct tension stops and levers along the way. When in doubt, rethread.
  2. Stitch looks like a bird’s nest #2  You may have incorrectly installed your bobbin. The two most common bobbin errors are that they were either installed facing the wrong direction, or you forgot to “floss” your bobbin thread through the casing correctly. See the videos above for assistance.
  3. Stitch looks like a bird’s nest #3  Are you using an old needle? Change it. Used needles have microscopic slivers all over the ends which can wreak havoc on your stitch.
  4. Stitches are getting “skipped”  You may be either using an old needle or the wrong type of needle. If you are practicing on plain old quilter’s cotton, you can use a regular universal needle. If you are using a different kind of material, please reference our post about sewing machine needles to verify you are using the correct one.
  5. You thread keeps getting sucked under the plate  Pull the “tails” of both your upper and lower threads so they are a few inches long. Then hold onto them as you start your stitch.
  6. The fabric isn’t being fed through  Check that you’ve lowered your presser foot. Don’t feel dumb, we’ve all done it. ❤️

More Helpful Tips

Pull out your pins before sewing over them because you could break your needle if you sew over one. You can certainly get up to the pin as close as you want before taking it out.

Never rotate your hand wheel clockwise (away from you). This can damage your machine’s motor if it’s done too much!

Another good thing to know is that there are all kinds of different feet for sewing machines that are used for various purposes. Press this little lever to release the foot and try experimenting with other ones.

Most importantly as a beginner, you don’t need a machine with all the bells and whistles but make sure it’s good quality otherwise you’ll hate sewing. Your sewing machine is your most important sewing tool. A good one can bring you years of joy, a bad one can leave you frustrated for hours on end.

Now that you made your first stitches, the window of possibility is open to you! Happy sewing!

Originally Authored by Jessamin Jensen. Archived by Kathryn Graham.

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