Welcome to our complete guide to using a sewing machine for beginners. This is for you if you’ve got a machine but aren’t sure where to begin. Read on to find out how to use a sewing machine step by step. This is part of our sewing machine skills series so we’ve also got guides to show you different techniques to try once you’ve mastered the basics, from sewing different materials to adding buttonholes and zips.
Get to know your sewing machine
Whether you’re a complete newcomer or a relative beginner who could do with a refresher, here’s our top-to-bottom guide to help you find your way around your machine. We guarantee you’ll be running up projects in next to no time! You’ll find the different brands and types of machine will vary slightly, but they share the same common parts – once you’ve got to know the main areas of one machine, you’ll find it easier to work out where they are on your own machine. Read on for our guide to basic bits you need to know, and then we’ll talk you through the fun bit: sewing!
A sewing machine needle moves in and out of the fabric without going all the way through as it would in hand sewing. Most machines come with a needle already in place, but your manual will show how to swap it for a different one. Standard needles are typically size 75 or 80 (UK sizing). For tougher jobs, such as sewing denim or very heavy curtains, go for a larger number – 110 or 120. When sewing a fine fabric such as organza or a sheer net curtain, use a fine size 60. When you buy your fabric, it’s worth asking which needle is best for the job.
This is the metal attachment that sits beneath your needle and holds your fabric in place. Nearby you’ll find a lever to move it up and down. Raise it up when positioning your fabric and move it back down to secure your fabric when sewing. The basic presser foot is the one you’ll use most, though there are dozens of speciality feet for everything from quilting to attaching zips and creating buttonholes.
In our machine, the bobbin is hidden beneath the outer machine casing. It’s a small plastic or metal spool that sits in a special housing underneath the sewing area, below the foot and needle. Check the manual of your machine to find out exactly how to load your bobbin. Once loaded, the bobbin thread and the top thread feeds meet to form each stitch.
Your spool of thread sits at the top of the machine. It threads through a series of numbered channels and loops before it reaches the needle. This maintains an even thread tension and avoids tangles. Your machine will have a numbered dial that can be raised or lowered to adjust the tension as your fabric requires.
All manual sewing machines will have a knob or dial like this one, that allows you to adjust how tight or loose the tension of your stitches is. The thread tension you’ll need will vary based on the materials you use – how many layers of fabric and how thick it is (denim or upholstery fabric will need a different tension setting for example than cotton). We’ll get into tension trouble shooting later in this series, but when you’re starting out, check your machine manual and it should tell you which setting to start out with.
Dials, switches, knobs… the method used to change the stitch type varies between machines, but the principle is the same. For most projects, all you’ll need are the basic straight stitch and zig-zag. Once you’re more experienced, you can try some of the more decorative stitches your machine has to offer.
A dial or knob will enable you to change the length of your stitches, whether they’re simple straight stitches, zigzags or any other pattern. A long stitch length is useful for creating quick tacking lines. For regular sewing, aim for a length of around 2 or 2.5, which will be strong enough for most ordinary seams.
Use the hand wheel to move the needle up and down manually. This will be essential for controlling the sewing line in tight spots and corners. To avoid your thread getting caught or tangled, be sure to always turn the wheel towards you. When winding bobbins, on some machines you’ll need to disengage the needle action by pulling out the hand wheel, but not all. Consult your manual to learn exactly how to do this on your machine.
A quick note about stitch width
Sometimes this function is built in and the machine automatically adjusts itself as you change the stitch type. So for our machine above, you won’t see a dial for adjusting the stitch width, but if your machine does have a dial, leave the width at 0 for straight stitches because the needle doesn’t need to move from side to side. For all other stitches, adjust the width as needed, practising on a scrap of fabric first.
Most machines have a button or switch that enables you to sew in the reverse direction. Even older machines should have a method for reverse stitching. This is the best technique to start and finish off your sewing – all you need to do is stitch forwards and backwards for a few centimetres to secure your threads.
This may sound obvious, but before you start sewing, you’ll need to switch the machine on! For most machines, this will bring on a small light above the needle to help you see your stitching. Once you’ve switched on, you’ll need to use the foot pedal that is connected to the machine and sits on the floor to start the needle moving. The pedal is pressure-sensitive, so gentle pressure results in slow stitching, while pressing harder will run the motor faster. Some machines also have a separate speed control, which gives you even more command over your pace.
How to use a sewing machine: step by step
Before you can start sewing, you’ll need to do two important things: thread the main needle and bobbin, and ‘bring up’ the bobbin thread so you can see 2 threads trailing on your machine – your top thread and bobbin thread. Your manual should talk you through getting your threads in place. Now it’s time to get sewing!