Brought your first sewing machine and now not sure where to start? Welcome to our complete guide to using a sewing machine for beginners. This is for you if you’ve got a machine but are a bit overwhelmed when you get it out of the box.
Yes there are a few different knobs and settings, and yes the first time is probably going to be a learning curve, but the good news is many have been where you are before and we’ve all gone on to learn to love our sewing machines. It really is like riding a bike or learning to drive – it may seem daunting at first but once you’ve worked out the basic functions, they’ll become second nature.
In this guide though, we’ll begin by looking at the different parts of the sewing machine and how to use a sewing machine step by step. We are using a manual sewing machine in this article. While some of their parts may look different for different brands and models, all the basic functions are the same, and you’ll find the different functions and parts do not change much from brand to brand.
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. You might also like our guides for how to use a sewing pattern, the best sewing kits for beginners and how to measure yourself.
If you’ve found this article because you’re curious but you haven’t treated yourself to a machine yet, take a look at best sewing machine for beginners guide.
This article includes 3 sections
- Learn the parts of your sewing machine
- How to set up your sewing machine
- How to use a sewing machine – step by step
Can I teach myself to use a sewing machine?
Yes you can – anyone can use a sewing machine. All machines come with a really detailed manual which walks you through how to set them up, change the thread and try out basic stitches. We’ve included all the basics for you below too – from the different parts of your machine to setting it up, threading it and starting sewing.
Get to know your sewing machine parts
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 with our how to use a sewing machine guide.
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!
Find the needle
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. We also show you the basics of how to change a needle below.
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.
Find the sewing machine foot
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. We show you how to change a sewing machine presser foot below.
Find your bobbin
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. Some manuals have a top loading bobbin, some load from the front. 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. It’s easy to release your bobbin when you need to thread it – either with a lever below the machine (for front loading bobbins) or by opening the top-hatch (for top loading bobbins).
For more on this, see our guide to how to thread a bobbin.
Find the thread guide
This essential part of your machine will guide the thread from the spool pin, round to the bobbin winder or (on some brands and models of machine) down to the lower needle. The thread guide may sit in a different place on different models or brands of machines so check your manual for how to thread your specific machine.
Find your thread feed
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.
Find your tension dial
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.
Find the stitch selector
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. On this machine the stitch selector is a dial on the side which switches the stitch mode at the front – here it is set to stitch A – straight stitch.
Find the stitch length dial
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.
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.
Find the hand wheel
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.
Find the on/off switch
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.
Connect and find the foot pedal
The foot pedal is the part of the machine that is attached by a wire to the main machine and sits on the floor. When you press your foot on the pedal, the sewing machine needle will go up and down. Adjusting the amount of pressure you apply to the pedal will adjust the speed your machine sews. Sometimes you’ll want to sew quickly, other times you’ll need to slow down – for example when passing the needle though several layers at the points where bulky seams meet.
How to use a sewing machine step by step
We’ll talk you through how to set up your sewing machine, thread the needle and bobbin and start sewing. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you’ll be able to start experimenting with changing your stitch setting.
Now it’s time to get sewing! Read on to learn how to use a sewing machine step by step
You Will Need
- Sewing machine
- Basic sewing kit
How to set up a sewing machine
Plug your sewing machine in to the mains power and switch it on. Most machines have a little light built in above the needle – this will come on when you switch the power on. For best results, find a sturdy surface with a bit of space to set up your machine – when many manual machines sew at speed they vibrate so the heavier the table or surface you sew on, the better.
Insert the needle
Most sewing machines come with the needle already in place. If it’s snapped or you need to insert the needle, check your machine manual. As a guide though, you should start by turning the hand dial to bring the needle lever up to its top-most position. Your machine will have a hole where the needle lives – below the main arm of the machine. This is where you should insert your needle.
Sewing machine needles have a flat side of the shank – usually this should sit face the back of your machine but check your manual if in doubt. Insert your needle with the flat side facing in the right direction, then twist the needle pin to secure it in place. Now if you bring the hand dial towards you, you should see the needle be brought down and back up – if this happens without it falling out then you have secured it correctly.
WInd and insert the bobbin
The next thing you’ll need to do is thread the bobbin. Remove the empty bobbin from the bobbin case (either below the machine or on top of the foot of the machine), ready to wind with thread.
To fill the bobbin with thread, put it on to the bobbin spool at the top of the sewing machine and read our full guide to how to thread a bobbin.
Once you have wound your bobbin with thread, insert it back into the bobbin case, and pull the thread up and into the metal notch at the top of the bobbin case (the bobbin should move clockwise when you pull the thread). Insert the bobbin case back into the machine by slotting the bobbin case lever into the notch below your machine.
How to thread a sewing machine
Now it’s time to add your top thread. Put a spool of thread on to the spool pin. Pull the thread across and around the thread guide.
Bring your thread around your machine’s thread guide, and over the take up lever – this usually has a hook element to the design – loop the thread around the take up lever, then back down into the channel below
Bring your thread down to the needle and loop it into the needle guide next to the needle.
Before you thread the needle it needs to be in it’s upmost position. If you need to, turn the hand wheel towards you to bring the needle up manually into this position. Now insert the thread into the needle, from front to back.
Now you have threaded your needle, bring the thread down in between the two forks of the presser foot, under the foot, then back towards the back of your machine with your hand.
How to bring up the bobbin thread
Now your top thread is threaded, and your bobbin is in place below the machine, it’s time to connect the two threads, ready to sew. Slowly turn the hand wheel to bring the needle down and back up again – one full rotation.
When the needle goes down into the machine, it will hook the bobbin thread and bring a loop back up above the plate of the machine. When you see the loop gently pull it out to release the loose end of the bobbin thread. Pull it out to reveal and back towards the back of the machine to release the full thread. You should now have two threads – the top and the bottom. When you start to sew in the next step, hold them both for a second with your left hand to stop them being pulled into the machine as the needle moves.
How to sew with your sewing machine
Bring the needle up using the hand wheel, and raise the presser foot using the presser foot lever. Now slide the fabric under it where you want to start sewing. Your machine probably has an indicator guide on the plate, which gives measuring guides for seam allowances. Line this guide up with your fabric edge. You’ll find it useful to move the fabric along this marker as you sew to keep an even distance from the fabric edge.
Lower the presser foot to secure the fabric in place and move the hand wheel towards you to bring the needle down, through the fabric. Now you’re ready to sew!
Press the foot pedal to begin sewing. As you control the speed of your sewing with the foot pedal, feed the fabric under the presser foot. If you find that you need to support the fabric with a little more tension, hold it in front of and behind the foot and ease it through.
It’s easy to turn a corner without finishing your thread. Make sure the needle is down in the fabric at the point where you need to turn, then raise the foot and spin the fabric to the new direction. Lower the foot and carry on sewing.
Once your stitching line is done, finish securely by making a few stitches back and forth over your line. To do this, press the reverse stitch lever to stitch backwards, then release it to stitch forwards again. With the needle in the up position, raise the presser foot and pull out your fabric. The threads will still be attached, so snip these off.
You now know how to use a sewing machine. Looking for some easy sewing projects to try? Check out our sewing patterns for beginners to find some inspiration!
As you progress on your sewing journey it can sometimes be hard to find the information you need, so we’ve put together some great guides on our how to sew page to help you learn to sew.