How to Use a Sewing Machine
You decide you want to learn how to sew. Maybe you’ve purchased an inexpensive machine. Perhaps you’ve borrowed one from a friend. Now what?
Either way, before you take your first stitch, you will want to know how to set up a sewing machine.
This step-by-step tutorial will take you through the steps you’ll need in order to get started on your sewing journey.
Note: If you plan to purchase a new machine, be sure to read my Tips for Buying a Sewing Machine.
How to Use a Sewing Machine
At first glance, a sewing machine can be overwhelming. What are those buttons for? How do you even turn the machine on?
You really don’t need a fancy machine to learn to sew. Most sewing projects can be done using a straight stitch, a zigzag stitch, and a buttonhole feature. Anything beyond that is nice, but not necessary for a beginner.
The first place to start is learning about your sewing machine. This tutorial walks you through the basics so you can start sewing.
Setting Up a Sewing Machine
Keep in mind is that there are lots and lots of different sewing machines. But, all of them will have similar features and that’s what we’ll be covering. Once you understand these basics you’ll be able to sew on almost any machine.
While you’re getting the hang of things, it’s a good idea to keep your sewing machine out and ready to use all of the time. Find a small corner in your home and keep your machine set up and ready to sew.
Before you get started
I recommend you pull out the manual that goes with your machine and read through the set up steps. Even if they don’t make sense it will be easier as you follow this tutorial. You’ll be able to familiarize yourself with the terms and it will help you get familiar with your machine.
Step 1: Getting Power to your Machine
Before you begin you will need to attach the Power Cord. Sewing machine power cords are detachable, making it easy to store your machine when it’s not being used. It attaches on the right side of the machine and should be close to the On/Off Switch.
Attach the power cord to the machine BEFORE plugging the cord into the wall outlet.
Step 2: The Foot Pedal
The foot pedal also must be connected to the machine in order to make the machine sew. The cord will be much thinner than the power cord and may be a bit longer.
There will be a small hole on the right side for connecting the foot pedal to the machine. Once the foot pedal is connected, place it on the floor in a position comfortable to you.
Step 3: Turning on the machine
On the right side of the machine there will be toggle switch. This is used to turn the machine on and off. Some machines toggle up and down. Others toggle right to left.
The switch may or may not say On/Off. It may have symbols, instead. The symbol “O” is for off and the symbol “|” is for on.
Once the power cord is connected to the machine and plugged into an outlet, you can turn your machine on.
Step 4: Sewing Machine Features
Every machine is a little different, however most machines will have the same features. Some of these features may be electronic or they may use dials, however they will still perform the same function on a sewing machine.
Have your sewing machine nearby and identify these features:
The Hand Wheel
The hand wheel is on the right side of the machine and when you turn it the needle will go up and down. Occasionally, you may get a thread jam or break a needle while sewing. You will need to turn the hand wheel to release the fabric from the jam.
The Reverse Button
When you toggle the reverse button your needle will change directions and sew in reverse. You will want to reverse stitch at the beginning and end of most seams. This will keep the seam from unraveling.
Reverse stitching is also good when sewing something that needs to be securely held together.
Stitch Length Dial
This dial is used to determine the length of your stitches. The default stitch length is usually 2.5mm and most electronic machines will default to this.
A longer stitch length, such as 5mm, is used for sewing gathers.
Setting the stitch length on 0mm means the needle will stitch in place. While not used very often, this can be useful if you’re wanting to lock your stitches at the beginning and end of a seam.
The stitch length setting between 0 and 1 is usually the default for making buttonholes.
Most machines will come with a variety of stitches. The main stitches you will want to know about are the straight stitch and the zigzag stitch.
These two stitches will allow you to do most types of sewing. For your particular machine’s different stitch settings you will need to refer to your manual.
Take notice that many machines will also allow you to adjust your needle position to either the left, center, or right. This feature is usually found within the stitch selector dial.
The tension dial controls how evenly the bobbin thread is distributed. Refer to your machine’s manual for the factory default tension setting that is particular to your machine. For new sewists it’s not recommended that you adjust tension.
If you have loose bobbin thread, you should re-thread the top thread and the bobbin thread.
The time to adjust tension is when sewing with something like a heavy decorative thread on top and an all-purpose thread in the bobbin. Since these two threads are different weights, you’d have to adjust your tension dial.
Otherwise, keep it on the default setting.
Step 5. Threading the Machine
Add a fresh needle to your machine
For beginners it’s recommended that you use a Universal Needle sized 12/80 for your first project or two. I ONLY recommend the Schmetz brand because most machines are calibrated to use this needle. Plus they are very durable. Learn more about sewing machine needles here.
All sewing machine needles are designed the same way (but they all aren’t equal). They are rounded in the front and flat in the back.
Loosen the Needle Clamp and insert a fresh needle as high as it will go into the machine. Tighten the Needle Clamp. Note: The needle will only fit into the opening in one direction – with the flat side facing back.
Thread the machine
- Most machines are threaded in basically the same way. For the correct way to thread your particular machine, refer to your manual.
- Sewing machines will follow the same track for threading. Your thread will come off of the Thread Spool (which can either be vertical or horizontal) and will go through the first Thread Guide, the Tension Disk or Guide, and the Thread Take-up Guide. Note: On some machines the Tension Guide is not clearly noticeable. It will be before the Thread Take-up Guide. If you need more instructions, refer to your user manual.
- The thread needs to go through some sort of Needle Guide before finally going into the eye of the needle, front to back. Be sure to snip off the end of the thread for a clean cut before trying to thread the needle.
- From there, put the thread under the presser foot and pull it towards the back of the machine. This prevents tangled threads when taking your first few stitches.
Note: Some machines will have an automatic or semi-automatic needle threader. Refer to your manual for directions.
Step 6: The Bobbin
Before you insert a bobbin into your machine you will need to wind a bobbin. This will take place on the top of your machine. Since machines wind bobbins differently, you will need to refer to your user manual and carefully follow the directions on how to wind a bobbin.
Your machine will also take a particular type of bobbin. It might be metal or plastic.
Be sure the bobbin winds evenly and the thread isn’t too loose. Don’t worry about over filling the bobbin; your machine will automatically stop when the it’s full.
Top or Front Loading Bobbins
Bobbins will either load from the top of the machine, near the needle or from the front of the machine, beneath the needle.
The proper method for inserting your bobbin will depend upon your particular machine brand and model. Consult your machine’s manual and carefully follow the directions for loading the bobbin.
Every time you change your bobbin it is a good idea to take a small brush and remove any lint build up. This is a good habit to adopt and will keep your machine running smoothly for a long time.
Watch this short video showing how the top thread and bobbin interact.
Step 7: Feed Dogs and Presser Feet
Occasionally a pattern may instruct you to “lower the feed dogs” before continuing with a step.
The feed dogs are the metal teeth under the presser foot. They move when you sew and gently grip the fabric bottom in order pass it through the machine.
Feed dogs will stay raised for most sewing, however, they can be lowered for functions such as free motion quilting.
There should be a button or dial on the right of your machine for lowering the feed dogs. If not clearly marked, check your machine’s guide.
A sewing machine will come with a variety of feet which all have unique uses. The most common foot is the Universal Foot or ZigZag Foot. This foot presses fabric down onto the feed dogs and throat plate in order to feed the fabric through the machine.
This foot will accommodate most beginner projects. For more information on different feet, visit my Sewing Machine Feet Guide.
Step 8: Throat Plate and Seam Allowance Markings
The throat plate is a metal plate that sits below the presser foot and usually has seam allowance markings.
The throat plate will have an opening for the needle to pass through. This can vary depending on your machine, but accommodates different needle positions. It will occasionally need to be removed to clean lint from your machine.
The seam allowance markings are intended as a guideline for sewing seams in varying widths.
A Few Additional Things to Remember
Sewing can be a life-long hobby. The more you sew, the better you’ll get.
Take your time and get to know your machine. Don’t be afraid to practice the different stitches on your machine.
But, most importantly, have fun!