Using Sewing Machines: Tips and Techniques for Learning to Sew

Using sewing machine

Learning how to use a sewing machine may seem daunting, but the key is to break it down into small, easy steps and learn basic techniques. These instructions may vary a bit, depending upon your machine, so if you have any questions that aren't answered here, check your sewing machine manual. If you don't have the manual, go to the manufacturer's website to order one. The sewing tips in the manual are worth the effort. The Sew USA website also has a large selection of instruction manuals. 

  1. The first step in learning to sew and using your machine properly is understanding how it works. Most machines form interlocking stitches, with a main thread spool forming the top of the stitches, and a bobbin forming the bottom of the stitches. The needle, which has an eye on the sharp end, instead of the blunt end like a hand-sewing needle, pushes the main thread through the fabric, where it is caught by the bobbin thread.
  2. The next step in learning to use your sewing machine is understanding the parts of it. Although each one is slightly different, most of them will have the following features:
    • Spool pins. These are short posts on the top of your machine, usually near the right edge. They hold the main thread spool. There will be at least one, but possibly two, to hold a spare spool of thread.
    • Thread guide. This is a small slot near the top of the machine on the left side. Just as the name suggests, the main thread is guided through this slot after leaving the spool.
    • Tension regulator. To the left of the thread guide, you'll see the tension regulator. In order to form even, flat stitches, the tension between the main thread and the bobbin thread needs to be equal. If your tension is too tight, your stitches will pucker. If it's too loose, the stitches will be weak and will not hold the pieces of your fabric together.
    • Take-up lever. When the machine is facing you, you'll see a long, vertical slot running down the front of the machine with a lever sticking out. This is the take up lever, through which the top thread passes on its way to the needle.
    • Needle clamp. Just below the take-up lever is a small clamp, which holds the needle in place.
    • Presser foot. Below the needle is the presser foot. You can lower the presser foot to hold your fabric in place as it goes through the machine.
    • Bobbin winder. Next to the spool pins, you'll see another short post. This is where you will place your bobbin when winding thread onto it. A bobbin is a spool which is only about an inch high, usually made of silver metal.
    • Throat plate. This is a silver plate which covers the area under the presser foot. It has an open area in the center, through which the needle passes to grab the bobbin thread. There are several different types of throat plates, depending upon what kind of stitches you use most.
    • Bobbin cover. The front of the area under the throat plate will flip open, allowing access to the bobbin, which rests inside.
    • Handwheel. This is a wheel or crank found on the right end of the machine. It allows you to raise and lower the needle by hand, so that you can position it properly when beginning a stitch.
    • Foot control. The foot control is what you will use to start and stop the machine. To start stitching, depress the foot control. To stop, release pressure on the foot control.
    • Other features. Your machine will also have ways to select stitch length, stitch width and stitch type. Depending upon your machine, these may be manual levers, or they may be accessed through a computerized screen.
  3. Now that you're familiar with your machine, it's time to use it! It's best to start with some medium-sized scraps of fabric to practice your stitches before you attempt an actual project. Iron your fabric so that it's wrinkle-free. This helps to prevent it from catching on the needle.
  4. Follow the directions in your instruction manual to thread your sewing machine.
  5. Now, are you ready to actually learn how to sew? Lay two scraps of fabric on top of each other, right sides together, with their edges aligned. If you were making an actual project, you would want to be sure that the selvages (the short edges) of the fabrics were running the same direction. This ensures that your project will have the same amount of "give" from one section to another.
  6. Use the handwheel to raise the needle, position your fabric just in front of the needle, then use the handwheel to lower the needle until it nearly touches the fabric.
  7. Lower the presser foot to hold your fabric scraps in place.
  8. Depress the foot control. The needle on your machine will begin to move up and down. Place one hand on each side of the fabric scraps to help guide them under the needle. For most projects, you will want to use a 1/4" inch seam. The distance from the needle to the edge of the presser foot is exactly 1/4", so try to keep your scraps in line with the edge of the foot.
  9. Stitch just beyond the edge of your scraps, then release pressure on the foot control. This keeps the stitches from unraveling as easily.
  10. If your machine doesn't form interlocking stitches when the foot control is pressed, it's threaded incorrectly. Using your instruction manual, verify that the thread is following the proper path exactly, and that the bobbin is turning the right direction.
  11. If your machine forms stitches, but they bunch up under the throat plate, your top tension is too tight. Adjust the tension and try again.

Once you feel comfortable with your machine and can maintain a 1/4" seam, try your hand at a real sewing project. Small projects with easy, square corners and straight seams are the best for a beginner, such as pillows or pillowcases.

Learning to use a sewing machine has never been easier. With a little practice, you'll be able to make anything your heart desires!


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