how to use a sewing machine

How To Use a Sewing Machine: The Complete Guide for Beginners

Have you just purchased your first sewing machine and feel intimidated about learning how to use it? Perhaps you’re interested in improving your proficiency with your sewing machine to tackle fresh projects. Mastering the art of sewing machine operation unlocks a realm of artistic expression, empowering you to design bespoke garments, intricate quilted masterpieces, and one-of-a-kind home accents that reflect your distinctive flair and creativity.

This complete guide covers everything you need to know as a beginner—from identifying the critical parts of a sewing machine to troubleshooting common issues.

An Intro to Sewing Machine Basics

Before you can start stitching, it’s essential to get familiar with your machine. While sewing machines come in different shapes and sizes, they contain many of the same core components.

Main Parts of a Sewing Machine

Familiarize yourself with the main external parts of a sewing machine:

  • Presser foot – The presser foot is responsible for keeping the fabric in place while the needle is sewing. There are different presser feet for various techniques.
  • Needle – Pierces the fabric to create stitches. Choose the right size and type of needle for your fabric.
  • Bobbin and spool pins – Holds the spool of thread and the bobbin, which contains the lower thread.
  • Thread guides – Leads the thread from the spool to the needle.
  • Stitch length and width controls – Adjusts the height and width of stitches.
  • Foot pedal – Controls the speed of sewing when pressed.

Types of Sewing Machines

There are a few main categories of sewing machines:

  • Mechanical – Operates manually and requires more user control. Great for beginners.
  • Computerized/Electronic – Offer pre-programmed stitches, automatic settings, and user-friendly features.
  • Industrial – Heavy-duty machines designed for high-volume or commercial sewing.

Pre-Sew Setup and Preparation

In order to begin sewing, it is necessary to go through several critical stages to configure your sewing machine.

Threading the Upper Thread

  • Follow the threading guides from the spool pin through the take-up lever to the needle.
  • Leave a 6-inch tail of thread.
  • Thread the needle from front to back.

Winding the Bobbin

  • The bobbin winder spindle requires an empty bobbin. Wrap the thread around the bobbin in the direction indicated.
  • To wind thread onto the bobbin, step on the foot pedal. Cut thread when the bobbin is full.

Inserting the Bobbin

  • Open the bobbin case below the needle plate.
  • Drop the bobbin in the case and thread the end through the tension spring.
  • Close the bobbin case and tug the thread to test tension.

Adjusting Thread Tension

  • Balanced tension allows the top and bobbin thread to interlock between fabric layers.
  • Test on a scrap piece of fabric and adjust tension dials as needed.

Choosing Fabric and Needles

Choosing Fabric and Needles
Photo credit: freepik
  • Use the appropriate needle for your fabric type. Stretch needles for knits, smaller needles and fine thread for delicate fabrics.
  • Select a straight or zigzag stitch best suited for your fabric—such as a stretch stitch for knits.

Key Sewing Techniques for Beginners

Now that your machine is prepped and threaded, let’s cover some fundamental sewing techniques.

Starting and Stopping Sewing

  • Arrange the fabric precisely under the presser foot before actuating the mechanism to clamp it securely.
  • To initiate the sewing process, exert pressure on the foot pedal.
  • To stop, release the pedal and bring the needle to its highest position.
  • Secure stitches by backstitching at the beginning and end.

Sewing Corners and Shapes

  • Stop stitching and lower the needle into the fabric when approaching a corner.
  • Unlock the presser foot mechanism and revolve the fabric a quarter rotation for a perpendicular reorientation.
  • After lowering the foot, proceed to sew in the new direction.
  • Go slowly around curves and corners, gently easing the fabric.

Adjusting Stitch Length and Width

  • Use a longer stitch length for basting or when sewing sturdy fabrics like denim.
  • A shorter stitch length is better for delicate fabrics.
  • Make zigzag stitches broader or narrower depending on your needs.

Handy Sewing Techniques to Know

Equipped with the basics? Here are some common stitches and techniques to expand your skills:

Straight Stitch

  • The most versatile stitch for seams, hems, topstitching, etc.
  • Set stitch length generally between 2.5-4 mm.

Zigzag Stitch

  • Ideal for sewing stretch fabrics.
  • Neatly finishes raw edges on seams.
  • Adjust the width to suit your project.

Sewing Buttonholes

  • Use the buttonhole foot and follow machine instructions.
  • Stabilize fabric with interfacing.
  • Carefully cut open the buttonhole with a seam ripper.

Sewing in Zippers

  • Center the zipper under the seam allowances.
  • Edgestitch the zipper tape to secure.

Troubleshooting Common Sewing Machine Problems

Learning to sew comes with its fair share of issues! Here are some common beginner problems and their solutions:

Skipping Stitches

  • Replace or reinsert the needle properly.
  • Check the threaded path and rethread the machine.
  • Increase upper thread tension.

Loose Tension

  • Check that the bobbin is inserted correctly.
  • Adjust the upper thread tension tighter.

Broken Needle

  • Replace the needle and check fabric suitability.
  • Ensure needle is lowered before removing fabric.


What are the most important parts to know about a sewing machine?

As a beginner, focus on learning the critical external parts of the machine first. These include the presser foot that holds the fabric in place, the needle that pierces the fabric to create stitches, the spool pins that hold the thread, and the foot pedal used to control sewing speed. Understanding the purpose of these main parts will help build your foundation.

Why does thread tension need adjusting?

Proper thread tension provides balanced stitches by allowing the top thread and bobbin thread to interlock in between the fabric layers. Without balanced tension, stitches may be uneven or too loose/tight. Always test tension on a scrap piece of fabric first and adjust the tension dials as needed for smooth stitching.

How can I pivot fabric smoothly?

Pivoting fabric is useful when sewing corners or turning directions. Stop stitching and lower the needle into the fabric where you want to pivot. Raise the presser foot and quarter-turn the fabric to achieve a 90-degree angle shift.
Lower the presser foot again before continuing to sew in the new direction. Go slowly as you pivot for the best results.

What causes skipped stitches while sewing?

There are a few common culprits of skipped stitches to check. Make sure the needle is inserted correctly and free of defects. Confirm the upper threading path is correct, and threads are not tangled. An incompatible needle/fabric combo or incorrect thread tension can also cause skipping.

Why go slow when learning to sew?

As with any new skill, patience and practice make perfect! Sewing too fast as a beginner can lead to messy stitches, puckered seams, and frustration. Take your time to master the fundamentals, build coordination with the foot pedal, and learn how different fabrics handle before trying to sew at high speeds. Slow and steady does it!

Ready to Start Sewing?

Beginning your sewing journey is exciting! We covered the key parts of a sewing machine, how to properly set up and thread your machine, basic sewing techniques, and some simple troubleshooting.
Remember to start with simple projects using wovens like cotton, slowly work your way up to trickier fabrics like silks and knits, and don’t get discouraged by mistakes. With a bit of practice and patience, you’ll be sewing like a pro in no time.

What projects are you looking forward to doing with your newfound sewing skills? Let me know in the comments!


Main image: freepik

Priti Nandy
Priti Nandy
Articles: 168

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