How to Use a Sewing Machine

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Using a sewing machine is not as difficult as it seems. The basics of machine sewing are the same no matter what make or model machine you use. Practice on some scrap fabric, at first, until you get the feel and coordination of using your sewing machine. Even though there are a lot of details, everything will soon be second nature. Click on any photo for a closer look.



  1. Place the machine on a sturdy table, counter, or sewing cabinet in front of you and sit in a chair that is a comfortable height with the height of the table. Arrange the machine so that the needle end is on your left and the body of the machine is on the right. You will check a couple of things first and get to know the machine a bit, so do not plug it in just yet.
  2. Install a needle securely. Needles have a flat side, so they can only go one way, usually with the flat side toward the back. There is a groove down one side of the needle, generally opposite the flat side of the shank this groove must be facing the direction from which the needle is threaded when installing the needle the thread rides in this groove while going up and down through the fabric. Insert a needle all the way into the post and tighten the thumbscrew securely. If your machine already has a needle, check that it is straight, sharp, and securely inserted.
  3. Identify the presser foot, which is the ski shaped part that holds the fabric down. Make sure that a basic one like in the photo is installed and that the thumbscrew is snug.
    • Find the presser foot lever and practice raising and lowering the presser foot. It will be a lever to the right or back of the needle assembly. Move it all the way down and all the way up.
  4. Wind and insert the bobbin. A machine uses two thread sources, a top thread and a lower thread, stored on a bobbin. Follow the link for detailed instructions on winding and inserting a bobbin.
  5. Thread the sewing machine. Follow the link for details or consult your manual if you have it.
      • You may also be able to follow the guides printed on your machine.
      • Usually, the thread follows this general pattern  left, down, up, down, into a hook, through the needle. Another way to know how to thread the machine is  Spool pin, tension, take up lever, needle, using thread guides provided between these parts. The spool pin holds the spool of thread, the tension controls how easily the thread is pulled off the spool, the take up lever takes the extra length of thread, that was needed to loop the upper thread around the bobbin case, back up, preparatory to making the next stitch.
    • The needle might be threaded from the left, the right, or from front to back. If it is already threaded, that is a clue to the direction, if not, the last thread guide before the needle, is located nearest to the direction from which you must thread the needle.
      • If your machine does not have threading directions, try typing the machine brand and model number into Google. Many companies have posted this critical information online.

    Raise the bobbin thread.

    • Hold the end of the upper thread that passes through the needle with your left hand.
    • Turn the hand wheel on the upper right side of machine. Generally, you will turn it so that you move the top toward yourself. Turn it one full revolution.
    • Pass a pair of scissors between the presser foot and plate to pull both loops of thread up. You should now have the ends of two threads, one from the needle and one coming up from below.

Plug the machine in and turn it on. Many sewing machines have a built in light, which is often a good way to tell whether there is power to the machine. The power switch will usually be on the right side or back of the machine, if there is one. Some machines do not have a separate switch, in which case they are turned on as soon as they are plugged in.  Plug the pedal into the machine, too. Place the pedal in a comfortable spot under your feet.

Practice on some scrap material first. Choose a simple, woven material, not a knit one, for your first sewing experience, since knits can be stretchy and harder to handle. Cut up an old shirt, sheet, or pillowcase if you do not have any scrap fabric sitting around. Do not use a very heavy fabric for your first attempts at machine sewing. Denim and flannel can be hard to sew because they are too thick when several layers are piled together.

Pin two pieces of fabric, right sides together, near the edge. The seam will go one half inch to five eights inch from the edge. You can sew a single layer of fabric and might do so to stop an edge from fraying, say, but since the goal of most machine sewing is to join two pieces of fabric, you should get used to sewing with a couple of layers and pins.  Fabric is pinned right sides together so that the seam allowance will end up on the inside. The right side is whichever side of the fabric you will want on the outside when the piece is done. On printed fabric, it is generally the side with brighter colors. Solids may not have an obvious right side.  Place the pins perpendicular to the line where the seam will go. You can sew right over straight pins, and still remove them later with no damage to the machine, the fabric, or the pins. It is safer to remove pins just before stitching reaches them, as accidentally striking a pin will break, or at least dull the needle. Do avoid sewing over the heads of the pins, however.  While you are looking at the fabric, notice which way the fabric itself goes. Seams may go any direction, but most sewing projects are cut so that the main seams go parallel with the lines of the weave. Also note the direction of the print if your fabric has one, and arrange it so it will be right side up such as with a floral or animal print or so that stripes or other patterns run a certain direction.            

  • Use the hand wheel at the top of the right side of the machine to move the needle to the top of its travel before starting a seam and again to remove the fabric from the machine at the end of a seam. If the needle is not at the top of its travel, the thread may not move when you pull on the ends.
  • Select a straight stitch and a medium stitch length. Consult your manual for how to do this on your machine. On this machine, stitches are set by rotating the lower knob on the right side of the machine until it clicks into place. Always set the stitch with the needle up and out of the fabric, since it may move the needle.

    • A straight stitch is used to sew most seams. The next most common stitch is the zigzag, usually used to prevent edges from fraying.

    Line up the fabric under the needle.

    • Sew with the bulk of the material to the left of the machine. Crowding that bulk on the right side can cause messy stitching.
    • Look for lines on your sewing machine indicating seam allowance. This is the normal space between the edge of the fabric and the stitching line. Generally, you should use the line at five eights or one half. Use a ruler measure on either side of the needle. This should already be marked on your machines throat plate the flat metal piece that the needle goes through. If not, mark it yourself with masking tape.

Lower the presser foot onto the fabric. There is a lever behind or to the side of the needle assembly that raises or lowers the presser foot.

  • If you give the fabric a gentle tug while the presser foot down, you will feel that the machine grips it pretty firmly. While you sew, the machine uses a feed dog under the presser foot to advance the fabric at the correct speed. There is no need to pull the fabric through the machine in fact, pulling can bend the needle or damage your project. You can adjust the speed and the stitch length on the machine.
Hold the loose ends of both threads. For the first few stitches, you will need to hold these ends to keep them from retreating into the fabric. After you have stitched for a short distance, you can let go and use both hands to control the fabric and the machine.

Press the foot pedal. The foot pedal is your speed control. Just like the gas pedal in a car, the harder you push it, the faster you will go. Push it slowly at first, just enough to get the machine going.

  • Your machine may have a knee bar rather than a foot pedal. If that is the case, use your knee to push it to the right.
  • You can use the hand wheel on the top, right side of the machine to get the machine spinning or to move the needle by hand.
  • The machine will advance the fabric automatically away from you. You can steer the fabric in a straight line or a curve by guiding it through the machine with your hands. Practice sewing in a straight line and try sewing some curves. The only difference is how you guide the fabric.
  • Do not force the material or pull the material while it is going under the needle. This can cause the material to stretch or the needle to break, or the stitches to clog up in the bobbin. If you feel like your fabric is not moving fast enough, press the foot pedal harder, adjust the stitch length, or if you must
  • buy a faster machine.

Find the reverse button or lever and try it. It reverses the direction that the machine feeds, so that the fabric travels toward you as the machine sews. Often, this button or lever is spring loaded, so you must hold it down to sew in reverse.

  • At the end of a seam, sew a few stitches in reverse back over the last few stitches you just made. This finishes the seam and helps keep it from pulling out.
Use the hand wheel to move the needle to its highest position. Then, raise the presser foot. The fabric should pull out easily. If the thread pulls back when you try to remove the fabric, check the needle position.
Trim the thread. On many machines, there is a small notch on the back of the post that holds the presser foot. You can hold both ends of the thread and draw it down over this notch to cut the thread. If you do not have such a notch or you would like a cleaner cut, use scissors to trim the thread. Leave a tail extending from the machine for your next seam.

Learn to sew a sharp corner.

  • Where you want to turn the corner, lower the needle all the way into the fabric. You can use the hand wheel to lower the needle.
  • Raise the presser foot. Leave the needle down, in the fabric.
  • Rotate the fabric to the new position, leaving the needle in it.
  • Lower the presser foot with the fabric in the new position.
  • Resume sewing in a new direction.

Try a simple project. When you have made an assortment of test seams and start to feel comfortable with the basics, try sewing a pillow, pillow case, or cloth gift bag.

  • Although contrasting red thread was used throughout this tutorial, thread should generally match the fabric you are sewing as closely as possible for real projects, unless you want it to stand out.
  • It will take practice before you gain simultaneous control of the foot pedal, steering the material under the needle, and keeping a good speed. Even the best tailors do a test before committing needle to fabric.
  • If you are still lost or you have no manual and your sewing machine looks nothing like the ones here, ask a friend who sews or look for a local sewing machine repair shop or fabric shop. They may offer classes, they may charge for advice or lessons, or they may get you started with the basics just for asking nicely. If such a shop helps you out, help them out by purchasing something there.
  • Look at the stitches. The threads should loop between the two pieces of fabric. If the places where the threads cross are visible on the top or bottom of the fabric, you may need to adjust the tension.
  • Poor needles may create problems, but old or low quality thread will definitely be a problem.
  • Sometimes the tension is fine and you need to change your needle. A needle should not be used for more than two outfits worth of sewing. Also, a broadcloth fabric requires a different type of needle than a knit fabric, a heavy needle for denim fabric and a lightweight needle for handkerchief linen. The type of fabric you use will always determine the size of your needle.
  • Take some time to test the various stitches available on your machine. This is particularly important if you do buttonholes or the fancy stitches. If you do not have lots of stitches, do not worry. You can do a lot of sewing with just a straight stitch or a straight stitch and a zigzag.
  • Keep your fingers clear of the needle. Unplug the machine to thread it and do not put your fingers underneath while sewing.
  • Do not  force the machine. If the needle does not seem to want to go through the fabric, you may be sewing too much fabric.
Things You will Need
  • Sewing machine
  • Extra needles
  • Straight pins. A pincushion or magnet will help keep them from getting lost.
  • Fabric
  • A sturdy table, counter, or work surface
  • Thread
  • Bobbins that fit your machine
  • Seam ripper probably not needed for sample pieces but indispensable when sewing
  • Sewing scissors
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