Posted by on Sep 23, 2014 in Lessons, Sewing, Theory | Comments Off on Sewing Machine Basics

Today, we’re going to discuss sewing machines – their parts and how they work.

This is a sewing machine:


Retrieved from

It isn’t your machine or my machine, but it’s a very basic concept of a sewing machine. The fact is that all sewing machines have the same basic parts, even if they don’t look the same. It’s your job to take a look at your machine, after you buy one, and figure out where each of these parts are.

First off, you want to plug your machine in and find the power button for your machine. It should turn a light on somewhere to show that it’s on. This might seem simplistic, but I assure you that, at least once, you’ll be getting more and more frustrated, trying to make the needle move until you discover you forgot to turn the machine on. Seriously, it happens to the best of us. If the needle moves, but the light doesn’t turn on, you might need to take the bulb into the hardware section of a store to replace it. You’d be surprised how much the little light between the top and bottom of your machine helps. If the light turns on, but the needle doesn’t move, wait a bit and see if any of the rest of these parts helps.

I’ll admit that writing this section flummoxed me a bit, so I’d like to give credit where credit is due. Sew Delicious and Things My Mother Taught Me were both extraordinary resources for my resources. They also both have different sewing machines displayed, so they might be a useful resource if these pictures don’t help you on your machine.

Second, I’m going to explain that the pictures in this section are not my sewing machine. To explain why, I’ll start with a picture of my sewing machine.

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I own a Bernina that is fairly computerized and it just doesn’t jive with the “beginner” concept of the lessons I’m writing. If I’m being honest, my Bernina has about 20 functions I’ve never used, but I love it. It’s much more reliable than my first machine, and I got it for a real deal.

Instead, I’m going to be using (mostly) pictures of my Mother-in-Law’s sewing machine.

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Her Brother is the most basic of machines and will help me show what I really want without having to photograph the computerized screen of my Bernina. In short, the Brother is easier to understand.

The first thing I always have students who are learning to machine sew do is thread their machine. I teach them how to thread the machine, watch them do it correctly, then have them thread and rethread it at least 10 times. If you thread your machine incorrectly, it will not sew correctly. In fact, 9 times out of 10, if your machine isn’t working the way you want it to, you should completely rethread it from beginning to end. If the problem persists, there are a few more tricks in this entry that might help.

You will always start threading at the spool pins.

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The spool pins are where your spool of thread goes. The pin goes through the hole at the centre of your spool of thread and allows it to rotate freely as the machine feeds thread into your fabric. Some spool pins lay down while others stand up. Spool pins that lay down often have a cap that goes on top of your thread so it doesn’t spin off.

The shorter pin in this region is your bobbin winder. This is where your bobbin sits while you spin thread on it. For what a bobbin is, keep reading. You might notice that the pin sits in a little hole that it will click back and forth in. That’s because virtually every sewing machine has a mechanism that locks your sewing needle into place while you wind your bobbin. If your needle is locked in place, try moving your bobbin winder to its other position and see if that helps. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been angry because my machine wouldn’t sew and it was that simple fix!

The last point of interest here is the bobbin stopper. This makes sure you don’t put too much thread on your bobbin.

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The next step to threading your machine are the thread guides. These are different on most models of machines, so if yours doesn’t have an instruction manual or directions printed on the plastic (my Bernina does), you’ll need to do a Google search for “How to thread [machine model]”. Invariably, some helpful soul out there has made you a guide.

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This is the tension for your thread. It’s hard to know how to set it right. I’ll be honest and tell you that I have never, ever adjusted my thread tension. I know that that’s the #1 way to screw up how my machine is sewing, so I don’t bother. Almost every machine comes with the “correct” thread tension dialed in, so don’t mess with it if you don’t have to. Also, when you get your machine cleaned and serviced (tomorrow’s topic), a good sewing machine repairman will leave the tension in the best spot for most cloth.

Seriously, don’t adjust the tension, if your machine is sewing correctly.

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Here’s where all the action takes place! The needle is, obviously, what sews your fabric together. I don’t know if you can see in this picture, but a sewing machine needle has its eye near the tip rather than on the opposite end. Getting the thread through the eye of the sewing needle can be tricky, but it’s completely possible.

The majority of machine needles look like this:

machine needle

Their shank is a half-cylinder – round on the front and flat on the back. However, there are a couple of brands of sewing machine out there (Husquvarna-Viking springs to mind) that use a fully round needle shank. Make sure you write down your brand of machine before you go out buying needles. If it comes with a needle in it, take that with you too.

If you’re lucky enough to get a flat backed needle, you’ll be able to buy your sewing machine needles anywhere. I tend to buy the pack that looks like this:

needle pack

I buy them because there are 10 in the package and I always end upbreaking a couple.

Enough about needles, let’s go back to this part of the machine:

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The strike plate is where your fabric lays as you sew. You’ll notice that this strike plate has measurements engraved on it. This is the distance from your needle in its centred position to the line. This helps you determine your seam allowance. The average presser foot is 1/2-inch wide which means each side is 1/4 of an inch from the needle. That’s why I always draw my seam allowance as 1/4 of an inch. Commercial patterns often list their seam allowance as 5/8”, but we’ll talk about that later.

The presser foot holds your fabric to the strike plate. It holds it firmly enough to not move by accident, but gently enough to let the fabric pass through. The presser foot can also be taken off and replaced with other types of feet. As I mentioned before, the zipper foot is the second most commonly used presser foot. If you got others with your machine, you should look up what they do before trying to use them. Some machines have a presser foot pressure adjustment, but I’ve never had one of those.

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From these view points, you can see the feed dogs. The feed dogs are toothed pieces of metal that move back and forth to move the fabric. If you are sewing and let go of the fabric, it will continue to move, though erratically, under the presser foot. In fact, during the next few lessons where I show you how to actually sew, I’d actually recommend doing that with a piece of paper so you know what it looks like.


On some machines (like my Bernina), the feed dogs can be disengaged for more free-form sewing. If your needle moves correctly, but you can’t get your fabric to move, look to make sure that the feed dogs are up like in these pictures. If they aren’t look for the lever.

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Now we’re down to the mysterious bobbin. The bobbin holds thread, like a tiny spool, but it sits inside the metal bobbin case. I cannot 100% explain how the bobbin works, but here’s a cool animation that even the person I retrieved it from didn’t make.


From what I can tell, the bobbin thread, case, and hook race work together to create kind of a thread braid that holds your fabric together. (I did not know any of that, nor had I ever heard the term hook race before I wrote this). I have kind of always assumed that the sewing machine was created by a wizard and I don’t try to understand it. If you would like to, knock yourself out. I’d love to find out what you learn.

The bobbin sits in the bobbin case like so:

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With a little thread sticking out. The final step to threading your machine is always picking up the bobbin thread by bringing your needle down and using the top thread to catch the bottom thread. You know what? Here’s a video.

On to the parts that don’t move without your permission.

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On my Mother-in-law’s machine, this determines the stitch width for her zigzags. As you can see, the 0 setting is a straight stitch. The needle goes wider as the number goes higher. As a rule, your zigzag stitch will never be wider than the hole in your presser foot.

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This knob shows the selection for stitch length. As a rule, I want my machine stitches to be pretty long. In my opinion, they’re more attractive that way. I always have my machine set on the longest stitch available. That’s usually about 1/4 of an inch.

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The last, but certainly not least, of the selection knobs is the stitch selector. This allows you to decide what kind of stitch you’d like your machine to perform. As this machine is pretty basic, you can see that it really only has 3 stitch selections and a buttonhole. On this dial, 1 is both a straight and zigzag stitch. The way you determine which is which is by the stitch width dial.

Next to the stitch selection, you’ll see a lever. This lever is in a different place on every single machine. Seriously, I think the manufacturers have little cameras where they can see us look for it. Why? Because this is the reverse lever. As you’ll see later on, stitching in reverse is the way we “tie a knot” on a sewing machine. Realistically, you can sew without one, but it is very difficult to do without your stitches falling out.

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On the very end of the machine, you’ll find the hand wheel. This wheel spins automatically as the machine runs, but you can also use it to move your needle slowly. This is very useful when it comes to turning corners or bringing your bobbin thread up.

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And finally, the foot pedal. The foot pedal is where you control the speed of your machine. The harder you step on it, the faster, and less precise, your machine becomes. I’ve got a couple of tricks up my sleeves to help you out with that over the next few days.


So, these are the parts of your machine. Take a half hour and learn to thread your machine. Then rethread it until you can do it correctly every time. Like I said, 10 times correctly should do it.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about getting your machine cleaned so it’s ready to use.

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