Ready steady go…’s time to get to grips with how to use a sewing machine. Sewing by machine is not that difficult, but getting the right basics in place will make all the difference to your journey and make the ride simple and successful.

The Anatomy of a Sewing Machine

How to begin learning how to use a sewing machine? When you sew you begin with…a machine!

It doesn’t matter whether you went out and bought a new one, or great aunt Bessie gave you her old one, you need to know and understand the basic language of your ‘new’ machine.

As a first-time machine sewer, it is important to be familiar with all the bits and bobs of the machine from the power switch to the presser foot. Take time to check through each item on the machine noted in the manual.  Look for these simple points. Some may seem very obvious but going through the list before you start sewing will make your journey smoother.

Sewing Machine Parts

How to use a sewing machine by identifying parts:

  • On/off switch – Start by knowing where the machine is switched on and off. This is generally on the side of the machine.
  • Bulb – The light bulb in the needle area. Try it out. If your light is not bright enough you may need to move your machine nearer to a window for some additional natural light.
  • Pedal – The foot pedal that operates the machine…your accelerator!
  • The speed regulator so that you don’t break the speed limit. Some machines will have a switch on the foot allowing you to choose between high and low speeds.
  • Stitches – Stitch length and width buttons including decorative stitches and zigzag. Many cheaper beginner sewing machines will have set stitches and lengths whereas more expensive machines will allow you to set length and width independently. This includes the buttonhole stitch settings
  • Tension wheels – usually at the front or top of the machine. These are important for getting nice even stitching with no loops.
  • Presser foot and the plate with the stitch guides.
  • Needle and small screw that holds the needle in place. You will need to know where this is to change needles.
  • Bobbin – The lid that opens to expose the bobbin case and the bobbin itself.
  • Bobbin tension screw –These are generally found on the bobbin case of front loading machines.
  • Oiling – And don’t forget to look for the marked oiling points and make sure you have the correct oil for your machine. Some newer machines are sealed units and don’t need oiling so double check this before you start squirting oil everywhere.



There are two sides to the learning how to use a sewing machine story – the upper and lower. The upper threading and sewing machine tension are linked to the needle and the lower threading and tension are linked to the bobbin.

Upper Threading

Start by looking at the upper threading and follow your manual as you trace the steps the thread goes through. The thread will start at the top of the machine where the spool goes, all the way down to the bottom where the thread meets the needle.

Most machines all follow the same path through hooks and tension wheels until they reach the needle.  The thread must enter the needle from the front to the back and should pull through nicely with a bit of tension but not too tight.

Lower Threading – The Bobbin

bobbin casings
bobbin casings

The lower threads and tension are linked to the bobbin. Be sure to check your manual carefully as different machines have different bobbins and casings. The bobbin may be inserted from the top or the front of the machine.

Top loading bobbins go straight into a casing (photo on right) which is attached to the machine. Front loading bobbins first go into a case (photo on left) and then that is loaded into the machine.

Winding the bobbin is an important part of the process, so be sure that you know how to wind a bobbin too.

This is generally done by placing your main thread on the spool pin, winding it around a thread guide and across to the bobbin winder. All bobbins will have a hole in the top through which you can insert the thread to start it off.

Push the bobbin winder across and start winding! Some machines will also require you to disengage the flywheel to stop the needle going up and down while you are winding.

Join the upper and lower threads

When the upper and lower threads have been sorted, it is time to join the two together and start learning how to use a sewing machine.

Turn the flywheel (the large round wheel on the right) of the machine towards you. It may also be labeled as a hand wheel in your manual. This will allow the top threaded needle to travel to the bobbin area.

Watch how easily the upper thread curls around the lower thread and pulls it up to the upper level of the machine. Always remember to turn the wheel towards yourself until you can see that lower thread emerging.  Pull the lower thread out and then keep the threads together towards the back of the machine.

sewing machine bobbins


Step 1 – Start stitching with a sample

It is always a good idea to test drive your machine on a sample of fabric first.  The best fabric to get started with would be stiff cotton. Quilting cotton is always easy to sew and can be purchased in fat quarters which are a small piece of pre-cut fabric. Calico is also a cheap easy to sew fabric for beginners. This cream-colored fabric is usually a little stiff and because it is a light color, you can make notes on the samples as you go.

Check Before you Start

  • Double Fabric – Always test the machine on a double piece of fabric because sewing seams and making articles for your home will always require fabric doubled. You will find that a little extra thickness is much easier.
  • Speed – Now before you do anything, check if your foot pedal has a speed control. My Janome has a fast and slow switch that I can adjust. Not all machines have this option, but if yours does it really can help with your first seams. Set it to SLOW. If your machine has no speed adjustment, just put your foot down on the pedal really gently when it is time to sew.
  • Settings – For your first seam, put your machine on a straight stitch with a width of 0 and a length of 3.0. If your machine has preset settings and is not adjustable, then use a medium-length straight stitch. ‘

How to Use a Sewing Machine

  1. LIFT FOOT – Lift the presser foot (usually a lever to the back or side) and put your fabric sample underneath. Most sewing patterns will specify how far from the raw edge you will be sewing. For example, it might say the seam allowance is 1/2 inch (12mm). If you are just doing a test, put the fabric 5/8 inch (15mm) from the right side of the foot. This is a little wider and will be a bit easier for beginners.
  2. PULL – Pull the threads to the back. We do this so the threads don’t get tangled and stop us from sewing forwards. Threads that get caught in the feet or dog feed underneath can cause machine jams.
  3. LOWER – Lower the presser foot. Forgetting to lower the presser foot is a common mistake beginners make.
  4. RELEASE – Hold the threads for the first few stitches only just to get started. You can then let go.
  5. SECURE – After you have done a few stitches, press reverse and stitch backward a few stitches to where you started. This will prevent your stitches from coming undone at the beginning and end. It is called backstitching.
  6. STITCHING – Release the reverse stitch and start stitching forwards.
  7. FINISHING – When you get to the end press reverse again a do a few back stitches to secure the seam.


Your new machine sewing skills will give you so much pleasure.  Sewing is a wonderfully creative and practical hobby and learning how to use a sewing machine is the first step in an amazing direction.  You may not be ready to be a formula one racing driver but with your foot on the pedal of the sewing machine, you can race up the path of practical and creative sewing and you will love every part of the journey!