Sewing 101: Getting to Know Your Machine

Say you have a sewing machine you have never learned how to use. Or perhaps you knew how to use it once, but it’s been so long that you are slightly afraid it will eat you if you break it out again. Well, never fear. I’m here to ease you into the wonderful world of machine sewing, one baby step at a time. 

This is my machine:

Brother Sewing Machine
Isn't she pretty?

It’s a Brother, and I love it. Unless you have exactly the same model, yours probably looks a little different from mine. There should be enough similarities, however, that this tour will help you get to know your machine. If any of the differences are too confusing, check your owner’s manual. If you can not find your owner’s manual, check online. It is possible to find a .pdf of darn near anything with a Google search.

These are the basic parts of your machine:


stitch length
Stitch length selector
sewing machine reverse button
Reverse button. It doesn't undo anything, but it does make you go backwards
Bobbin array
Bobbin, bobbin holder, and bobbin housing
Sewing machine foot
Needle, foot and foot raising and lowering arm
tension wheel
Tension wheel and threading diagram (one of the reasons I love this machine)
sewing machine foot pedal
Foot pedal - it's like a gas pedal, the harder you step on it, the faster you go.


Manual sewing wheel
The top wheel is the manual sewing wheel, the bottom wheel is the stitch selector.


Now let’s dive right in and talk thread. We’ll start with the bobbin first, because you usually can’t wind a bobbin while the machine is threaded, so if you take care of the bobbin first, you don’t have to thread the machine twice. The bobbin is one of the three most intimidating parts of machine sewing, but they are considerably less complicated than they appear. To wind a bobbin, put your thread on the spindle and run it through the first of the guide hooks you will use when you are threading the machine. Mine also has a second guide that is just for bobbin winding, but not every sewing machine has one. Now, your bobbin has a hole or two in the top of it that you can poke some thread through, this gives you a little tail to help keep the thread in place when it starts to wind. Once you have that done, pop the bobbin on the winding post and slide the post to the right (if yours doesn’t slide, don’t do that part). Most sewing machines I have used have an outer ring on the manual sewing wheel, this is where that ring comes into play. Loosen the outer part of the wheel by holding the inner part steady while you twist the outer part towards you. Doing this disengages the sewing part of the wheel, so your machine isn’t trying to sew nothing while you wind the bobbin. Now, put your foot on the gas and let ‘er rip. Some machines have an automatic shut-off when the bobbin is full, if your’s doesn’t, just stop winding when it’s about 1/16″ away from the edge of the bobbin. If the thread winds past the edge of the bobbin, it won’t fit into the bobbin holder. I usually keep my finger on the thread tail for a second at the beginning, to help things catch, but you can wind it a few times by hand instead. I can never remember which way I should wind, though, so I just hold it down.

bobbin winding
A freshly wound bobbin.


When you put your freshly wound bobbin into the bobbin holder (the part that goes under the needle), you want the thread to be going counter-clockwise. I don’t know why it makes a difference, but it does. Then you pull it through the tiny groove in the left hand side of the holder until it pops out the tiny hole in the side. If you read the instructions for this part, they use a whole lot of confusing words to describe the process, but they all add up to “push it into the groove and wiggle it till it runs smoothly through the little hole.” I wish I could use more exact language here, but I can’t. It will probably only make sense once you have actually done it. Now pop the bobbin holder into its little compartment (the pointy bit at the top has its own little groove so you know you are doing it right), close the door and you are good to go. I feel I should add that I keep using the word “pop” to describe putting something in its place because most of these things do give a little pop or snap when they are seated properly. It’s just one more indication that you are on the right track.

On to the top thread!

Threading your sewing machine is the second of the three most intimidating parts of the process, but it’s really not that hard. On every machine I have ever used, the steps are basically the same: left, down, up, around,  down, around and through. Once your thread is on the spindle, you run it straight across to the left and hook it on the little guide there. Then you bring it down and run it under the tension ring. Bring it back up and hook it into the thread take-up arm. The arm is inside the machine, though on some models it will poke out the top when they are full extended. You may need to use the manual sewing wheel to get it into position, just turn the wheel forward till the arm is at its highest point. This part seems like it should be hard, since the arm is actually inside the housing when you do it, but I promise your sewing machine has been engineered to make this possible. Typically, you simply hold the thread up, so it’s in a vertical line, and run it around the edge of the groove and it will catch on the arm all on its own. In some older machines, you actually have to thread the thread through a small hole in the arm – these are the ones where the arm sticks out of the housing at its apex, and it does so to make this possible. Poke the thread through from right to left and continue back down to the needle area. There are probably one or two more guide hooks right over the needle, hook onto those, thread the needle and you are ready to go. Like I said; left, down, up, around, down, around and through.

When you have the bobbin in and the thread threaded, you need to retrieve the bobbin thread from the murky machinery depths. All you have to do to grab it, is turn the manual wheel towards you for one stitch – hopefully you remembered to tighten the outer ring on the sewing wheel after you wound your bobbin (even though I didn’t tell you to). If you didn’t, turning the wheel will feel funny and the needle won’t move. No harm done, though, just tighten it back up and try again. As soon as the needle starts to rise back up, pull the end of the top thread taut and it will pull the bobbin thread up with it. Pull the bobbin thread out so you have the end of it on the top side of the sewing surface and push both threads to the back so they are out of the way.

Guess what – You’re ready to sew!

Lift up the foot with the foot-lifting lever, place your fabric under it and snap it back down. Use the wheel to lower the needle into the fabric for the first stitch – keeping your finger on the thread tails so you don’t unthread the needle in the process – step on the foot pedal and go!

It’s a good idea to practice on some scrap fabric for a bit until you feel ready to start on an actual project. Play with the different stitches your machine will do. Get a feel for how a fine stitch differs from a larger one. Push the reverse button a few times to get used to it. Most importantly of all, get your tension set.

Tension is the third most intimidating thing about a new sewing machine (you thought I forgot #3, didn’t you?). If you start sewing and you hear a ka-chunk and a few stitches later it won’t go anymore, it’s probably the tension. If you sew your first seam and, when you turn it over, it looks like a giant hairy pile of crap, it’s the tension. If you get a seam where one side looks fine, but the other looks like a straight piece of thread with loose loops over it, it’s the tension. If feral cats burst into your house and run screaming through your workroom, it was probably the tension. The tension gauge has numbers on it, and probably some indication of the optimal range. Generally, if you keep it in the optimal range (4-6), you won’t have any big problems with it. If you do, adjust the tension the same way you would adjust the hot water in your shower – a little bit at a time. Keep sewing and checking until it looks right. If adjusting the tension has no effect and you keep getting a fouled up mess every time you sew, check to make sure you threaded the machine correctly. This happened to me just the other day, and I was ready to throw a screaming fit. I had my sewing machine fully serviced just a few months ago, and then for some reason it would only go four or five stitches before getting so bound up in tangled bobbin thread that it wouldn’t go any further. Before calling the repairman to tear him a new one, I checked the top thread and saw that I had completely missed the take-up arm and my thread was just flopping around in there, happily gumming up the works.  I re-threaded and everything was smooth as silk after that.

Now that you are a little more familiar with your machine, your assignment for this week is to play around with some scrap fabric and get the hang of it. If anything I wrote seems confusing (and it probably does) try it out and I can almost guarantee that it will make sense after you have done it once or twice. Practice, practice, practice, and I’ll be back in a week or two with a fun and simple project for you to do.

By [E]SaraB

Glass artisan by day, blogger by night (and sometimes vice versa). SaraB has three kids, three pets, one husband and a bizarre sense of humor. Her glass pendants can be found at if you're interested in checking it out.

33 replies on “Sewing 101: Getting to Know Your Machine”

Great walkthrough on sewing machines! Tension’s a bitch though. :P My mom always shrills, “Don’t touch the tension knob!” as if messing with the tension will open an interdimensional portal to hell.

I recently inherited my grandmother’s sewing machine and accompanying sewing cabinet/table. Instead of a foot pedal, it has a knee pedal that is attached to the inside of the desk. I wasn’t sure if I liked that idea, but it works so much better–for me–than a foot pedal. Somehow, I have better control on it than I do with foot pedals.

That’s why my mom got me the kiddy machine, because I was so fascinated by her sewing machine. She actually got me my Brother to replace the little one for some milestone (though I can’t remember what milestone). It is the gift that keeps giving.

I have a newish Brother machine that has served me well, but I swear I need to refer to the manual EVERY TIME to get the stitch length and stitch width dials in the right place. And if the day ever comes that I can properly execute a blind hem stitch, I’m buying a round for everyone in this damn bar. 20+ years sewing (intermittently; I’m terrible) and I still have to hem pants by hand.

Yes, if your fabric is fuzzy or slippery of thick, you may need to adjust the tension. Basically, changing the tension changes the resistance on your top thread. The bobbin thread stays constant, and the top and bottom need to be balanced to get an even stitch. Some fabrics change the amount of stress on the top thread, so you need to make adjustments to even things back up.

Now, I understand all that in some part of my brain, but I still approach the tension wheel as a small magical creature that must be appeased to make my seams pretty.

You are not alone. I did some contract work for a costume shop a few years ago, and I hadn’t actually sewn anything for a few years, so when I tried to thread the unfamiliar machine I got completely lost. Thankfully they were nice about showing me the first time. It made me realize that I thread my machine mostly by muscle memory, rather than actually knowing what goes where.

You’re welcome! I had a mini kid’s sewing machine when I was about nine, that came with the materials and pattern for a stuffed doll project, that got me hooked. Now I go through massive sewing bouts for a month or two at a time, and then I don’t sew for the rest of the year. It’s weird.

My mom bought my daughter a smaller Bernina awhile back and we haven’t used it yet. It’s a nice machine, but it’s like I get nervous, having flashbacks to my middle school life skills classes where it seemed like I caused machines to need an exorcism! ha

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