How Does a Sewing Machine Work | Madam Sew

How to Use a Sewing Machine?

Does the idea of sewing your own clothes or home decor excite you? Not everyone owns a brand new sewing machine. Sewing machines are very often passed on from generation to generation. People who like to sew or quilt are not always tech savvy or mechanical engineers. A sewing machine might seem like a very complex machine.

When you learn how to sew, also learning how to properly use and maintain your sewing machine helps make the whole process more efficient and pleasant. Besides, with the proper understanding of how a sewing machine works, you can maintain it better to enhance its overall life.

These are the different parts of this article:

  1. the different types of sewing machines that are on the market
  2. the different parts of a sewing machine
  3. how a stitch is made
  4. how to set up a sewing machine properly
  5. extra tips for maintenance, use and needles

 

1. Types of Sewing Machines

Before we dive into the working of a sewing machine, let’s explain the four different types of machines: Manual, electromechanical, electronic and computerized machines.

Manual Sewing Machines

These are considered the godfathers of sewing machines. They have been around for centuries. You can find them at antique stores or flea markets. They are very decorative though not used that much any more, but there still are some people using them. Are you? All modern sewing machines are derived from these types of machines.

Manual sewing machines are made of metal and controlled by a hand crank or a treadle as there is no motor that drives this machine. The operator has to power the machine by continuously paddling the treadle or turning the hand wheel. Manual machines are also referred to as mechanical machines, without electricity.

Manual Sewing Machines
Manual Sewing Machines

Electromechanical Sewing Machines

Electromechanical sewing machines came after the manual machines. They are powered by an electrical motor and come with a dial and knobs to change stitch length and/or width. These are much faster than the manual machines. Electromechanical machines are controlled by a pedal. The sewing speed, thread tension and stitch length and width are adjustable in this machine type. Often these machines come with features such as buttonhole stitching and utility stitches, but some older machines just do a straight stitch.

Electromechanical machines are reliable; their design is simple. They don’t cost too much and you won’t pay much to have them fixed. The disadvantages are the inability to perform complex tasks and their more limited functionality.

Electromechanical Sewing Machines
Electromechanical Sewing Machines

Electronic Sewing Machines

These sewing machines are even more automated than electromechanical machines. The mechanical knobs and lever are replaced with an electronic unit. The LCD screen displays stitch information. These machines can adjust stitch lengths and widths and have a lot of preset specialty stitches. The needle up-down and a speed limiter are also controlled electronically.

Electronic Sewing Machines
Electronic Sewing Machines

Computerized Sewing Machines

A computerized sewing machine has a computer integrated in the sewing machine that remembers different patterns and stitch settings required for a particular stitch type. With the push of a button you have access to a wide variety of built-in stitches. Also, the synchronization of speed and needle functioning is automatically adjusted. A touch screen, USB ports, WIFI, and Bluetooth are also part of these machines to help you input design patterns or connect with mobile devices so that settings can be applied directly through the mobile system, transferred from one machine to another or downloaded from online databases.

Computerized Sewing Machines
Computerized Sewing Machines

2. Parts of a Sewing Machine

Let’s now look at the different parts of a sewing machine to understand the workings of a sewing machine better. Of course the parts may look different on different types and brands of sewing machines, mechanical machines have more knobs than computerized machines,but this drawing and description will surely help you understand the main parts that most sewing machines have.

parts of a sewing machine

1. Head - The entire sewing machine without a cover or stand
2. Arm - The upper part of the head that handles the top thread and needle movement
3. Thread Guides - Thread Guides are the metal loops where the thread passes to go from the spool to the needle. The guides help in the regulation of thread tension.
4. Tension Control – A dial that controls the tension of the top thread. Appropriate tension is essential for a firm stitch. Too loose tension…stitches will not stay in place, and too tight tension will cause the thread to break.
5. Take-up Lever - Is one of the thread guides. It is the lever through which the top thread passes. It moves up and down with the needle.
6. Thread Cutter - Use it to cut needle and bobbin threads. On older sewing machines, the thread cutter might be positioned on the underside of the needle plate. For newer machines, you can probably find it on the left side of the machine. Sometimes it sits on the back of the machine or it can be automated and integrated as a button.
7. Reverse Stitch Lever or Button - A lever that reverses the stitch direction. Reverse stitch, also known as back-stitch, is required to secure your thread at the beginning and the end of a seam.
8. Bobbin Compartment - Can be accessed from the top (in front of the needle plate) or on the front of your sewing machine. This is where the bobbin sits when you are sewing. Front-load machines use an extra bobbin case to hold the bobbin.
9. Bobbin Case – Front-load sewing machines use an extra bobbin case to hold the bobbin in place. Top-load sewing machines don’t need a bobbin case.
10. Bobbin - A tiny spool of thread to provide stitches on the fabric’s bottom side. These stitches hold seams together. Bobbins can be made of metal or plastic.
11. Bed - The lower part of the sewing machine that holds the needle plate and the bobbin case.

sewing machine parts

12. Spool Pin(s) - The dowel that holds the thread spool. Most machines have 2 spool pins so you can sew with a double needle.
13. Bobbin Winder - The part that helps to move spool thread to the bobbin, to wind the bobbin.
14. Hand Wheel - A knob that raises and lowers the take-up levers. Always turn it toward you to operate. If you keep turning the hand wheel, you can make a stitch without using electricity.
15. Stitch Selector - A dial that lets you choose between different stitch types. On older machines, this is a knob; on computerized machines, the stitches are selected on the LCD screen.
16. Foot Pedal - A foot pedal controls the stitches’ speed. It allows you to use your hands to guide the fabric. You can start and stop sewing with the foot pedal. The more you press down on the foot pedal, the faster the machine goes.

17. Presser Foot - A presser foot keeps the fabric in place when you’re stitching. There are snap-on and screw-on presser feet. You can change the presser foot for specific sewing or quilting tasks.
18.
Presser Foot Holder and Shank - Depending on the type of machine you have, the presser foot can be snapped off the presser foot holder that is screwed to the shank of the machine. Some sewing machines don’t have a presser foot holder because the foot and holder are in one piece (Bernina for example). The presser foot holder and presser foot are attached to the shank of the sewing machine.
19.
Presser Foot Lifter - Use this handle to lower the presser foot on the fabric and lift it back up when you want to turn the fabric or remove it from the sewing machine bed.
20.
Needle Bar - The needle bar is the long cylinder that holds the screw to tighten the needle clamp.
21.
Needle Clamp - The needle clamp holds the needle in place and has a screw to tighten the needle.
22.
Needle Bar Thread Guide - This is a little metal guide on the lower end of the needle bar. It guides the thread from the thread take-up lever along the needle bar to the thread eye of a sewing needle.
23.
Needle Plate - This metal plate, found under the needle, on the sewing machine bed has markings to guide the fabric, feed dogs and a small opening for the needle that enables the bobbin thread to come out.
24.
Feed Dogs - Rubber or metal objects in the needle plate that pull the fabric forward for stitching. They are also responsible for guiding the stitch length by determining the fabric speed.

Now that we know the parts of a sewing machine let's find out the exact process that brings the stitches to the fabric.

3. How is a sewing machine stitch made?

A machine can’t make a running stitch like you do when sewing a hand stitch because you are constantly removing the needle from the fabric and reversing the direction. A sewing machine makes a lock stitch when you sew a regular straight stitch. A lock stitch made by a sewing machine is formed by two or more threads. The top thread passes through the fabric and is interlaced with another thread - the bobbin thread - to form the lock stitch. The feed dogs move the fabric forward so the stitches are not made on top of each other.

So, to make a lock stitch a sewing machines goes through these 5 steps:

Step 1: The needle penetrates the fabric to bring top thread to the bobbin area.
Step 2: The needle begins to lift and as the needle rises, the top thread forms a loop. The shuttle hook (part of the sewing machine mechanism around the bobbin) catches this loop.
Step 3: The shuttle hook carries the thread loop around and under the bobbin case.
Step 4: The loop slides off the hook and bobbin case and goes around the bobbin thread.
Step 5: Both threads are pulled up and are set into the fabric as a lock stitch.

Understanding the stitch making process can help you get a better insight into the machine’s anatomy and, thus, an improved chance of getting the stitches right on your fabric.

In this video by Threads Magazine you can clearly see how a sewing machine stitch is made. And it gives you the basics of the operations of a sewing machine.

4. Setting Up a Sewing Machine

Before starting to operate your sewing machine, it is important to set it up properly. The quality of stitches, and therefore your project, can be impacted if it is not done correctly. So, be mindful as you follow these steps:

Step 1: Powering Up

If you have an electromechanical, electronic or computerized sewing machine, the first step you’ll have to take is to power it up. Usually, the machine’s switch is on the right. With a manual machine, you won’t have to undergo this step.

Step 2: Installing the Needle

Now comes the needle installation step. There are different needle sizes and types available. A needle has a flat and a rounded side. It will only fit one way on the sewing machine.

Loosen the needle screw first. Insert the needle into the needle clamp, with the point down and the thicker rounded side with the flat part of the top facing toward the back. That will ensure the scarf, indentation on the back of a needle, found above the eye(hole), is facing back toward the presser foot holder and shank of the sewing machine. Doing this allows the thread to align with the needle’s shaft and offers you a seamless stitching experience. If you want to know more about sewing machine needles, you can read our sewing machine needle basics blog post.


If you are having a hard time threading a needle, be sure to check out the MadamSew Needle Threader. This little tool makes inserting and threading a sewing machine needle a lot easier.

Step 3: Positioning the Spool

Next up is the spooling. In this step, you must place the thread spool on the spool pin. The thread on a spool is also referred to as the top thread. This spool pin can be horizontal or vertical. Some machines use a spool cap to hold the spool in place. If your spool is vertical, make sure the thread unwinds from the back; if the spool is positioned horizontally, make sure the thread unwinds from the back and comes out under the spool.

Positioning the Spool
Positioning the Spool

Step 4: Winding the Bobbin

Toward the right of the spool pin are the bobbin winder and stopper. The bobbin thread will be seen at the bottom of your fabric so choose the color accordingly. Always wind your bobbin before you thread the machine.

To wind your bobbin, click the bobbin onto the bobbin winder pin or spindle and put your spool on the spool pin. Loop the thread from the spool around the first thread guide (on some machines you run the thread through a little holding hook first) to the bobbin.

Now, pull the thread tail from the inside into the small hole in the top of the bobbin. Grab the thread tail. Depending on your sewing machine type, you have to push the pin sideways, or use the pedal to activate the bobbin winder. Check your sewing machine’s manual to know how your machine winds its bobbins. Keep the thread tail in hand for a several winds, stop and cut the tail. Continue winding the bobbin until it is close to or full, then cut it loose with a pair of scissors. Make sure to wind slowly, or the entire winding process will be ruined. Using an improperly wound bobbin will cause issues with your stitches and may even cause terrible thread tangles under your project, which are often referred to as a Bird’s Nest.

bobbins with and without thread on a white background
an empty bobbin on a bobbin winder pin to be threaded with orange thread
n bobbin being wound on a bobbin winder pin of a sewing machine with orange thread
an bobbin being wound on a bobbin winder pin of a sewing machine with orange thread

Step 5: Threading the Machine

Next up is installing the thread on your sewing machine. You will have to bring the thread from the spool to the needle by going through the different thread guides.

 

Place the thread spool on the spool pin. This can be a vertical or horizontal pin. Horizontal pins have a protective cap so the spool doesn’t slide off.

Run your thread through tThe first thread guide which is on top of the machine or at the top rear, towards the left (1). Sometimes, there is a little thread guide hook before this first thread guide that you need to run your thread through first. Next, run the thread through the second main guide which is down in the groove where the thread tension dial is located (2). It is an U shaped area on the sewing machine. Loop the thread down and then back up to the metal take up lever (3). This take up lever can be moved up and down with the hand wheel. The take up lever must be in the up position when you are threading. Once the thread is in the take-up lever, guide it back down in the direction of the needle.

Check if you have a needle bar thread guide (4). If you do, hook the thread behind this guide and now you can insert the thread into the needle.

 

Insert a single thread into the needle eye (5) from front to back. People often find it difficult to get the thread through the needle's eye. So, ensure the tip of the thread is fine and has no edges. Or you can use a needle threader to ease the process (see above). Finally, pull the thread through the gap in the presser foot so the thread goes directly underneath it and pull the thread toward the back of the machine.

a drawing showing how to thread a sewing machine with numbers, red thread

Now that you have installed the top thread successfully, we can go over to the bobbin thread.

Step 6: Installing the Bobbin

Place your bobbin properly in the bobbin compartment. This may be shown on your sewing machine bed, top-loading. Or check the instruction manual for your sewing machine on how to properly install the bobbin and guide its thread so the top thread can pick it up (step 7).

a bobbin with thread next to the bobbin compartment on a top loading sewing machine
a bobbin with thread next to the bobbin compartment on a top loading sewing machine

If you have a front-loading sewing machine, place the bobbin in a metal bobbin case first. The bobbin always needs to turn clockwise in the bobbin case.

Step 7: Picking up the Bobbin Thread

Depending on your sewing machine's automation, you may need to pick up the bobbin thread manually. This means you are pulling out the thread from the bobbin, through the hole that sits underneath the needle and in between the feed dogs. Check your machine’s instruction manual if you are not sure if you need to pick it up manually or not.

 

To pick up the bobbin thread, first raise the presser foot with the presser foot lifter. Now hold the upper thread with your left hand. Turn the hand wheel (hand crank) counter-clockwise (toward you) to move the needle downward and then back to its highest position. The needle will grab the bobbin thread, so the upper and lower thread will be together. Pull the upper thread toward you to get the lower thread in a loop form. Grab the thread loop with a sewing stiletto. Pull a few inches of both these threads out and place them under and to the back of the presser foot. Note: the upper thread must pass through the toe (open area at the front) of the presser foot.

picking up the bobbin thread with the help of a sewing stiletto

Step 8: Adjusting the Stitch

Choose the stitch you need for your project. Most machines have set stitches that you can choose from, but you can also manually adjust the length and width. However, not all machines have a stitch adjustment dial. Some antique machines can only do a straight stitch.

Now your sewing machine is ready to start sewing. At first all of this may seem very daunting, but you will go through these steps so many times that soon it will only take a few minutes. It is part of the whole process, so try to enjoy it!

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5. Some Extra Tips When Using Sewing Machines

Tip 1: Use a Sturdy Cabinet or Table

Make sure to place your sewing machine on a sturdy cabinet or table when you want to sew something. Firstly, it is because of the machine’s weight. Secondly, it will vibrate while operating. You can use a muffling mat to reduce the vibration and muffle the noise, if you feel it is necessary.  

Tip 2: Make Sure You Can Reach Your Pedal Easily

Place your sewing machine and pedal in a way so you can reach the pedal easily. You will be more in control and will be able to sew more accurately. If you have a slippery floor, a slip-resistant pedal mat might solve a lot of frustrations.

Tip 3: Maintenance of the Sewing Machine

It is essential to adopt some basic maintenance habits when you own a sewing machine. Remove lint and oil regularly in the bobbin area, and cover the sewing machine with a sewing machine cover to keep dust off your machine.

You can explore more Madam Sew products to make your life easy.

Tip 4: Always Test on Scrap Fabrics

Practice before working with expensive fabrics. Thread tension, different types of needles, stitches, etc., can react very differently on different types of fabrics. Always test new stitches and settings on scraps first. Practice makes perfect, right?


We tried to demystify thread tension in this blog post we published a while ago.

Tip 5: Change Your Needle Regularly

An old needle might cause thread problems, skipped stitches or bird nests. It is advised to change your sewing machine needle regularly. Always keep extra needles at hand and change accordingly.

A general rule of thumb is to change a needle after 8 hours of sewing. I know it is hard to keep track of that if you are not sewing a couple of hours every week but if you have problems with skipped stitches, tension or your thread is bunching up, remember a new needle might be the solution.

More details about sewing machine needle basics can be found in this article on the Madam Sew Sewing and Quilting Blog.

6. Summing Up

Working with a sewing machine can be daunting and a bit technical. However, the basic steps will become natural once you start using your machine regularly. It will become easier, I promise 🙂.

This article presented a detailed guide on how a sewing machine works for first-time users and some insight on sewing machines that can be interesting for more experienced sewers and quilters as well!

If you have any questions, don't hesitate to get in touch with us! an@madamsew.com 

Happy Sewing!
Sunny & An
Blogging for MadamSew.com

Madam Sew is an online sewing and quilting store. It carries Tools, Notions, Presser Feet, Essentials, Handy Helpers, Organization/Storage Items, and more for sewers and quilters. Plus, it has many manuals and free tutorial blogs to help increase your skills.

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4 comments

I wish I had this blog on sewing machine tips when I first started sewing.so useful I also found useful how to wash a quilt. Keep up the good work.

sharonngowin@gmail.com

I have a Necchi machine. My manual does not say to oil the machine. How often should I oil and what kind to use?

Pat Parker

Excellent article! I am planning to use this with my beginning students. Thank you for the information.

Darla Windholz

I differ at the bobbin winding statement. I’ve been told to wind at a higher speed so your bobbin is more evenly and fully wound in order to prevent ‘squishy’ bobbins.

JoAnne Simonson

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