Pedal to the Needle: What You Didn’t Know About Your Sewing Machine Foot Pedal

A sewing machine foot pedal, also known as a foot pedal or foot control, is an essential component of a regular hobby sewing machine. With the pedal you control the speed of the sewing machine, serger or cover stitch machine.

a white sewing machine foot pedal from Brother on a wooden floor
a grey sewing machine foot pedal from Bernina on a wooden floor
a black serger machine foot pedal from Juki on a wooden floor

A sewing machine pedal consists of a plastic casing, mostly triangular in shape with a cord. You can plug the cord into the foot interface at the side of your sewing machine. Some machines have a double cord - with an extra electrical outlet - that goes into the same interface in the sewing machine. Others have a separate foot and power interface. If you only have a single cord, you should have an extra cord that leads from the sewing machine to a wall outlet.

view of the side of a serger machine with the interface to attach the pedal and the power
view of the side of a Bernina sewing machine with the power cord and the pedal cord attached
view of the side of a Brother sewing machine with the interfaces to attach the pedal and the power cord

Why are Most Sewing Machines Controlled by a Foot Pedal?

You might be wondering why the speed is controlled with your foot on a sewing machine. While there are modern alternatives, such as button or touch controls, and sewing machines with a knee lever, the foot pedal remains popular due to some practical advantages. Controlling the speed with your foot allows you to use both hands to manipulate the fabric, guiding it through the machine, adjusting the needle position or stitches when needed.Your hands remain in an optimal position while you can sit comfortably with a natural posture. Sewing also requires variable speed control. You need to be able to ease up, slow down and speed up when you want to. A constant speed would not allow for nuanced and controlled sewing.

The design of the foot pedal control on a sewing machine also has historical roots. Early sewing machines, especially treadle machines, used foot power to operate. You had to move your foot up and down to make the needle move. As electric machines were developed, the transition to a foot pedal was a natural evolution, keeping the hands free just like with the treadle systems but now using an electric motor instead of mechanical foot power.

a vintage treadle machine in a sewing room
a vintage treadle machine on a desk

Did you know that sewing with a foot pedal also improves hand-foot-eye coordination? Due to the intricate and coordinated movements required between the hands, feet, and eyes during the process, you actually stimulate your brain. The ability to synchronize the foot's pressure on the pedal with the hands' movement guiding the fabric enhances coordination between the upper and lower limbs. Footwork keeps you in shape!

How a Sewing Machine Pedal Works

The basic function of a sewing machine pedal pedal is to regulate the speed of your sewing machine needle. The pedal is attached to the sewing machine with a power cord. Pushing the pedal harder increases the current to the sewing machine motor and makes the needle move up and down faster. At the same time the feed dogs (see box below) on your needle plate are pushing the fabric forward faster as well.

What Are Feed Dogs?

Feed dogs on a sewing machine are a set of metal teeth located on the needle plate under the presser foot. The feed dogs move in a coordinated motion to pull the fabric forward. Depending on your stitch length they move the fabric in a set distance, ensuring a consistent stitch length.

sewing machine presser foot and the needle plate with the feed dogs

There are different types of sewing machine foot pedals. Mechanical pedals use a mechanical linkage to control the speed. Electronic pedals use electronic components to vary the speed, often offering more precision. Some advanced sewing machines come with pedals that have adjustable sensitivity or speed limit settings. This allows users to modify how responsive the pedal is to pressure. A dual function pedal offers additional functionalities like reverse stitching and even thread cutting by pushing a different part of the pedal.

A lot of modern sewing machines have a power control button. You can choose whether to set a speed limit or not. When activated, no matter how hard you push the pedal, your machine won’t go over a certain speed. This is useful when you are a beginner or when you have a kid sewing with your machine. On some machines with a start-stop button and speed control, you can sew without a pedal, when the pedal is unplugged.

the power control button for the pedal on a brother sewing machine

Some Technical Insights

A sewing machine foot pedal is connected to the sewing machine and electric power with electrical wiring. Inside the pedal’s casing is a variable resistor. This component changes resistance - and thus the speed it passes on to the machine - based on the pedal's position.There is also a spring mechanism that returns the pedal to its original position when pressure is released.

the bottom view of a sewing machine foot pedal
the bottom view of a black serging machine foot pedal
the bottom view of a Bernina sewing machine foot pedal

When the user presses down on the foot pedal, it decreases the resistance in the variable resistor. This allows more current to flow through the circuit to the sewing machine’s motor. Pressing the pedal all the way down minimizes the resistance to almost zero, allowing maximum current to flow to the motor, which then operates at full speed.

the interior of a sewing machine foot pedal
the interior of an electric sewing machine foot pedal

What is the Best Position for a Sewing Machine Pedal?

The placement of the pedal can affect comfort and control. It's best to position it where your foot naturally rests on it without having to lift your heel excessively and avoid fatigue. Use the foot that feels most comfortable and natural. Many right-handed people prefer using their right foot, but left-handed users might prefer their left foot. There is no strict rule; it’s about personal comfort.

the ergonomic posture of how to use a sewing machine foot pedal
pushing down the pedal with the best ergonomic posture of how to use a sewing machine foot pedal

Place the ball of your foot on the pedal with your heel resting on the ground. This gives you the best control. Use a footrest or adjust your seating position to ensure that your foot can comfortably reach and control the pedal without strain. Ensure that your back is straight and supported, with your feet flat on the floor when not operating the pedal. Your knees should be at a right angle or slightly open, allowing for relaxed movement. The height of your chair should be adjusted so that your thighs are parallel to the floor or slightly inclined downward. This helps in maintaining a comfortable and ergonomic position for operating the pedal.

Position the pedal on a non-slip surface or use a pedal mat to prevent it from sliding during use. This ensures consistent control and reduces the need to readjust frequently.

using a pedal mat to control the movement of a sewing machine foot pedal

General Tips for Proper Use

Setting up a sewing machine pedal is pretty basic and intuitive. Take into account the following tips when you are new to sewing and not sure how to use your sewing machine foot pedal.

  1. Gradual Pressure:Start with light pressure and gradually increase it. This helps in achieving a smooth start and prevents fabric from bunching.
  2. Consistent Speed:Try to maintain a consistent speed, especially when sewing long seams. This ensures even stitching and helps in achieving professional results.
  3. Practice Control: Practice using the pedal without fabric to get a feel for its sensitivity and response. This can help you become more adept at controlling speed.

Troubleshooting Common Issues

Inconsistent speed or no response from the machine when you push the pedal or a very hot pedal may indicate that there is a problem with your sewing machine foot pedal.

  1. Heat Generation and Overheating
    Prolonged use at high speeds can cause the pedal to generate heat. This is normal but can be surprising if you’re not expecting it. If the foot pedal gets unusually hot to the touch, take breaks during long sewing sessions to allow it to cool down. If it continues to overheat, it could be a sign of electrical issues and it may need to be replaced.
  2. Pedal Not Responding - Proper Connection:
    Ensure the pedal is properly connected to the sewing machine and the power source. Loose connections can cause inconsistent performance or no response at all. Check for any visible damage to the cord or pedal itself. There might be a broken connection within the pedal or a complete failure of the pedal’s mechanism.
  3. Inconsistent Speed:
    If the machine sews at inconsistent speeds, check for lint or debris in the pedal, and ensure the power cord is securely connected. Regular cleaning can prevent dust and lint from accumulating in the pedal mechanism. When the problem persists, despite consistent pressure on the pedal, this may indicate a problem with the components of the pedal.
  4. Compatibility:
    Not all pedals are universal. Different brands and models of sewing machines may require specific types of pedals. Every sewing machine comes with its own foot pedal. Using an incompatible pedal can lead to malfunction or damage. Typically the same brand has the same adapter so if you have two different Brother machines, you should be able to use both pedals on both machines. If your foot pedal is not functioning properly, you should be able to buy a new one easily. Many sewers keep a backup pedal on hand. Having a spare can prevent downtime, when yours is broken.

If you have multiple sewing and serger machines, identifying the correct pedal for each machine can be tricky, especially if the pedals look similar. You can look for the brand name, check the machine’s manual, look at the wire and plug configuration or the connector type and shape, try to match model numbers or labels, or check online resources. This way, you should be able to accurately determine which pedal goes with which sewing machine, ensuring proper functionality and avoiding potential damage to your equipment. To avoid any future confusion, we recommend labeling your pedal and cords.

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To Conclude

A good and properly functioning sewing machine foot pedal is part of a seamless, efficient, and user-friendly sewing experience. Understanding and mastering the use of a sewing machine pedal can enhance your sewing experience and help you identify problems with your machine faster. Regular practice and proper maintenance are key to ensuring long-term, efficient use. The ultimate goal is always to have more precise and professional results and a lot of sewing fun!

Looking for other articles about troubleshooting sewing machines or getting a better understanding of this wonderful machine? Click through to one of the following blog posts from the Madam Sew Sewing and Quilting Blog.

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Happy Sewing!


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