Here’s a post on choosing a basic sewing machine.

This post is about taking the first steps in learning to use a machine. You don’t need to know everything about your machine before it’s safe to put your foot on the pedal, but there is a surprising amount that it’s helpful to know. So take your time if you like to learn slowly.

If you prefer learning from videos, see near the top of the menu at right – links to free starter video tutorials.

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Get to know the parts

It’s a great help to have a machine manual to find the parts of your machine. Many manuals for older machines are available online.
For photos of what to look for, and guidance on using your machine, see :

Written tutorials from Tilly and the Buttons

Free videos from eSewingWorkshop

For complete beginners, here’s a possible sequence of things to try on your machine :

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First steps

Find how to raise and lower the presser foot using the presser foot lever.
Find how to raise and lower the needle, by turning the top of the hand wheel towards you.


Control the speed

Sew on a piece of paper.
Put the paper between the presser foot and foot plate.
Lower the presser foot to hold the paper firmly.
Lower the needle. (You may not need to do this with a modern machine.)
Learn how to control the speed with the foot pedal.

(The machine moves the fabric/ paper lengthways under the needle. Watch the machine while it stitches without anything between presser foot and foot plate. You can see how the feed dogs move. They pull the fabric along.)

Control the direction to follow a specific line

Control the direction by moving the fabric/ paper sideways.
Try sewing along the lines of lined paper.

Pivot corners

Learn to pivot the stitching :
– needle down,
– raise presser foot,
– turn the fabric/ paper to the new direction,
– lower presser foot,
– continue stitching.

To pivot at a corner, make sure the needle goes down in the corner.
You may need to stop just before you get to the corner, and move the fabric/ paper a little to get it in the right place. Then lower the needle into position by hand, before you pivot and start stitching again.

Pivot round a curve

Draw some straight lines, gently curving lines, and corners on paper.
Practice stitching along the lines – watch the needle for this.

Sewing round a curve involves a whole lot of little pivots.
Here’s a post on pivoting round a curve.
When you sew a curve on fabric, these little pivots are important. If you pull the fabric straight to save trouble, it will sew with those distortions in place !

Control the direction by sewing a set distance from the edge

Find the width marks on the foot plate, to the right of the presser foot.
Or stick some tape to the foot plate to mark the distance you want from the needle (only leave the tape there for short times so it doesn’t leave sticky residue.).
Practice sewing while watching the edge of the paper or fabric (not the needle) to keep the paper/ fabric edge aligned with a mark on the foot plate.
You spend more of your sewing time controlling the stitching this way, than watching the needle.


Thread the machine

Learn to thread the upper thread.
Wind the bobbin.
Thread the bobbin.

Threading is something that needs to be done correctly or the machine won’t stitch properly. A “that’s near enough“ attitude works for many sewing processes, but not for threading the machine. So follow instructions in he manual carefully. It looks very complicated to start with. But practice several times until you know where all the channels and hooks are. It’s the same every time, so it won’t be long before you’re able to do it nearly without thinking.
If you have learned to thread another machine, and are using a machine that’s new to you, do check the manual. Some machines thread through the tension and take up lever channels from left to right, some from right to left !
Modern machines thread the needle from front to back, but on older machines some thread the needle left to right, some right to left.

I always do some test stitching after threading my machine.
If you get a ‘thread nest’ try :
– hold both threads taut behind the needle while the machine makes the first few stitches.
– if that doesn’t work, try re-threading.

Practice sewing straight lines, corners and curves on fabric.

Find the reverse button

Hold this down while you’re sewing, and the machine sews in reverse.
Sew a few reverse stitches at the beginning and end of lines of stitching, so they don’t unravel.

Alter the stitches

Find out how to alter the length of the stitch.

Find out how to select the zigzag stitch.
Find out how to alter the width of the stitch.

Try out some zigzag while altering the width and length.
On most machines you have to stop the machine to change the stitch settings.
On some machines you can change the length and width of the zigzag while you sew. Lovely effects but definitely a skill that needs practice !

Learn how to change the needle

On modern machines you always put the flat side of the needle to the back of the machine. On older machines the flat side may need to be left or right, so check the manual.

Learn how to control the upper tension

Find out how to control the upper thread tension and balance the upper/ lower thread stitching.
(Beware altering the bobbin tension – the machine may never sew well again – how do I know this. . . Best to get a second bobbin case when you want to try bobbin work, so you can keep one case unaltered.)

Tension affects how difficult it is to pull the thread through the machine, so how tightly it sews.

On some machines you can alter how heavily the presser foot presses down. Thicker fabrics go through more easily with less pressure. You don’t need to use this early in your sewing, but it’s good to know where the control knob is.

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Needle, thread, stitch length for novices

For a beginner, who has enough essentials to learn without worrying about details, these work well for most projects :
Universal needle size 70/10 or 75/11.
Poly-cotton thread, size 40 (size 50 for thin fabrics).
Stitch length 2.5 mm (10 stitches per inch).

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There’s a huge range of skills you could learn to make full use of a complex sewing machine, but these steps are actually all you need to know for a lifetime of sewing !

It may not be long before you find yourself wanting to use the best needle, thread and pins for a task.
Here’s another post with links to information about
needles, threads, pins.

Take the time to learn at your own pace, and enjoy using what you learn 😀

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Links available January 2014

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