This post got so long it has been divided into two sections :
1. learn basic control, stitching on paper.
2. threading the machine, stitching on fabric.

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 – search for each of these topics, as there are many short videos.

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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

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

On a mechanical machine, you need to find the specific knob, button, lever, wheel to use for each function.
On an electronic/ computerised machine with a screen, you need to find how to change the screen to the specific setting you want.

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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.

BASIC STITCHING SKILLS

Most machines start with the default of sewing straight stitch.
On some older mechanical machines you may need to check and set this up.

Control the speed

Sew on a piece of paper, without thread in the machine.
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.)

Try pressing down on the foot pedal.
What is the slowest you can stitch, the fastest ? Some machines have a fast-slow control.
Find out how to control the speed with the foot pedal.

Control the direction to follow a specific line

You don’t have to move the fabric/paper lengthways under the needle. The machine does this. 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.

You just control where the fabric/paper is relative to the needle from left to right.
Hold the fabric/ paper with one hand on each side of the needle, slightly nearer to you, and control the direction of stitching by rotating the fabric/ paper around the needle.

Try sewing along the lines of lined paper.

Pivot corners

Learn to pivot the stitching :
– needle down,
– raise presser foot (not needle),
– turn the fabric/ paper to the new direction – it rotates round the needle,
– lower presser foot,
– continue stitching.

To pivot at a corner, make sure the needle goes down in the corner.

On some machines it isn’t possible to control making one stitch at a time using the foot pedal. If so, ‘walk’ the final stitches towards the corner by turning the top of the hand wheel towards you.

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 the effort of pivoting, it will sew 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.

THREADING THE MACHINE

If you’re using a vintage machine, some of them thread and take needles in ways different from modern machines, so try to find out about your specific 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 the 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.

There are several mechanisms you need to get the top thread past – not essential to know this, but they do explain why threading has so many ‘rules’ :
That down-up-down section :
– first down to the tension discs, these are visible on vintage machines, hidden on modern ones. They do explain why you have to thread with the presser foot lever up : that opens the tension discs so the thread can slip between them.
– then up to the thread take up lever. Best to turn the hand wheel so (the needle is up and) the hole/slot in this lever is in the top position : otherwise the thread may pull out of the needle the first time you take a stitch. In order to make the ‘lock stitch’ the upper thread has to go down and around the bobbin (video), and the movement of this lever ensures that the top thread remains the same length throughout this journey.
– then take the thread down again, with leads to ensure the thread gets to the needle from the right direction : there’s a groove in the needle that the thread needs to lie in while the stitch is being made, otherwise the thread is likely to break.
Thread can also be too thick to lie in the groove – matching needle and thread sizes is something to learn about later.

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 with thread on fabric.

MACHINE SETTINGS

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 stitch length and width

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 !

Find how to choose another stitch
Some machines have a wide selection of utility and decorative stitches.
Find out how to choose them on your machine, and what tells you which stitch is selected.
You may like to make a sampler, stitch out a few inches of every stitch you have, for reference.

For later :

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. It’s easiest to see the effects if you have different colour threads in top and bobbin.
(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.

Presser foot pressure

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).

Don’t look at these until you feel confident about the basics – but it may not be long before you find yourself wanting to use the best needle, thread and pins for a task.
Here’s a post with links to information about
needles, threads, pins.

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At last you’re ready to use your machine to make something ?!
Suggestions for beginner projects in this post.

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 !

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

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First published January 2014, links checked October 2021

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