Get to know your sewing machine :
1. Learn to control speed and direction, by stitching on paper

The second post is about threading your machine and stitching on fabric. Best to be relaxed and know where the important knobs are, before moving on to that.

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

This post is about taking the first steps in learning to use a machine.
Even the simplest sewing machine is a complex machine tool, with many knobs, buttons, levers, wheels, plus other odd things sticking out which turn out to be bobbin winders, thread cutters, spool holders (and what are they. . .). It takes some effort to learn to use, but it’s all well worth it.

Sewing courses for children often start with hand sewing, so they don’t need to be able to use a sewing machine before they can ever make something. See this page for some links on hand sewing.
And some courses start with felt rather than woven fabric, so there are no problems with fraying fabric. You can even glue felt pieces together.
Would you find this a more stress-free way of starting to make ?

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.

And if you instead need advice on how to start using a treadle machine, see here.

I find it’s less alarming to try your first stitching on paper – somehow it doesn’t seem to matter so much if it goes wrong 😀
The second post in this group is about trying your first stitches on fabric.

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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.
It’s good to look for these parts, but you haven’t actually got to learn all this deliberately, learning will come naturally as you try the first exercises.
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.


Most machines start with the default of sewing straight stitch.
On some 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, though not the most basic machines.
Find out how to control the speed with the foot pedal.

This may take some practice. It may not be a quick thing to learn, especially if you don’t drive a car, which needs a similar skill.

Unfortunately if you always feel the machine is getting away from you – even at its slowest you don’t feel in control – the solutions can be a bit extreme.

How to slow down ?
– Get a machine which you can set to a slow speed.

– Get a manually operated machine – no need for electricity !
– – a hand cranked machine (search ‘hand crank Singer’ if you don’t know what these are),
– – a treadle machine – activated by your feet. Modern treadles have a variety of stitches.
An old manually operated machine can be a good cheap buy, but best to get it checked and oiled, so you’re not being frustrated by the machine rather than the sewing technique. Most only sew straight stitches, so some special techniques and tools may be needed.
Many people love these as you can feel in complete control, and totally involved in what you are doing.

– Learn to sew by hand.

The following suggestions apply to all machines, whether powered by the operator or by electricity !

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 (turn the top of the hand wheel towards you),
– raise presser foot (not needle),
– turn the fabric/ paper to the new direction – it rotates round the needle,
– lower presser foot,
– continue stitching.

Make sure the needle goes all the way down into the corner.

On some powered 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.

If you stitch a little past the corner :
– find the ‘reverse’ lever/ button.
– hold that while you make a couple of stitches backwards.

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 !

The ultimate test ?
Here’s a pdf spiral to print out and try stitching around.
Start from the outside, then the inside. Take it slowly.
Not to worry that you can’t do this early in your learning to use your machine. Or if your machine won’t let you do it well. Such stitching accuracy is rarely needed. But when you can do this you can do anything 😀

Control the direction by sewing a set distance from the edge

You spend more of your sewing time controlling so the stitching is a set distance from the fabric edge (where your seam/hem stitching needs to be), rather than watching the needle.

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.

Good, there’s now much that is familiar about your machine.
The next step is to thread your machine and try stitching with thread on fabric – exciting 😀

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First published January 2014, links checked October 2021

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