Get to know your sewing machine :
2. Thread the machine, stitch on fabric.

If you’ve done some stitching on paper (see previous post), hopefully your machine will not seem such an alarming uncontrollable thing that can race away from you unexpectedly. And you know what some of the knobs and levers do.

So the next steps are to thread your machine and repeat the first steps on fabric.
Yay !

Needle, thread, stitch length, fabric 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 (bigger number needle for thicker needle, use for thicker fabrics).
Poly-cotton thread, size 40-50 (bigger number thread is thinner, so use for thinner fabrics – aargh).
Stitch length 2.5 mm (10 stitches per inch).

For your starter trials, it’s best to use a medium weight fabric with a plain weave. Use scraps, or get some ‘muslin’ (US)/ ‘calico’ (UK).

You don’t need to know more about needle and thread 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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The general principles of threading a machine are the same for all machines, but there may be some little things which are important on yours, so try to find a manual or video specifically for your model.
There are some specialist sites supplying manuals for vintage machines, so if you have an old machine it’s worth looking around.
Brother machine models have different numbers in different countries, find the US number to get the most information.

Many sewing problems are caused by wrong threading. So if you have thread problems, it is worth looking for detailed help with your 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 through the machine.
Wind the bobbin (which holds the thread used to make the stitches under the fabric).
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, hooks and slots are. It’s the same every time, so it won’t be long before you’re able to do it nearly without thinking.

Top threading

Make sure the thread leads off the spool and through any leads to get it correctly from the spool to the down-up-down section.

There are several mechanisms you need to get the top thread past – not essential to know these reasons, but they do explain why top threading has so many ‘rules’ :

That down-up-down section :
– first take the thread down to the tension discs, these are visible on vintage machines, hidden on modern ones. When they’re hidden, you have to thread with the presser foot lever up : that opens the tension discs so the thread can slip between them.
– next take the thread 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 the thread take-up lever ensures that the top thread remains the same length throughout this journey.
– then take the thread down again, through 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 you may get skipped stitches or the thread may 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.

Bobbin threading

Next learn how to :
– wind a bobbin.
As usual this needs to be done correctly – if the thread does not go through all the leads to the bobbin winder, the thread may wind onto the bobbin with the wrong tension. When a wrongly wound bobbin is used, stitches do not form correctly.

– position the bobbin and how the thread leads away from it.
Does your machine need you to position the bobbin so the thread comes off it leading like the tail of a p or a q ?

Again you need to make sure that the thread leads correctly :
top loading machines – put the bobbin in the right way round, and find all the slots and gaps which the thread needs to lead through.
front loading machines – these have a separate bobbin case. You have to find how to :
– put the bobbin into the case the right way round,
– lead the thread through the slots on the bobbin case,
– put the bobbin case into the machine.
– lead the thread away from the bobbin case (a special route may not be necessary).

First stitches

On modern machines this may not be necessary, but on older ones it often is.

Do a ‘thread up’ : hold the top thread with your left hand, and turn the hand wheel (top towards you) so the needle goes down and then up again.
It should bring up a loop of bobbin thread. Pull on this loop until you have both ends and several inches of both threads in view.
Try it, and find whether your machine stitches well from the first stitch without needing to do this.

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, take out both threads and re-thread from the beginning.

Practice sewing straight lines, corners and curves – with thread on fabric.
If you need a reminder, look at comments on these skills in the previous post.
It’s usually easiest to stitch on a double layer of fabric.
You may like to mark lines, corners and curves on the fabric to practice following.

Then there are a few more things to learn about getting your machine to do what you want.


Find the reverse button/ lever

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, to fix them 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.

Needle up-down

Some machines have a control which you can set so the needle always stops in the down position. Very useful in many techniques.
If you haven’t got this control, you will often have to turn the hand wheel manually (top towards you) to move the needle down into the fabric.

For later :

Learn how to change the needle

Sad to say, a needle does not last for ever, they get blunt.
How many stitches they can make before getting blunt depends on the material they are made from.

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

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

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, which is needed for some embroidery techniques, and can only be done on a separate bobbin case. The machine may never again do ordinary stitching well using this case – 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 unchanged from the factory setting.

Presser foot pressure

On some machines you can alter how heavily the presser foot presses down. Experiment if you’re using a fabric that doesn’t feed through easily – try more or 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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At last you’re ready to use your machine to make something ?!
Suggestions for learning first skills in this post, and for beginner projects using those skills in this post.

There’s a huge range of skills you could learn to make full use of a complex sewing machine, but the steps in this post 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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