Your sewing machine is threaded, the bobbin is loaded and ready to go… but what comes next? How do you start to sew? I’ll walk you through sewing your first stitches and give pointers on completing your first project. Read on to find out how to use a sewing machine in this step-by-step guide for beginners.
The first thing to do is get your sewing area ready. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. The kitchen table will do just fine. As long as you have plenty of space for your sewing machine, fabric, scissors, pins and even your seam ripper.
Make sure everything is in easy reach. There shouldn’t be anything to the left of the machine. This is where your fabric goes as you sew. Putting anything here is likely to get caught up in your work. Or worse, you could knock things over.
How to Sit at Your Machine
Whatever table or desk you use needs to be at a comfortable height. You should be able to rest your arms on the tabletop at an easy 90 degree angle to your body. Without stretching or over reaching!
Place the machine on the table in front of you with the needle area in line with your arms. The body of the machine, where the buttons are, should be to your right. Put your feet flat on the floor in front of your chair with your legs parallel to the chair legs. Your sewing machine pedal should be directly under your right foot.
Check your sitting position to make sure you’re not hunched over the machine or too low down, as both will cause back ache. Position your machine about 2 inches away from the edge of the table. This distance allows you space for essentials like scissors, or somewhere to put your sewing clips.
You need to be able to work the controls of your machine without over reaching, so move your chair back and forth until you get the distance right. Don’t sit so close that you can’t see the needle or feed dogs!
Every time you reposition your chair, make sure your arms are still in line with the needle area, and your pedal is still under your right foot. Can you work the pedal with your foot easily? Does it feel too close or too far away? Adjust the position of the pedal until you are happy with it. You should be able to use it without stretching or straining to reach it.
The last thing to check is your threads. Make sure both your bobbin and top threads are going under the presser foot and out towards the back of the machine.
Now your sewing area is set up, it’s time to start sewing!
Turn the Power On
Plug the power cord and foot pedal into the machine and switch the on/off button to on. If it’s a modern sewing machine with a built-in light, it will come on showing the machine is getting power. A computerized machine will have an LED display panel that will turn on and show you what stitch it is set on. Normally, the default is a straight stitch shown as “01”.
Changing the Stitch
Sewing machines either have a stitch dial or computerized buttons. If you want to change from a straight stitch to a zigzag, you either turn the dial or push the stitch button.
You can also change the stitch length and width. Again, how you do this depends on your machine. You can either turn a dial or push a button.
Most of the time, you can use default length and width settings. Some tasks like gathering stitches or working with heavy fabrics may require a change in length or width. Your sewing machine manual will give hints and tips on how or when to change default settings for your particular machine.
Setting the Tension
Most modern day machines are set to Auto when it comes to tension. This setting is fine for beginner projects and you can sew happily on Auto without worrying about it. Most sewists keep it on Auto for more advanced projects too!
The time to change tension is if you’re using different weights of thread for the top and bobbin. This isn’t something you’ll do for most projects, so you can leave the tension alone. If you do want to know more about the tension for your machine, refer to your manual.
Sewing In a Straight Line
Most sewing machines have a seam guide printed on the bed next to the needle plate.
You can use this to line the edge of the fabric up so you can sew in a straight line. If you don’t have a guide, mark your seam allowance on the fabric with a fabric marker before going to the machine.
Decide if you want to use a straight stitch or a zigzag stitch. This is just a practice so either will work fine.
Start with the needle in the up position. If necessary, turn your hand wheel until the needle is at its highest point.
Lift the presser foot by pushing the presser foot lever upwards. Slide the fabric underneath, lining the fabric up with the seam allowance guide on the machine. Or if you have marked your fabric, place it under the foot so the needle will hit your markings. Use the handwheel to bring the needle down to check if it will land in the right place.
Lower the presser foot lever and the foot will go back down to hold the fabric. Turn the handwheel towards you to lower the needle into the fabric. Check the floor to make sure your foot pedal is close to your foot. If your machine has a needle-up-down button, you can use that instead.
With your left hand, hold the threads loosely. Don’t pull on them! All you need to do is stop them from being pulled into the machine.
Put your foot on the pedal and slowly push down. If the machine starts to buzz, give it more juice by pushing the pedal a little harder. Take two or three stitches and stop.
Push your reverse lever or button, depress your sewing pedal and stitch backwards for two stitches. This is called back-tacking. Stop before you go off the edge of the fabric.
Let go of reverse, press down on the sewing pedal and start to sew forwards again. Continue to sew in this way until you reach the end of your seam. Let the machine pull the fabric under the presser foot. Don’t help it!
All you need to do is keep the fabric in a straight line and level with the seam guide. At the end of your seam, push reverse again and stitch back for two stitches. Release the reverse and go forward two stitches.
Take your foot away from the pedal and lift the presser foot. If the needle is still in the fabric, turn the handwheel towards you until the needle reaches its highest position.
Sewing Round Corners
If you’re sewing a square or a rectangle, you’ll need to go round some corners. The easiest way to do this is to use the pivot method.
Stitch down one side of your project, following your seam allowance guide or line. Slow down as you reach the corner.
Stop stitching with the needle in the down position. If your seam allowance is ¼ inch, you need to stop ¼ inch away from the edge of the fabric.
Lift your presser foot using the take up lever. Leave the needle in the down position.
Turn your work so your presser foot is in line with the seam on the side coming out of the corner. Put your presser foot down and continue to sew.
Sewing Round a Curve
Curves can be a challenge even for experienced sewists! If your project includes curves, these next steps will help you make the process as easy as stitching in a straight line.
Before getting to the machine, mark your seam allowance on your fabric with a fabric marker or tailor’s chalk.
Put the fabric under the presser foot so the needle is level with your drawn line.
Stitch on the line all the way around the curve. This will keep your seam allowance accurate and level throughout.
Tips for Sewing Your First Projects
Now you know your sewing machine, it’s time to think about your first project. Pick something simple so you can build on the skills you’ve been practicing from this article. Things like scrunchies, placemats, simple skirts, and even zipper pouches are all ideal for beginners. You can make useful items and expand your skills at the same time.
Your next project should add something new for you to learn. Maybe try a loose fitting top, or add embellishments to an existing garment. This will help you familiarize yourself with some of the other settings on your sewing machine. From knowing how to alter stitch length to using some of the decorative stitches you might have on your machine.
Keep building on your skills by choosing a project that will challenge you to learn more about your sewing machine and what it can do.
Trouble Shooting Your Machine
The one thing that trips beginners up most is not knowing how to fix your machine when it goes wrong.
Here are a few trouble-shooting tips to help you out.
Machine Won’t Pick Up the Bobbin Thread
- Make sure your needle is in correctly. Check your manual for how to insert the needle. It might be in back to front.
- Is the top threaded correctly? Check your manual for threading instructions. You may have missed a thread guide.
- Is the bobbin in the right way round? Some bobbins go in clockwise while others are counterclockwise. Check your manual to make sure yours is going in the right direction
The Machine is Missing Stitches
- Change your needle. It may be old or the wrong one for the fabric
- Are you going too fast? Some thicker fabrics need a slower speed to give the needle time to make a stitch before moving on to the next one
Thread Keeps Breaking
- Change your thread. Older threads can break easily so make sure to use new threads
- Check the machine is threaded correctly.
- Check your thread spool. Does it have a little groove cut into the rim? Make sure the end with the groove is furthest away from the needle. This will stop the thread catching on the groove as it comes off the reel.
The best way for beginners to get to know how to use a sewing machine is to play with it. So grab some scrap fabric and start practicing! The quicker you learn how it handles thread and fabric, the sooner you’ll be on the way to being an experienced sewist!