woman learning to sew on her machine

Your grandma got it right. There is something in the act of sewing that transcends the boundaries of usefulness. It’s an act that calms the soul and helps us find yet another purpose in life. Even though it isn’t easy to master, the learning process will boost your confidence and let you realize that there are no limits and obstacles that a diligent pair of hands can’t sew their way through. And I promise you, there isn’t a better reward than holding a piece of garment in your hands and thinking: I made this. I carved it out from a roll of fabric. I own each and every part of it, the mistakes and the masterful details alike.

Taking up a new hobby often seems overwhelming and even intimidating, and sewing is no different. The frustration can work you up into that dreaded temptation to give it up before you’ve even started.

But here’s the ultimate truth.

That 10-year old kiddo from next door has already started doing it. A single week into a sewing class, and she already made a basic shirt. Even though it’s not a masterpiece of any kind, it still made her proud and fueled her enthusiasm.

Simple though it might seem, you still need to make that first set of steps and get there. This ultimate guide to sewing for beginners will help you get the hang of a sewing machine.

Before you go ahead, take these simple mantras, print them out and stick them onto your wall:

Don’t sweat over your mistakes. Just keep stitching. In sewing, almost every mistake can be undone.

Don’t despair thinking how slow you are. Keep stitching. Sewing is a complex skill, but you will learn every single detail, one stitch at a time.

But before you make your first stitch, take a look at this comprehensive guide to choosing, setting up, and using your sewing machine.

Basic parts and functions of all sewing machines

basic sewing machine parts on the tableI know that you don’t intend on becoming a sewing machine mechanic, but it’s a knowledge that you need to acquire in order to operate your machine. Before we take apart a basic sewing machine and look into its bits and pieces, let’s take a look at three basic types of machines, depending on their mode of operating.

Learn thy type before you invest thy cash

Although they create stitches essentially the same way, these types do have some small differences in the way they operate. Also, the learning curve will vary immensely depending on the type you choose. That is why I am putting this information on top, before we dive in under the hood.

A mechanical (or manual) sewing machine is the most basic of all three and is often the least expensive to purchase. Changing from one type of stitch to another (for example from a straight stitch to a zig-zag), as well as changing the stitch length and width, are all done by manually turning dials on the machine. Also bringing the needle to the “needle up” or “needle down” position is done by manually turning the hand wheel.

An electronic sewing machine is more of a “push button” operation for selecting stitches as well as their length and width.  The needle in an electronic machine will automatically stop in either the “needle up” or the “needle down” position when you stop stitching.  (Mechanical/manual machines can stop in “up”, “down” or anywhere in between). Electronic machines have a push button to change the needle position. Most electronic machines do not have a built in memory, so the stitch type and size will need to be reset each time the machine is turned back on.

A computerized machine has a stitch memory that allows you to pick up where you left off on different projects. It also has a memory card (or stick, etc) that allows you to download stitches or embroidery designs from your computer, or the internet, and load them into your machine. A computerized machine can often be the most expensive to purchase of these three types of machines. Nevertheless, I sincerely recommend you to go for it. You will be amazed at the sheer amount of choices these machines offer, and incredible ways of stimulating your creativity.

Where does the bobbin load?

Before you hit the stores in search for your first (or maybe next) workhorse, there’s one more crucial difference you need to be aware of. Namely, the positioning and way of inserting a bobbin. It might sound like a trifle, but believe me, it’s a super huge and important matter! 

The front-loading machines are already waltzing into history, but you still need to know it if you plan on getting a second-hand machine. Make sure to always inquire about the bobbin loading system! It can make your life a breeze or living hell, depending on the type.

That being said, front-loading machines don’t come without advantages. In fact, many a seamstress (including your grandma) will tell you that they are the way to go. Take a look at this infographic that compares the two types:

Sewing Machine Bobbin Systems

A sewing machine under the hood (and why you need to know this)

No two sewing machines were made equal, but all of them have certain common parts. Now, I know you don’t intend on becoming a mechanic. But it’s still crucial to figure out the hows and the whys of your sewing machine.

For starters, how does a stitch come out and why does it look so much better than your average (or above par) hand-sewn stitches? Well, there are two threads that take part in this process: the upper thread (or machine thread) that comes off the needle, and the lower thread (AKA bobbin thread). The needle forms a loop in the upper thread and pushes it through the fabric, where it meets the bobbin thread and locks it into a nice, smooth stitch. But first things first – let’s learn all the terms.

  • Bobbin (with bobbin case, bobbin winder spindle, bobbin winder stopper, and bobbin winder thread guide)
  • Needle (with needle clamp screw)
  • Balance wheel
  • Thread guide
  • Thread lever
  • Thread tension knob or dial
  • Dog feed
  • Presser foot
  • Presser foot lifter
  • Spool pin
  • Stitch width/length dial
  • Stitch type dial
  • Reverse stitch lever or button
  • Foot pedal
  • Power supply

Should I buy a machine in store or online?

Sure, this is a website about sewing machines, and we do make a small commission off of every purchase that happens through our Amazon links. But that doesn’t mean I intend to be dishonest with you. And here is the proof for it.

Online marketplace knows no boundaries, and the sky’s the limit. You can find any brand or model, used or new, with a bunch of sales to catch on and pinch some serious pennies. However, buying a sewing machine is way different than buying a piece of clothes. And that is why I sincerely recommend you to hit some of the nearer stores in your area, and for a number of reasons.

  1. You will get a very useful set of recommendations first-hand. They will even show you how the machine works and maybe help you set it up for the first use. Online reviews are great, but it’s always nice to try before you buy.
  2. Maintenance and repairs will be an essential part of your relationship with the machine. And just like every other relationship, yours will need much work so it can thrive. Your local shop will likely also provide help from certified mechanics, who will jump in when something goes wrong. Of course, the manufacturers also provide warranty with new machines. But in practice, it often goes terribly wrong when you have to explain everything over the phone or drive 400 miles away for an expensive fix. Take it as a rule: no matter how good your machine is, something will go south sooner or later.
  3. Free sewing class, anyone? The internet is an excellent repository of tools and advice (ehem), but you have to get your hands dirty when learning a craft. Many retailers will actually offer you a sewing class for free if you buy a machine from them. Why not take advantage of it?

Before you make your first stitch: basic sewing supplies that you must have

Basic Sewing Supplies infographic

I know how this sounds, but don’t start panicking just yet. I don’t mean to say that your wallet is gonna suffer much more. In all likelihood, you will already have most of the items that you need to get started. As for the ones you don’t, they won’t cost you more than a couple dozen bucks, provided you don’t get them with the machine. Check out this chart, or print it out and carry it with you on your shopping spree.

How to thread your sewing machine

Before you can start using your sewing machine, you will need to thread it properly, as well as insert and thread a bobbin. It’s the threads that do the trick, but most of the time they will be the culprits for any kind of trouble down the road. At least until you get the hang of it.

There are no one-size-fits-all recommendations for threading your machine. Your instruction manual should be your best friend here – make sure to always keep it by your side as a beginner. Many machine manufacturers will also equip you with a DVD, where you can see all the steps. Don’t go berserk if your first threading takes an hour – with practice, it will cut down to a couple of minutes. If you’re ready to splurge on your first sewing machine, many top-notch models have automatic needle threader, so that you don’t break a sweat even on your first time.

But even if your machine is no space ship, it will still have printed guides on the body with little numbers marking the steps, so you’d know where and when to place your thread.

Take a look at some of the most important considerations you should keep in mind.

  • Turn the power off. Or unplug the machine altogether. This has nothing to do with the threading process itself, but is a vital safety measure. You don’t want a disaster to happen if you were to accidentally step on the pedal while messing around the needle. 
  • Thread tension can be tricky. It’s one of the most common problems for beginners. But how to detect it? When you sew your test seam, you will notice that it’s not balanced and neat. The fabric will either bunch up or not look the same on both sides. When this happens, rethreading your machine might help. Make sure the thread goes through thread guides (those little metal loops that the thread goes through before entering the needle). Also, inspect your spool and bobbin. Is the thread free to run through them? Your bobbin might jam, even if it’s a drop-in bobbin (scroll up for the explanation). Or maybe you just need to adjust your tension by turning the tension dial or knob. Consult your manual, since it varies from one machine to another. Most manuals will include the best tension settings to work with.
  • Bobbin winding or threading is done on top of the machine. In my opinion, it’s an easy part – but if you aren’t comfortable with so many things to learn, you can also buy a few pre-threaded bobbins in your local crafts store. They are a wee bit more expensive, but might save you some trouble as you start.
  • You might need some extra light. Especially if you’re a night owl like I am. Most machines have small lights illuminating the sewing area, but I often don’t find them bright enough. Also, threading is a process that goes beyond your sewing area. That’s why you will need more light, and a nice pair of glasses if your vision is poor.

How to build your sewing skills as an absolute beginner?

Okay, now that your machine is threaded and the bobbin is loaded correctly, you are ready to take your first baby steps towards becoming an expert in sewing.

baby learning to sew on a machineBefore digging into various fabrics, I suggest you start with sewing on paper. Yeah, you heard that right! Take like a 100 sheets of paper. No need to go fancy – ordinary copy paper will do. Some of them should have straight lines, others with various curves – you can make it interesting and print out hearts, spirals, squares, zigzag lines, labyrinths, etc. You don’t need the machine to be threaded at this stage. You just need to pierce the paper following your lines, and learn how to sew straight stitches and pivot your material when making a turn. It’s just about gaining full control of your hands and motions. Another great thing that I like about this is that you can experiment a lot – manipulate the stitching speed by pressing your foot pedal harder or easier, vary your stitch length and observe the results.

Practice for a day or two, and then you can start sewing on fabrics. Just make sure you change your needle first, since the papers will make it dull.

Best fabrics to practice on

I suggest that you gather a few fabric scraps to practice with. This is the best way to get a feel of how your machine runs and how each different stitch looks. In fact, it’s really good to make a habit of this: before starting any new project or phase, test your fabric and machine settings. It will save you tons of trouble (and tons of fabric, to be honest). Now, it’s also important to not pick just any kind of fabric that you can get your hands on.

For starters, choose a piece that isn’t stretchy, knit, extra thick or thin.

Jersey, denim, leather, silk are an absolute no-no at this stage. My personal recommendation would be woven cotton or linen. Both are ideal newbie-friendly fabrics. Your choice between the two is mostly a matter of your budget, to be completely honest. Linen tends to be on the pricier side, so cotton is probably the best choice. Get lots of it, since you will likely choose it for your first sewing projects as well as practice.

Select your stitch type

The amount of stitches to choose from depends on the type of machine you have. Some machines offer a small group of just the basic stitches; others will have all the basic stitches plus many decorative stitches.

Woman Stitching Fabric on a sewing machine

Very old sewing machines do not offer any choice of stitches. A straight stitch is the only one available on these older machines.

Your sewing machine’s owner’s manual will give you a description (and probably a drawing) of each available stitch. It will also prescribe correct settings for the length and width for each type of stitch. Keep it handy as a reference guide when you first start sewing. I strongly suggest you try out each stitch on scrap fabric. This will give you a much clearer idea of what each one looks like.

If you’ve lost the owner’s manual for your sewing machine, try visiting the manufacturer’s website.

Sometimes the manufacturer will provide older manuals that can be downloaded to your computer. Or you can look for them on eBay. Youtube is another great source of info. I’ve seen tutorials for nearly every model out there!

A quick note about stitch length

Very large stitches create a looser seam than medium or smaller stitches. (Also remember that smaller stitches are more difficult to remove if you make a mistake.) Experiment with different stitch lengths on some scrap fabric. Stitches that are too small can draw up the fabric so that it is difficult for the seam to lay flat. The ones that are too big can show gaps when the seam is stressed. Play around with different settings. Soon you will develop a feel for what is the best length for your project.

In addition to regular stitches, most machines will also have stretch stitches for knit fabric. A knit fabric (for example T-shirt fabric) has more stretch to it than woven fabric. Therefore, the stitches will need to stretch with the fabric as well. Anyhow, your regular straight stitch will probably be your most often used stitch when you first learn how to sew.

Just start stitching!

Your sewing machine works by continuously moving the needle in an up and down motion, piercing the fabric. The top thread is locked in with the bobbin thread to create the stitches.

  1. Before you start any new line of stitching, make sure the needle is in the UP, or the highest, position. This will ensure that the thread is not pulled out of the needle as you start sewing.
  2. If you forget and the thread pulls out – don’t stress. It’s a very common mistake that beginners make. It’s annoying but not a big deal. Just raise the needle to its highest point and re-thread it.
  3. To raise the needle and thread, take up lever, and turn the hand wheel towards you – or press the needle up/down button if your machine has one.
  4. Your next step is to place your fabric under the presser foot and line it up with the seam allowance markings on the metal plate. Your sewing pattern will tell you how wide your seam allowance needs to be. The fabric should also line up under the needle at the spot you want to begin the stitching.
  5. Lower the presser foot lever to hold the fabric in place. Lowering the presser foot holds your fabric in the correct position AND it also engages the tension on the thread. This tension allows the correct amount of thread to be pulled off the spool as you stitch.
  6. If you accidentally forget to lower the presser foot and begin to sew, you will soon have a big tangled mess of thread stitched into your fabric. (I once heard this mess affectionately call “thread throw-up”, lol!) If that happens, just cut your thread with sharp scissors. Remove any tangled thread from the fabric and the machine. Bring the needle up and down a couple times by using the hand wheel or needle up/down button. You should be able to see any hidden tangled thread under the metal plate as the needle moves. Once all tangles are removed, re-thread the needle and re-install the bobbin if necessary.
  7. Start sewing by gently stepping on the foot pedal to start the machine. Practice this to see how different pressure on the pedal will increase or decrease the speed of the sewing machine. Go slow at the beginning until you get used to the feel of the machine.
  8. You do not need to push the fabric through the machine. It automatically moves along by the feed dogs under the fabric. You can, however, gently guide the fabric as it stitches, so that the right side edge stays lined up with your seam allowance marking on the metal plate. This will ensure nice and even seam allowances.
  9. When you are first learning how to use a sewing machine, it is best to keep it moving on the slower side till you get more used to it. You will also notice that when sewing a curved section it is easier to control the fabric at a slower speed.
  10. When you come to the end of your line of stitching, raise the needle to the “up” (highest) position. Cut the thread (top thread and bobbin thread) with either scissors or the thread cutter, if available, on the side of the machine.

Three ways to lock in stitches

girl confused while thinking about stitch lengthOften if not always, it will be necessary to “lock in” or reinforce your stitches at the beginning or end of a seam. This will ensure that the first or last few stitches do not loosen up through wear and tear. Another term for this step is “backstitching”. And I can’t overemphasize just how important this is for your final product’s professional look. If you don’t do it, your seam might just fall apart. Luckily, there are two easy ways to do it, depending on your machine’s functionality. Note that the third way is just a precautionary measure.

1. Press the lock-stitch button

If you have an electronic machine, chances are you have a lock stitch button. Press this button before you start your line of stitching, and the machine will automatically stitch in the same spot for several stitches before moving on to the rest of the seam. If you want to lock the stitch at the end of a seam, press the lock stitch button before you raise the presser foot, and press the foot pedal. The sewing machine will repeat a few stitches in the same spot to lock them in.

2. Or press the backstitch button or lever

If you have a mechanical machine (or your electronic machine does not have a lock stitch button), you can reinforce the seam at the beginning and end using your back stitch button or lever.

Your sewing machine will move the fabric in reverse when you hold down your back stitch button or lever. This can be handy to stitch over the same area to reinforce or lock in the stitches. Practice on some scrap fabric until you get used to this feature.

3. If you aren’t sure your stitches are safe, use your iron!

Yes, I mean your actual iron – you know, for ironing garments and removing wrinkles.

But you shouldn’t use it the regular way, by moving it up and down, left and right. You should use it to press your seam, so that the stitch settles in nicely. Pressing is the most frequent and common use of iron when it comes to sewing, which is why it’s so important to always keep your iron and ironing board next to the sewing machine.

Conclusion – no matter what, keep stitching!

These beginners sewing instructions give you the basic operation of how to use your machine.  Similar to learning other new skills, you may make a few mistakes in the beginning. Please do not get discouraged.  You will get the hang of this.

Remember that mantra I told you to always repeat when you run out of patience through that painful trial-and-error learning process? Here’s another sewing wisdom for ya.

You can and you will sew your way out of any difficulty – if you are persistent and patient enough.

Happy sewing!