The Anatomy of the Sewing Machine: Learn to Sew

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Learn all about the parts of the most important sewing tool: your sewing machine! The Anatomy of the Sewing Machine on

I’m thrilled at all the positive messages I’ve received upon announcing this Learn to Machine Sew course! It sounds like my intuition was right on, and that a lot of people out there really want step-by-step instructions on how to sew. So let’s get started!

Our first lesson today discusses the basics about the most important tool you will use: the sewing machine. If you already have a sewing machine, great! You don’t need a fancy machine; most simple machines will have the features you need. For years I had an incredibly simple Singer Elegance, which is what I used for most of what you’ve seen on this blog up until now. I only recently upgraded because I wanted to have some extra features.

Thinking about learning to sew? Here are 10 things that you need to know to choose the best sewing machine for beginners (and why there isn’t just one!)

If you don’t have a sewing machine, either borrow or buy one! (update: I’ve written a detailed post on choosing the best beginner’s sewing machine here.) I know that it is incredibly tempting to buy a cheap model for under €100 in the mall, but I honestly suggest going to a sewing machine dealer for various reasons:

  • You get what you pay for and cheap machines with plastic parts will most likely break if you use them very much.
  • At a dealer’s you can try out different machines and get more information about each’s features.
  • The dealer will probably give you a lesson on your machine when you buy it. (But check beforehand. If they don’t, go somewhere else.)
  • You will have a good contact for all routine cleaning and maintennance, whether covered by warantee or not. (Most dealers also provide this assistance.)
  • If you decide to eventually upgrade, many dealers will take back your old machine and give you a discount on your new one. And I bet they’ll be more willing to give you a better discount if the original receipt is from them.

It’s also incredibly tempting to buy that “like new” sewing machine for a steal on Ebay. Try to resist that temptation unless you can either try out the machine in person before purchasing it or you can return the machine to the seller for a full refund (including return postage) if it is not what you’d expected. Also remember that you probably won’t have any warantee if you buy used on Ebay. Trust me, because I’ve fallen into this trap myself (I eventually received a full refund, though not for return postage). But whatever you do, make sure that you have an instruction manual for YOUR model in a language that you understand well. Even if you have a lot of experience with sewing machines, they are not all the same and you need to have something to refer to when figuring things out.

Learn to Machine Sew, Lesson 1: The Anatomy of a Sewing Machine

In this post I will show you the main features of a sewing machine on two different machines. The first is a very basic Singer Simple, which belongs to my sister-in-law. The second is my own machine, the Elna Lotus, which is a lower end electronic model. I wasn’t interested in have the gazillion different stitches that higher end (and more expensive) electronic machines have, but the Lotus provides some very nice extra electronic features and I’m quite happy with it.

The Lotus is a very unique machine and looks and is set up differently than most other sewing machines. You will probably have a sewing machine that is more similar to the Singer shown here.

The Elna Lotus opened and closed

The Elna Lotus has a very peculiar design with wings that fold up to close up the machine, then fold down to provide a wider working surface. One of the original Lotus machines from 1965 is actually in the MOMA’s collection. The thread spool is in a different place than usual and it’s the only machine I’ve ever seen with the needle positioned centrally instead of to the left.

Learn to Machine Sew, Lesson 1: The Anatomy of a Sewing Machine

The selection tools look totally different in mechanical and electronic sewing machines. And they can differ greatly model to model.

Elna Lotus instruction manual

This is why I repeat: Make sure you have an instruction manual in a language that you understand well!

Elna Lotus instruction manual: inserting the bobbin

You will refer to it frequently at the beginning. For example, when you’re preparing and inserting your bobbin (the thread that gets pulled up from beneath the fabric). That’s something that can get easily messed up, though once you know how to do it properly, you’ll be able to do it with your eyes closed. (Well, almost.)

Anatomy of the sewing machine

Let’s look at the different parts of a sewing machine area by area.

The right face

Learn to Machine Sew, Lesson 1: The Anatomy of a Sewing Machine

Some things are generally placed in the same place in all sewing machines. The right side of the machine usually has the handwheel (turning it moves the needle slowly and manually) up high and the power switch and pedal and power plug socket/s lower down. Some machines have one cord that branches off in separate cords to the electric plug and the foot pedal. Others have separate cords and sockets. That metal cylinder sticking up from the top is where you wind your bobbin.

The bottom of the machine

The bobbin

Learn to Machine Sew, Lesson 1: The Anatomy of a Sewing Machine - the bobbin

There are different types of bobbins. Some are plastic, others metal. Some are wider, others less so. New machines always come with a few extra bobbins, but you probably will want to buy some more eventually. Just make sure that you are buying the right type! (Once again, let my personal errors be of use to you!) In some machines, like the Singer Simple (left), you have to insert the wound bobbin into a metal case before inserting it into the machine.

Once you have the right type, you need to wind the bobbin. Usually you use the same thread that you’re using for sewing. I suggest reading your instruction manual to find out how it’s done on your specific model, but you can also read my article on winding a bobbin on a sewing machine or watch my video below showing how to do it on these two models that I have here today.

There are different systems of loading the bobbin. The photo below is of the Singer Simple, which features a front-loading bobbin. You gently pull off the accessory box on the front of the machine (where you can store extra bobbins, needles, feet, etc).

Learn to Machine Sew, Lesson 1: The Anatomy of a Sewing Machine - inserting the bobbin

With the box removed you have a much less wide sewing surface which does not touch the table surface below. This is called the free arm and is used for sewing hems on pant legs or shirt sleeves, for example, by fitting the tube of fabric around the free arm. This is very useful and I highly suggest you get a machine with a free arm (most of them do have it). (There is a lesson showing how to use a free arm a bit later on in this course.)

In this model, you can also see the bobbin loading area with the bobbin in its bobbin case inserted correctly.

Learn to Machine Sew, Lesson 1: The Anatomy of a Sewing Machine - top loading bobbin

The Lotus, on the other hand, has a top-loading bobbin, which I personally find much easier. You remove part of the needle plate and insert the bobbin. I love how the Lotus’s bobbin cover is clear because that way I can see when my bobbin is about to run out and I don’t get stuck having to rewind it mid-stitching.

It’s very important to load the bobbin the correct way or your stitches will not come out correctly. Find out here how to insert a bobbin in a front-loading or top-loading sewing machine or just watch this video showing the two ways.

Notice those lines on the needle plate. Those are are stitch guides, which are very useful when sewing with seam allowances, which will be covered in a future lesson.

After loading the bobbin, it is absolutely essential that you bring the bobbin thread up through the needle plate. It’s incredibly easy and will take about 2 seconds, but many beginners don’t know that they have to do it. Learn here how to pull up the bobbin thread or watch the video below.

The Lotus has a different free arm system, what with the folding wings. There is a button to unlock the wings, which then get slid off. Instead of having an accessory case, it has a small accessory drawer in the front wing, but I honestly don’t like it because it doesn’t hold very much.

Learn to Machine Sew, Lesson 1: The Anatomy of a Sewing Machine - Elna Lotus free arm

This is what the Lotus looks like with the free arm.

Learn to Machine Sew, Lesson 1: The Anatomy of a Sewing Machine - Elna Lotus free arm

The top of the sewing machine

Learn to Machine Sew, Lesson 1: The Anatomy of a Sewing Machine

This is the top of the Singer Simple and below is the top of the Elna Lotus, closed and opened.

Learn to Machine Sew, Lesson 1: The Anatomy of a Sewing Machine

Even though the spool of thread is placed differently in these two machines, the threading system is pretty similar. You pull it down into the long vertical slot to the right, up the slot to the left, through the metal thread take-up lever, back down the left-hand slot, and into the needle. A lot of machines have this system these days, though not all of them.

Learn to Machine Sew, Lesson 1: The Anatomy of a Sewing Machine - threading the machine

Seeing as my machine is a little unusual, I wrote a blog post on threading the Elna Lotus (or just see the video below).

The Lotus has another accessory container, but again I prefer one simple container that everything can get dumped in. Most thread spools are positioned in the general area of how the Singer’s is (or more to the right).

Notice the bobbin winder on the top right of both machines. Remember that winding a bobbin differs from machine to machine, so make sure to read your manual on how to do it or see above for my video and blog post on how to do it correctly.

The needle area

Learn to Machine Sew, Lesson 1: The Anatomy of a Sewing Machine

The part of the machine that you will focus on the most is the needle area. The top photo is of the Singer and the bottom one is the Lotus. They are set up the same way. You unscrew the needle screw to insert and remove the needle. The presser foot is what holds your fabric down to the needle plate, keeping it taut enough for the needle to move through easily. When you are not using your machine, always keep the presser foot lowered onto a piece of fabric. This relieves the tension put on the presser foot spring when it’s raised and keeps the presser foot from rubbing against and possibly damanging the feed dogs (those jagged metal things that you see in the openings of the needle plate which I forgot to take a picture of).

Learn to Machine Sew, Lesson 1: The Anatomy of a Sewing Machine

Let’s take a look at the back of the needle area. The presser foot lifter lever raises and lowers the presser foot. These two machines have a presser foot release lever in the back to switch the type of presser foot, but some machines have different systems to switch the feet out.

The dials and levers

Learn to Machine Sew, Lesson 1: The Anatomy of a Sewing Machine - Singer Simple

The remaining basic function selection tools look totally different on these two machines and can be set up in all different ways in other machines, so again consult your manual to learn more about your model.

Let’s take the Singer Simple first. On the top you first see the tension dial. You probably don’t need to worry about this at first if you use a medium weight woven cotton fabric, but it does need to be adjusted for different fabrics or if you are sewing through many layers of fabric. We’ll deal with tension in another lesson. The stitch width dial sets how wide your zig zag or other wide stitch is. It makes no difference on the straight stitch (unless on your model it moves the needle left to right). If you press the reverse lever while sewing, the feed dogs will change direction, making the fabric move towards you instead of away from you, so that you can stitch backwards. This is necessary for backstitching to keep your thread from unravelling and present on most sewing machines (but not my first sewing machine!).

On the front right of the machine you’ll find two dials. The top one determines the stitch length, so how quickly the feed dogs move the fabric past the needle and therefore how long each stitch is. If you don’t have a reverse function, you can set the stitch length to zero instead of backstitching. You will learn about stitch length in a later lesson.

Below that is the stitch selector, where you choose the type of stitch that you will use. On this particular model there are three stitches per setting, each in a different color. When the stitch length dial is on a black setting, the black stitch will be selected. To choose either the blue or red stitch, you need to set the stitch length dial to either the blue or red setting.

Learn to Machine Sew, Lesson 1: The Anatomy of a Sewing Machine - Elna Lotus stitch settings

The Lotus, being electronic, is set up totally differently. The tension dial is the only mechanical setting of the ones I’ve mentioned so far. The screen shows the code of the stitch selected on the touch panel. There are automatic stitch widths and lengths for each tye of stitch, but they can be modified with arrow keys.

I love how milimetric you can get adjusting these values with an electronic machine. It’s also a lot easier to have an exact setting that you can go back to directly at a later time without having to fiddle with manual knobs. The stitch width selector also moves the needle from left to right for straight stitches. To backstitch there is a reverse button instead of a lever. There are various other electronic functions, but I won’t get into those because they are not of utter importance for a beginner and not present on mechanical machines.

For the first two lessons I don’t have a project tutorial, but you do have homework! Take out your machine and get it professionally cleaned if it hasn’t been used (or cleaned) for a while. If you don’t have a sewing machine, procure one. Then give yourself at least an hour without distractions and read through your manual, cover to cover. Practice threading the machine, winding and inserting the bobbin, changing the needle. See what happens when you change different settings. And when you’re done, remember to put a piece of fabric under the lowered presser foot!

I hope this first lesson about the anatomy of the sewing machine was useful to you! Later on this week we’ll discuss different types of fabrics and the most important notions and tools, then next week we’ll get started sewing!

Learn to Machine Sew with Cucicucicoo: a free sewing course for beginners

Did you like this lesson? Take a look at the other lessons in this beginner’s sewing course!

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