Welcome to the Ultimate Sewing Guide for Beginners, your quick start primer for learning how to sew!
Reasons why you’re in the right place:
- You want to learn how to sew
- You know how to sew, but want to learn more
- You know most things about sewing, but want to make sure you’re not missing any terms or skills
- This says ‘Ultimate Guide’ and gosh darnit, you want to make sure that’s true!
- You were enticed by pretty pictures on Pinterest (still a totally valid reason)
If you’re here, it means that you want to learn everything there is to know about sewing machines–and we’re here to teach you. This blog series with accompanying videos is meant to teach you the ins and outs of using your sewing machine and take you from being any stage of beginner (total novice/occasional dabbler/learned in home-ec in the 70s) to an absolute pro who’s ready to teach their friends. This sewing guide is broken into three parts:
Part 1: The Anatomy of your Machine – One of the most important parts of learning how to sew (and feeling comfortable using your machine) is knowing the names of the parts of your machine and what they do. This is essential for everything from reading blog articles and tutorials online to knowing what to communicate when having your machine serviced. For this part, we’re using a Brother XL-2600i, which is a great, beginner-level sewing machine. But most sewing machines use similar parts, so the information from this tutorial will apply to most machines.
Part 2: Getting Started Sewing – This is a big lesson where we dive into all the basics for getting you ready to sew. We’ll walk you through winding a bobbin, loading the bobbin case into your machine, and threading your machine. Then, we’ll go through the most common stitch types you’ll use in most of your projects–straight stitch, zig zag stitch and backstitch.
Part 3: Troubleshooting – One of the most frustrating parts of learning how to sew is having something go wrong and not knowing how to fix it. It can throw a literal and metaphorical knot into your sewing project, so we’ll show you 3 common problems and how to fix them fast so you can get back to sewing.
Go in order, or click on the part you’re interested in to hop down to that article. Once you’ve read and/or watched all three lessons, you’ll be able to handle your machine with confidence and ease. So let’s go ahead and jump in!
We’ve prepared a handy downloadable guide with all the pieces and parts of a sewing machine labeled. Print this out and hang up in your sewing space, and use to follow along during this post and the accompanying video.
We’re going to start on the right side of our machine with…
Handwheel – The handwheel is the big knob located on the right side of your machine. It’s used to adjust the needle height and make manual stitches, or to lower your needle before starting to sew. You always want to turn the handwheel towards you when you use it.
Bobbin Winder – Used to wind thread onto a bobbin cases. Locks into place to engage the bobbin winding motor and not the main sewing motor. Most newer bobbin winders will stop automatically when the bobbin case is full.
Spool Pin – Holds your spool of thread in place while sewing or winding bobbins. On some machines they’re vertical, like on our Brother XL-2600i, and on others they’re horizontal. Some machines will have a spool pin cap or top to keep your spool of thread in place. Some spool pins compress into the machine for storage.
Thread Guide – The thread guide is what we call the whole system that feeds your thread through the machine and maintains proper tension while sewing. This can be a range of different contraptions (discs, hoops, etc.), as long as it keeps your thread taut and untangled. Most machines have diagrams that show you how to thread your machine, winding your thread through the different levers and sections of the thread guide.
Take-Up Lever – The metal hook attached to your thread guide that pulls thread from your spool through the machine. You’ll hook your thread into the take up lever as part of threading your machine.
Tension Regulator – The first part of the thread guide that maintains correct thread tension while sewing. This is the metal part that sits on the top left of your machine. It’s made up of round tension discs that pinch the thread as it moves through your machine.
Presser Foot – The standard, detachable metal piece that helps move your fabric through the machine with the help of the feed dogs. Keeping with the foot theme, the upper part of the presser foot is ‘the ankle.’ This is meant to stay put, and is usually secured to the machine with a screw. There are different types of feet–zipper, walking, buttonhole, and blind hem–for different uses. Lowering the presser foot engages the tension system to press the fabric against the feed dogs. The presser setup has a quick release to allow for changing out feet.
Presser Foot Lever – This lever, usually located on the side or in the back of your machine (ours is to the side) controls the raising and lowering of the presser foot. When it’s lowered, it presses the fabric against the feed dogs, which moves the fabric forward, and engages the tension system to make sure your thread remains tangle-free and at the correct tension.
Needle – What would a sewing machine be without the needle? Your needle carries your thread through your fabric, where hooks on the bobbin case grab the thread, wrapping it up with the bobbin thread and creating a stitch–sometimes called a lockstitch or top stitch. There are many types and sizes of needle, determined by what fabric or material you’re sewing with. Needle sizes range from 8-18; the smaller the number, the smaller the needle. Larger needles are good for thicker fabrics, like denim. There are specialty needles for materials like leather and denim. There are even special needles to help you sew knit fabrics, called ball point needles. Having a package of different types of needles is a good thing to keep on hand.
Needle Clamp and Screw – Holds your needle in place. When the time comes to change it out, you loosen the screw to the side with a small screwdriver or a dime and out pops your needle. We’ll talk more about changing your needle in Part 3: Troubleshooting
Automatic Threader – This is a tool most machines have, and it’s a real blessing. Grabs your thread and pulls it through the eye of the needle for you, which can often be a pain. We’ll talk about this dreamy, easy-to-use feature in Part 2: Getting Started Sewing
Feed Dogs – Metal pieces under the needle that guide fabric through the machine. The feed dogs revolve as the needle rises and falls, which is why you don’t need to pull or push your fabric through while you’re sewing. The feed dogs know how much fabric to pull through on each revolution based on what you’ve set your stitch length as.
Stitch Plate – The metal housing that your feed dogs sit inside. Also contains the throat (the hole or space your needle goes through to join with the bobbin thread to form a stitch) and measurements to help you keep a consistent seam allowance while sewing.
Bobbin Case and Cover – This is where the bobbin sits and joins the top thread from your needle. It’s covered by a removable plastic slide or cover that allows for easy replacement and adjustment. To keep your machine in tip top shape, clean the bobbin case regularly to keep it free of fuzz and debris. A make up brush does the job nicely!
Stitch Selector – Used to choose the stitch type you want to use. This can either be a knob, like on the Brother XL-2600i, or a computerized selector panel. Most machines have standard stitches (straight stitch, zig zag, buttonhole), variations on those, and then specialty stitches that require special foot attachments.
Stitch Length Adjustment Knob – Adjusts the length of stitches by changing how much fabric the feed dogs pull through the machine for each stitch (in the picture above, this is the gray knob behind the stitch selector knob). A longer stitch length (meaning the stitches are farther apart) is easier to remove. As a beginning sewist, starting out with a longer stitch length to make sure you like the way something looks can be a great way to save time if you have to rip your seams. This temporary stitch is called a basting stitch.
Stitch Width Adjustment Dial – Accompanies the zig zag stitch–so if your machine has one, it has the other. Adjusts how wide your needle travels when moving from stitch to stitch, to create alternate stitch patterns.
Tension Adjuster – Knob/dial that controls the tension your discs apply to the thread. Newer machines house the tension system inside the machine and control it with a knob or dial on the top or front of the sewing machine. Older machines allow you to make adjustments to the discs with screws or knobs.
Backstitch/Reverse Button – Sewing in reverse is an essential part of all machines. Older/more inexpensive machines have a lever or button that reverses the direction the feed dogs pull the fabric. Newer machines have a backstitch button that will sew a few stitches in reverse for you.
Detachable Arm – This is such a fun compartment. Not all machines have these, but our Brother has it in the front. It’s a nifty place to keep your essential sewing notions, and it also gives your a narrower sewing arm, allowing you to sew things in the round like pant legs and shirt sleeves.
Foot Pedal – Just like a car, this is how your make your sewing machine go! Many machines have speed settings, so even when the pedal is fully depressed, the machine won’t go about the set speed. For beginning sewists, this is a great way to make sure you’re sewing slow and straight.
And that’s it! There will be machine-specific nuances, of course, so always refer to your manual if there’s a part you don’t understand or something referenced in a tutorial that you want clarification on. Just like a car, your sewing machine’s manual is the most important piece of literature to have. If you have any questions we didn’t answer, let us know in the comments section!
Part 2: Getting Started Sewing
Now that you know the names of the parts of your machine, we can move on to the exciting part: learning to use it! In this section, we’ll go through winding a bobbin, threading your machine, and the basic stitch types you’ll use on most of your projects. Once you’ve completed part 2, you’ll be able to knock out awesome beginner projects like napkins, pillows, and more.
To begin using your machine, you’ll need to wind thread around an empty bobbin case. This process is known as “winding a bobbin” (easy, right?). All sewing machines either use plastic bobbins or metal bobbins, but it’s important to make sure you’re using the exact bobbin case your machine requires. Just because your machine takes plastic bobbins, doesn’t mean any plastic bobbin will do. Check your machine’s manual to make sure you’re using the right one.
What Bobbin Thread is for and How it Works
Bobbin thread is the thread on the underside of your fabric. It’s used to form a stitch (sometimes called a lockstitch) with the top thread or needle thread. Sewing machines have a rotary bobbin mechanism with hooks that rotates counter clockwise. As the needle comes down, the hook rotates and grabs the top thread joining it with the bottom thread and forming a stitch.
For something that seems close to magical, this is a pretty cool breakdown of the actual mechanics. You generally want the same color bobbin thread and top thread so that your stitches blend into the fabric. But, for stylistic reasons (or to make troubleshooting your sewing machine easier) you might choose contrasting or complimentary colored thread for greater visibility.
Winding a Bobbin
To wind a bobbin, put your thread onto the spool pin, and thread it along the arm and into the thread guide. Most machine have a diagram to help you, but you can also refer to your sewing machine manual. In the picture below, you can see the diagram on the right, with the dotted lines. Pull your thread from the spool pin to the tension regulator, pinch it under the tension disc on the side closest to you, swing it around the disc, and bring it back towards the bobbin spindle.
Put the thread through the hole from the underside of the bobbin. Don’t let go of the thread! Now, place the bobbin (still holding onto the thread) onto the bobbin spindle. Push the bobbin spindle over against the rubber bumper to lock it into place and engage the bobbin motor. This means that when you press the pedal, the motor will rotate the bobbin spindle instead of the needle.
Next, hold your bobbin thread a few inches out from your machine and press down on the pedal. Once the thread has wound a few revolutions around the bobbin, you can snip the excess from the top of the bobbin case. Now you’re free to wind away! The bobbin motor will stop once the bobbin is full.
Pro tip: About to start on a project? Wind a two to three bobbins so you don’t run out mid-project!
Loading a Bobbin
Now that your bobbin is wound, you’re ready to load it. Our machine has a drop in bobbin case, but your machine could have a front loading mechanism. The idea is the same, but the process will vary. Front loaders–check your manual. Drop in bobbin-ers–read on!
Press the little button on the side to pop the bobbin cover off, revealing the bobbin hole. Take your bobbin, making sure the thread is coming off counter clockwise (it will look like a P, with the thread as the tail of the P and the bobbin as the loop), and pull it around the guide. Again, most machines have diagrams that are easy to follow. Pop the cover back into place and get ready to thread your machine.
Threading your Sewing Machine
Some people find threading a sewing machine frustrating and difficult. Get ready to break those fears! First things first, make sure your take up lever is at its highest position (rotate the hand wheel toward you until the lever is visible).
If your machine is still threaded around the tension disc from winding the bobbin, unwind it from the disc, and follow the second diagram (in the above picture, it’s on the far left). It goes under the hook, and over the top. Continue pulling the thread down along the groove directly below the tension regulator and loop it under the small plastic hook. Pull it back up along the second groove, hook it behind the take up lever, and pull it back down along the same groove. There’s a small, thin piece of metal in front of the needle; hook the thread behind that so that it more or less lies flush with your needle.
Threading the needle manually: Most people who know how to use the automatic threader don’t choose this method. It’s tricky, time consuming, and makes you squint a very uncomfortable amount. But if your machine doesn’t have an automatic threader or you’re determined to do it the old fashioned way, here you go: Stick the thread through the eye of the needle, pull it down through the presser foot, and behind your machine. Pull four to five extra inches so that when you make your first stitch the machine doesn’t pull your thread out.
Using the Automatic Threader: AKA the best thing in the world. Okay, maybe not the BEST, but still pretty cool. Pull the automatic threader (to the left of the needle) straight down. Hook your thread under the hook and pull it directly in front of the eye of the needle. It should make a triangle shape. Then, swing the threader forward. It will grab your thread so that when you swing it back, it pulls a loop of thread through the eye of the needle. Now, grab the loop and finish pulling your thread through. Wasn’t that easy!? Now we’re ready to talk about stitches. First up, the straight stitch.
Basic Stitch Types
The Straight Stitch – The straight stitch is the most common stitch you will see. It is universally useful and will carry you through many, many projects. The main variable that effects straight stitches in the stitch length, controlled by the stitch length selector knob/dial. Longer stitches are farther apart, and are easier to rip out. These are great for securing something in place that you intend to sew over or pull out later (this is called a basting stitch). A shorter stitch length will make a tighter, more secure seam.
The Zig Zag Stitch – Zig zag stitching is used to create decorative stitch patterns, to give extra security or flexibility to fabrics, or both. The zig zag is used in conjunction with the stitch width adjustment dial to control how wide your needles’ zig zag stitch path will be. If you were sewing a stretchy knit fabric for example, you would use a zig zag stitch to allow for both you and the fabric to move without putting as much tension and stress on your seams as with a straight stitch.
Backstitch – Backstitching is sewing in reverse over the first few stitches of the start and end of your stitch line to make sure everything is secure. While the backstitch/reverse stitch isn’t technically a ‘type’ of stitch, it’s an essential part of creating lasting garments and projects. HOWEVER, there are a lot of differing opinions on whether or not to backstitch in every situation. If you’re sewing on thinner fabrics, Spoonflower’s poly crepe or silk for example, backstitching is stitching forward, then backward, then forward again. That’s three layers of stitching, which can add a lot of bulk to a thing garment. In this case, you could start a quarter or an eighth of an inch into your fabric, backstitch to the end, and then begin stitching forward. This gives you two layers of stitching and flatter garments.
A common issue with beginning sewists is not using the seam guide on the stitch plate. When guiding the fabric in, line it up with the appropriate seam guide instead of concentrating on the needle. The natural inclination is to watch that needle go up and down and up and down. It’s almost hypnotizing! But the needle doesn’t move; the fabric, however, does. So keep your eye on the fabric and on the seam guide to keep your seam straight.
Part 3: Troubleshooting Common Sewing Machine Problems
In this last section, we’re going to tackle the three most common beginner problems and easy ways to troubleshoot them so you can get back to sewing!
We’ll be covering:
- thread breakage
- needle breakage
These problems can happen for a variety of reasons and can really derail a project. One of the most frustrating parts of learning to sew is having something go wrong with your machine and not knowing how to fix it. Like we saw in part 1, with so many different pieces and parts, knowing where to look and what to look for can be the difference between a finished project and frantic Googling. Having done plenty of both, I much prefer the first option. Before we get started, here are two important things to keep in mind.
- 9/10 times, simply rethreading your machine will fix it. Rethread both the needle and the bobbin. If that doesn’t fix it, you’ve eliminated that as a possible solution, and can try other things.
- Don’t mess with the tension gauge! This sewing machine, like most machines, has a specific number or sweet spot that is the standard tension setting. Leave it there. Incorrect tension settings could very well be the cause of your sewing angst, but if your dial is at the right number, try other things first before fiddling with the tension dial further.
Bird Nesting – Bird nesting happens to everyone. It’s an ugly, tangled mess on the underside of your fabric. It’s usually caused by one of three things:
- Your machine is not threaded properly
- Your bobbin isn’t loaded correctly.
- You’re using the wrong needle type for the fabric you’re sewing.
For instance, the thread you would use for Spoonflower’s light, flowy Poly Crepe de Chine isn’t the same thread you would use for our sturdy Eco Canvas. Like I mentioned earlier, people will often troubleshoot by adjusting their tension when it’s unnecessary and what they really need to do is rethread their machine. So let’s go over how to fix bird nesting.
Rethread your Machine
Rethreading is usually the first thing I do. Sewing machines are very complex, and there are, literally, a lot of moving parts. Sometimes a simple rethreading fixes your problem. Start by snipping the thread and taking it back through your machine following the steps in Part 2: Getting Started Sewing.
Reload your bobbin – Check to make sure that your bobbin is loaded correctly, and the thread is feeding the correct direction–usually clockwise. You can see this diagram below that shows you how to load it.
Clean your machine/bobbin area – It’s also incredibly important to make sure that your machine stays clean. I like to use a soft makeup brush and sweep out the inside of my bobbin loading area once a week to get rid of fuzzies and excess thread.
Check your needle and thread – Another thing to check is that your needle is the right size. If you’re sewing something thin with a big needle, not only will your stitch line look terrible, but it can cause your thread to bunch. If you have questions about this, download Spoonflower’s needle and fabric guide. Generally, thinner fabrics need thinner needles. The American sizing system is numbered from 8 to 18 and the European metric sizing system is numbered from 60 to 110. Most packages will list both.Let’s move on to thread breakage.
Thread breakage – When troubleshooting broken thread, the first thing to check is the thread itself–or rather, check where the thread has broken. This can be a quick indicator of what’s causing the breakage.
- Make sure you’re using high quality, new thread – wrap it around your fingers and tug it. Don’t give it a lot of force; a few firm tugs will confirm. If it breaks immediately, it’s probably old and needs to be replaced.
- Next, check your tension gauge. If it’s too high, it can easily snap your thread. Check your machine’s manual for the ideal tension for you machine.
- Check your tension disks, too. If the thread has happened to wrap around an extra rotation or is caught on something, it could be giving your machine too much resistance.
- Finally, you’ll want to make sure that the needle you’re using is the correct type for the fabric that you’re sewing. Refer to our downloadable sewing guide available in the description.
Needle Breakage/Changing your needle
Needle breakage is relatively common and usually occurs because your needle is old, damaged, or because it’s the wrong type for the fabric you’re sewing. Smaller needle sizes like 9 or 11 work best for delicate, lightweight fabrics, and bigger numbers like 16 and 18 work better with heavyweight fabrics like denim. You can also by specialty needles for denim, leather, and other heavy materials. Let’s look at how to change the needle.
Changing the Needle – Changing your needle seems pretty complicated, but is actually super easy. Simply loosen the needle clamp (any small, flat item will do–most machines come with a small screwdriver for this purpose), pull the old needle out, slide the new needle all the way up into the clamp, and retighten with a flathead screwdriver or a dime.
Another common cause of breakage or incorrect performance is that your needle isn’t inserted all the way up into the needle clamp: simply loosen it, make sure the needle is pushed all the way in, and tighten the needle clamp again.
Tangled thread! It could be as easy as your thread being tangled, it’s very easy to do. Simply rethread your machine and bobbin.
Tension issues –
Tension issues are a frustrating problem, but if you keep your tension set at 4 and don’t mess with it, you’ll generally be fine. If you are experiencing puckered fabric, loose fabric (on the top or bottom), or skipping stitches, AND you’ve already rethreaded your machine, tension could be the issue. Make sure you’ve exhausted the other possibilities first, though.
With any luck, one of these will fix your problem and you’ll be on your way to perfect, straight seams.
Three-step checklist can easily solve most machine mishaps (download the checklist!)
- Rethread your machine: Yes, even the slightest bump can affect your stitching. Check your bobbin, needle, and thread to make sure everything is in the right place.
- Clean it out: When was the last time you did a thorough top-to-bottom wipe-down of your machine? Dust and lint can quietly and quickly accumulate in the bobbin area and tension assembly, so have your machine professionally serviced regularly. If you use it daily, a weekly cleaning is needed. For weekly use only, clean it once a month. And for occasional monthly use, clean it every three months.
- Check your needle and thread: As we already mentioned, using the right size and type of needle is imperative. Additionally, you should use high-quality thread–it will have a nice, smooth filament and not be “fuzzy” or uneven in thickness. Thread does have a shelf-life–although different types age differently–so keep your collection of spools in rotation and stored properly (out of humidity and direct sunlight).
And that’s it! Thanks again for joining us for Spoonflower’s Ultimate Sewing Guide for Beginners. You are now ready to go forth into the sewing world and make, make, make.
Are there any tips, tricks, or helpful hints that you swear by? We’d love to hear them. Let us know in the comments section below!