Introduction: How to Sew (using a Sewing Machine)

Picture of How to Sew (using a Sewing Machine)

When I turned 13, my stepmom, Cassandra, got me the best birthday present ever (still, to this day, I feel), a sewing machine! I immediately taught myself to sew and over the next 27 years, created everything from tiny little purses to huge Victorian ballgowns. I want to impart my passion to others and I hope I can spark the creative juices for someone else, no matter their age. :)

This Instructable will serve as an introduction to sewing with a sewing machine. I'm aiming it for an absolute beginner, and am writing this as a really basic lesson. If you're a beginner, and a step isn't clear enough, please let me know.

p.s. There are already several good instructables on how to thread a sewing machine, so I won't be including that part.

Step 1: Tips on Acquiring a Sewing Machine

Picture of Tips on Acquiring a Sewing Machine

If you already have a machine, it's imperative to make sure it's been recently serviced. Doing this will ensure your mechanics (such as the Bobbin Tension and Feed Dog - the mechanism that moves the fabric when sewing) are in proper working order and any abnormality in sewing will be "pilot error", which can be corrected through practice.

If you haven't been gifted a machine and are looking to purchase your first machine, here are some hints to help you choose the right one.

a. Start by finding a reputable sewing machine repair shop.
Often they will be attached to a dealership (just like cars!). If you can find an independent repair shop, and you have a good rapport with the mechanic, you might be happier. This guy (or gal) will be straight about repairs and won't tell you to give up your old machine to buy the latest model. Also, s/he will be a good source for acquiring a good, used machine if you're on a budget. If, on the other hand you find that your local sewing machine dealer is fabulous, by all means, use your best resources and go for it.

b. Get a machine with all-metal parts.
Many cheaper model sewing machines have plastic pieces. These parts are the ones that will invariably break first. Replacement of the parts may be cheaper, but you'll end up spending far more for the labor to install new plastic parts that will break again. (SIDE NOTE: my stepmom bought me a Sears Kenmore 12-stitch: all-metal parts. It's still running strong, with only the occasional tune-up, for almost 30 years!). If the choice is an all-metal, simpler sewing machine with "only' 12 stitches and a machine with more bells and whistles (and plastic parts) for the same price, invest in the first machine.

c. When you're first starting out, consider a basic model.
In all honesty, you're likely to never require more stitches than those included with the basic 12-stitch model. If, down the road, you find your sewing becomes detailed enough that you need a more complex machine, look for a machine that'll fit those specific needs. You can then keep your first machine as a workhorse, to just do crafting, or buttonholes, or whatever. Or, you can gift your first machine to a non-profit , like your local Girls & Boys Club.

Step 2: Fabric Definitions and a Good Fabric Choice to Start With

Picture of  Fabric Definitions and a Good Fabric Choice to Start With

What makes a good seamster will be familiarity of medium. The most important part about knowing how to sew on a machine is learning how to manipulate the fabric as it goes under the needle. This is where fabric choices come in.

I'll start with some definitions:

WEIGHT: Fabric come in several "weights". Generally, you have lightweight (feels thin to the touch, mostly sheer enough to see your hand through them, you can fold it many times without creating much girth - most often used for curtain sheers), midweight (feels more substantial, folding creates some girth - most often used for clothing) and heavyweight (thick, folding will create substantial girth - most often used in home decorating, like upholstery)

The STRETCH TEST: Fabric can also have stretch. How to tell a fabric stretch (or non-stretch) is by stretching it both lengthwise and widthwise (all fabric will have some amount of stretch on the diagonal, also called the bias). Non-stretch fabric will have little give on both the length and width.

FIBER CONTENT: This means what makes up the fabric. Natural fibers can be cotton, silk, linen, bamboo. Polyester and Nylon are examples of manmade fabrics.

1. Start with a medium-weight, non-stretch fabric made from natural fibers (like cotton).

2. You'll want to choose a fabric that has thin stripes that are about a half inch to an inch apart. The stripes should run down the fabric, not from selvage (the finished edge on the side) to selvage. Have at least a half yard (18") of it.

Step 3: Practicing Straight Stitches - Learning to Sew

Picture of Practicing Straight Stitches - Learning to Sew

You can start learning how to manipulate the fabric by first sewing in a straight line.

a. Take your fabric chosen from Step 2 and cut a 8" wide strip that is 18" long. Fold it in a half and make a crease (you can use an iron to create a more firm crease) at fold.

b1. Thread your machine (consult your manual or the other Instructables for this step).
b2. For this first bit of sewing, you can use a needle for mid-weight, woven fabric. (As for choice of needles, look to eventually having a variety of needles. Several things can determine the type of needle to use, such as the fabric choice or the type of stitch. When you're doing regular sewing, the fabric's weight determines the needles' size, and the type of fabric determines the shape of the needle's point.).
b3. Choose a medium stitch length, usually 2 1/2 or 3 (consult your manual for this, as well, since stitch length varies from machine to machine. Some have a knob, others have a multi-stage switch)
b4. Set your machine to Straight Stitch, which is usually the first stitch in your list

c. Begin with the Needle in the highest position (you should always start and end with the needle in this position) and draw up Presser Foot.

d. Draw out your Top and Bobbin Threads about 6 inches back from the Feed Dog. When you begin your first stitch, make sure you are holding onto your Top and Bobbin Threads, as they can be "sucked" into the machine on the first few stitches.

e. Place your fabric under the Needle, positioning it so the Needle will enter the fabric at a stripe near to the crease.

f. Bring down the Presser Foot (It's very important to have the foot down when sewing, since its down position is what creates the friction for the Feed Dog to move the fabric along as you sew).

g. A helpful hint when you're first learning (or if you find you need precise needle placement) is to hand-guide the first stitch in your fabric layers. To do this, use the Hand Wheel to lower the Needle into your fabric layers. Once you are more familiar with your machine, you can generally eyeball needle placement.

h. Put your fingers on your fabric, so as to guide it, down the stripe, under the Presser Foot. Press down gently on the Foot Pedal and start sewing.

This is where your training begins, to teach your fingers how to touch, grasp and hold your fabric layers as they are sewn together. Practicing "step h" over and over, using different fabrics, of different weights, with stretch and non-stretch, will get you familiar with how each type of fabric will need to be worked with.

i. Stop the Needle when it's in it uppermost position and draw up the Presser Foot (use the Hand Wheel, if necessary). Gently pull out your fabric, cut your threads(make sure to leave at least 6" of Top and Bobbin Threads hanging back, so you can have a "start" for your next bit of sewing).

Step 4: Check Your Work

Picture of Check Your Work

So, you've sewn your (first?) seam! How did you do? Let's check and troubleshoot it:

a. Speed: Did you notice if you sped up and slowed down alot? Totally reasonable as you get used to how the Pedal Foot operates. You want to maintain a constant speed throughout the stitching of a seam. Maintaining a constant speed will create even stitches. Don't worry if you're slow at first; you just need to be at one speed. It's okay to stop and start, just get to one speed. Eventually, you can increase your constant speed, until you are pedal-to-the-medal.

b. Stitch Length: Is it even, or are some of the stitches longer than others? If the later is true, and you're maintaining speed, then you may be pulling at the fabric layers as they're been stitched together. Make sure you are letting the feed dog do its work and your finger are simply guiding the fabric under the pressure foot.

b. Straight on the Stripe: Were you able to sew right down the stripe or is your seam a little offsides? This will simply take practice. Keep practicing until your fingers nimbly guide the fabric straight as an arrow.

Step 5: Other Hints to Help You Sew

Picture of Other Hints to Help You Sew

Other factors can be a help or hindrance when sewing. Here are a few:

a. Where to sew - Lighting: Make sure you have bright lighting available on your sewing area. Most machines will come with a "sewing light". This is a great start, but you should also invest in a gooseneck lamp that can direct more light at your Presser Foot. Position it behind and to the right of your machine, with the light directed to the sewing surface and not into your eyes at all. Additionally, if possible, have a decent room light on, so you won't be blinded by the contrast of a well-lighted work space and a dark room.

b. Where to Sew- Machine placement: Have your machine on a surface that is comfortable to work at. Too high and your shoulders and neck will cramp up. I like to have my machine at the same height as a computer keyboard should be, or possibly a little higher.

c. Where to Sew- Surface: Make sure the surface will be stable enough to handle the up and down action of the needle. If you have a very large table (like a dining room table), try to have your machine close to a table leg, where there's more stability. also, make sure the surface isn't slippery, or else you may find your machine "travelling" as you sew.

d. Use of pins: If you want to use pins to hold fabric pieces together, get into the habit early of removing them before sewing with your machine. More often than not, you'll be able to sew over a pin with no problem, but on those rare occasions when your needle hits a pin right on, the results could be disastrous.

e. (Almost) always wash your fabric before you start cutting and sewing (I say "almost" because there are specialty fabrics, like sequined, some silks and wools, etc. that are ruined if you wash them. Take special precautions when working with these unusual textiles). Most fabrics come with "sizing". By washing your fabric, you'll wash out the sizing and your fabric will show it's true shape, often much more supple and sometimes shrinking (very likely when your fabric is 100% natural fibers).

f . HAVE FUN! Really, if you're not having fun, you'll never put in enough time to get good at sewing. Don't be discouraged if you first few attempts seem like complete dreck. They're not, they're the things you've made that'll get you to understand what works and what doesn't. Nothing is a waste of time, it's a chance to learn!


Jtoohill (author)2016-11-17

great tips thanks been a beginner is hard..... and u make it a one easy to follow.....

healthy_smoothies (author)2016-07-24

Great tips

MichealW7 (author)2016-05-07

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RevathiS5 (author)2016-05-05

Its really great information,thanks for sharing this blog,keep updating more threads,and also to buy a sewing machine

Squababob (author)2016-02-21

im 11

Melany7 (author)2016-02-15

Very nice article and useful tips. I like sewing very much, so I find
your information just great. I must have much persistence to cope with
this craft, but doing your best always brings good results. Effective
and original academic papers done by professional writers can make your
life easier

PenesisRick (author)2016-02-01

One of the best tips!!

anner1 (author)2016-01-18

Dang! That was so awesome! Thanks so much for making the entry to sewing a little bit easier. Nice work!

steadfast1984 (author)2016-01-11

I was given a old singer 185k along with an identical machine for parts. I went online and found out how to thread this old machine. IT WORKS. This is my first experience with a sewing machine. Now its just down to practice. I haven't known any other guys who enjoy sewing but i do know there are others out there like me who do.

I get this satisfaction when I can repair my own things. There are a lot more then just clothing that sewing is useful for.

1moloom (author)2015-06-06

hello! I just got my machine and took a class and made an apron and pot holder just like in Home Ec in 8th grade. It was lots of fun. Now I would like to sew a patch on the knee of a pair of jeans. Is there a way to get the leg on the machine so you don't sew it on both sides?

enneilujssim (author)1moloom2015-09-13

That could be complicated, but your sewing machine should have an arm you may use for this specific function. If your sewing machine's 'standard' set-up is with a table, you should be able to either slide it out to the left or detach it by pulling it up to reveal the sewing arm.

AnimattersInc (author)2012-05-26

Resurrecting an old thread (har har).......

In talking with a friend of mine (that has inspired me to invest in a good machine) he told me he uses seam tape instead of pins but that it gunks up the machine after a few hundred yards of sewing. He's sewing ripstop nylon and said he uses the tape because pinning, by nature of the project would take the finished piece (a kite) to an inch of it's life....too much perforation.

On a dual feed machine will pinning / seam tape still be required or can one trust the dual feed to keep things even if I let the feeders do their job?

(I know I could just try and see but I haven't picked up the new machine yet nor do I have rolls of ripstop nylon around to play with.....yet.)

druck (author)AnimattersInc2015-05-28

Wow! I'm doing practically the same thing 3 yeas after you. I have a Brother machine and am about to try sewing kites with ripstop. Can we exchange tips? Dan Ruck, and (864) 451-3029.

AnimattersInc (author)druck2015-05-28

Would you believe that I've YET to take the stitch ripper to the donor kite? I have however sewn up some rail covers, a bimini boat top, some outdoor curtains, replacement cushions, upholstered a couch (that is actually a coffin until you open it) and made some doll beds for my kids. But not a stitch of ripstop. I can say however that the dual feed machine of mine will still benefit from the seam tape method over pins because in most all of my long run sewing I've still noticed a little material drift.

Here's the inspirational source for my kite making ambition -

JoyM421 (author)2015-03-23

Great tips! I also have a Janome. :)

FelisaC (author)2015-03-02

Grande istruzioni! Grazie per aver condiviso questo blog informativo con us.Really gente comune può imparare su come cucire con macchina da cucire. Amo il cucito, ho comprato anche un mcahine da "sewshop" negozio online, ma non sapevo come cucire a macchina da cucire.

paul.vandoodson (author)2015-02-05

I bought a sewing machine about 6 or 7 years ago, the instruction book was nigh on impossible to understand (and looked like a very bad photocopy) so the sewing machine was stored away and never used. I want to try again, not having sewn for over 30 years, the last time in a needlework class at school (I can't remember the basics) can anyone recommend a book. I've bought a couple and they all assume you can thread a machine and know the basics and I don't, I'm not even sure if all machines thread the same? :)

paulrc1964 (author)2015-02-02

When I was very young my mom would let me mess around with her machine. Subsequently I learned a little something. A few years back I borrowed my sisters machine to alter my curtains that the previous owner made probably back in the 80's. They were actually pretty basic. I really just needed to lose the color edge, and cut them down to fit inside the widow trim neatly. I took my time and was pretty maticulous and it worked out well. I have ten windows, so it was a fairly ambitious project for a beginner.
I dug out an old machine that someone gave me years ago. It may have been one of my sisters, or maybe my grandmothers, nobody seems to know. It is a beauty, a Morse Fotomatic IV. I really would like to try my hand at quilting. I'm a bricklayer and have a lot of spare time on my hands during the winter

WriterMags (author)2014-12-27

I'm so excited to get started, and even more excited that I found this! I asked for a sewing machine for Christmas this year since I have been making beaded jewelry and learned to knit on a loom and I wanted to expand my homemade arts. I looked up some good basic machines and asked for a Singer Heavy Duty 4411. Ask and you shall receive (thank you, Santa, AKA my mom)! I'm heading to Michael's today to spend my gift card (also thank you to my mother) and needed to find some good tutorials to make sure I have everything else I need to get started. This was a sight for newbie eyes! Thank you, and I will be sure to update you with how I manage.

MaryannD (author)2014-12-09

Can you recommend a few good options for a beginers sewing machine?

Jessie Marie (author)2013-08-05

Does the sewing machine automatically tie a knot after you are done, or do you have to?

sarah5321 (author)Jessie Marie2014-12-05

you have to tie the knot yourself

love you lots


sarah5321 (author)2014-12-05

i love sewing wether its by hand or machine

thanks a lot

love you all xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Lynnaper (author)2012-11-26

I am an old dog wanting to learn a new tricks. I have done cross stitch and crocheting since I was a teen. I now have Multiple Sclerosis. My hands tremor uncontrollably when I am doing something that requires fine motor skills. Also my hands are about 70% numb. I need to know if my shaky and numb hands will prevent me from sewing. I can do tedious things (like thread a needle) but it takes me lots of patience and more time than normal.

nekokristiaan (author)Lynnaper2013-07-30

I know this response is almost a year too late, but I guess better late than never. The numbness and tremors may cause you some pretty severe problems. There was a time I was guiding fabric and got my finger stuck between the machine and the presser foor knob. It was quite painful and I imagine having these issues would intensify the likelyhood of a mishap. I am not you however, and only you and your doctor can judge if this would be something you should pursue. I hope I was helpful. Best of luck to you!

emmae (author)2012-01-22

I have bough a brother 6000i and it is so easy to use I would recommend it to anybody - however I want to sew really heavy curtains and find that the machine moves around - any idea on a way to weigh it down?

all the best

Webmaster of brothers 6000i

caltain (author)emmae2012-09-11

Just set the machine on a sheet of 1/8" thick neoprene. If you cannot get the neoprene, use non-slip shelf/drawer liner. You should find small rolls of liner in the "kitchenware" section of your local grocery store. It's basically a foam grid. I also use a piece on the front passenger seat of my car (when the seat is unoccupied). It does a terrific job of keeping my cell phone, iPad, books and other slick objects from jumping into the door pocket whenever I turn left and diving into the footwell every 30 seconds in stop-and-go traffic. It's even fairly easy to find in a color that compliments or contrasts your seat color!

Learning to be homemade (author)2012-09-09

These tips are great! I cannot wait to start sewing! Thank you!

HopeWILLLead (author)2010-02-28

 I was wondering if you know any good sewing machine brands for a beginner sewer? :) I want one worthwhile, but at a good cost. Maybe under $100? 

In my opinion the Brother CS6000i Sewing Machine is a very good option for beginners as it has all the features you'll need plus the price and quality is right.

You can choose from pre-programmed settings easily and the automatic needle threader with one step quick set drop in bobbin make threading the Brother CS6000I a breeze.

This website has more information you might enjoy.

Hope that helps,


simsgoddess (author)HopeWILLLead2012-03-06

You are gonna want to buy a Brother XL 2700i 25 stitch free arm sewing machine. You can but it at walmart for like 80 bucks :)

Allan Wells (author)HopeWILLLead2010-07-17

Husqvana, Bernina, Pffaf, and Elna are the big four in domestic sewing machines as far as quality and reliability goes. Old all metal Singers are good as are old Necchi's. I'd look in ebay or garage sales for an older machine. Sometimes they've hardly been used. I've heard varying reports about the modern Brother, Janome etc machines. Probably their 'Top-of-the-line' models are OK but rather pricey.

chakra (author)2010-11-02

please help!! i have one of those classic-type all metal singer.
i managed to teach myself to stitch all kinds of fabric except those stretchy ones.. whenever i run a stitch i realise it has undone .. how to deal with these pesky fabric types??
and hey!! thanks for every little precious instructions!!! ;-)

simsgoddess (author)chakra2012-03-06

did you back stitch?
You have to back stitch or it will come apart.

DeeAnderson (author)2012-01-22

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mjohn38 (author)2011-07-08

Thank you very much for the info. Very helpfull indeed!

jaderham (author)2009-12-21

I am wondering if you think it is worth getting a serger?

LindyGirlThay (author)jaderham2009-12-21

A serger is a great time saver, but you have to invest time into learning how to operate it. Because of that, if you find yourself not sewing alot, or not sewing for long stretches of time, you probably don't need one.

Would you consider making video instructions for threading the lower loopers of a 4 thread serger?

I should add a caveat. If you keep finding you are very interested in working with stretchy knit fabrics, then a serger is more likely to be a good investment. Using a straight-stich sewing machine on these types of fabrics has been a arduous task with little reward.

purpleturtle107 (author)2010-05-09

Great instructions! I've had a sewing machine for years, but never felt comfortable enough to actually use it, and I can only sew so much by hand. Goal for the summer -- learn to use the machine!

Sorry if this was already mentioned and I missed it, but I can't find the answer anywhere. Once you finish sewing what you want and cut the thread, do you have to knot it? I guess if the tension is right in the stitches the loose ends shouldn't matter... it just seems like they'd eventually pull out, especially where there's a lot of pressure on seams.

Your machine should have a button/switch/lever that will reverse the direction your machine sews.  If you look at the first image of my machine, you'll see the big  lever just right of my fist. That's my "reverse". I hold that down and the machine runs back up the stitch line. When I release it, the machine will return to its regular sewing direction.

Whenever you start (and finish) a seam, sew forward a few stitches, then "reverse" back over them. This will "lock" down the seam's edges. Then you can snip the loose threads w/o worry of unraveling the seam.

CementTruck (author)2010-01-13

Is there a rule of thumb for positioning the bobbin? I have 2 machines, and they bobbins run in opposite directions for each of them, so I can never remember which way the bobbin goes on each machine. I know that a sharpie marker will take care of the issue, but I want to know if there is a way to look at the bobbin housing and be able to immediately tell which way the bobbin is supposed to go.


Great question! As you've discovered positioning of the bobbin is crucial in having proper tension between the upper and bobbin threads. 

Someone may correct me if I'm mistaken that this works universally ( I know that it's always been this way in my experience):

When looking at the bobbin casing, you will notice a diagonal slash where the thread comes through once you've insert the bobbin.

Insert the bobbin so that the thread comes off it in the opposite direction of the slash.

Once the bobbin is inserted and thread pulled through the casing, the bobbin will rotate in a clockwise direction if you pull on the thread.

Thanks for the response, and doubler thanks for the images. That clears things up immensely.

Also, you might want to mention that the piece of metal on top of the bobbin has a screw that may be used to put slightly more tension on the thread. If that doesn't do the trick, the metal can probably be removed and bent by hand just a bit more. It is made of spring steel, which usually holds its shape forever, but sometimes an old machine needs just a little more help.

beingv (author)2010-01-28

About 7 years ago I spent a little over $600 on a brand new fancy do-it-all (plastic) sewing machine.  I was determined to teach myself to sew.  The machine did everything, including threading the needle  All I needed to do was insert the spool into a cartridge and pop it into the machine and voila!  Several months later my mom purchased a 1940s Singer machine from a thrift shop and asked me to thread it.  I couldn't.  I spent hours watching videos online and reading about these vintage machines and in that short period of time I learned more about sewing and vintage machines than I had in months with my new-fangled $600 paperweight.  I gave up on new machines shortly after and have since been collecting all-metal vintage sewing machines by Necchi (Italian), Singer, Pfaff and 1950s Japanese manufactured machines branded for other companies like Morse and Kenmore, among others.  I've learned to repair and maintain all of my machines on my own and taught myself to sew in the process.  Not knocking new machines, but for me, there's just something very wonderful about using a machine that has lasted or is built to last several lifetimes. The old school craftsmanship is just remarkable especially when compared to manufactured machines of today.  Yahoo Groups has lots of vintage sewing machine groups with great info on various brand machines.

dirtyyhippie (author)2009-08-08

how do you know if a sewing machine works properly? i found a cheap old sewing machine for 13$ at a thrift store but i dont know if it works. the motor seems to work fine but not shure if everything else does.

To really check it, you need to thread it and run some fabric through it. Then you can check tension, too. If you don't want to do that much, you can run it unthreaded and make sure, at least, the pedal works and the needle bar moves well. If you get a thrift find ($13 seems like quite a find!), do make sure to have it serviced. Have fun!

duck-lemon (author)2008-04-13

It doesn't say how to thread the machine. either that or i missed it.

Here's a trick for re- threading the needle to a new colour of thread: once your thread is properly guided through the various gates, don't take off your thread. Instead, unwind a few iches from the spool that is already set up. Next, put your new thread on the post were your last spool of thread was. Tie a knot to the extra thread you left from the previous spool to your new spool with a knot. Gently pull the old thread through the needle until your new thread makes its way through the various gates that make their way to the eye of the needle. You won't have to try and figure out again the order of the gates your thread has to go through. :0)

About This Instructable




Bio: We share our Craftsman in the Allendale district of Oakland with three cats and a lagamorph named Shug R. Bunn. I also BookCross: http://bookcrossing ...
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