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
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
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
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
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
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!