If you’ve never used a sewing machine before, understanding all the parts and what they do can be overwhelming. I’ve explained all the important features on your sewing machine with pictures, when to use them, and my top tips for complete beginners.
Here are the sewing machine parts we’ll cover:
- Stitch selector
- Tension selector
- Stitch length and width selectors
- Speed controller
- LCD display screen
- Backstitch / Reverse stitch lever or button
- Reinforcement stitch button
- Needle and needle clamp
- Needle plate
- Needle threader
- Needle up/down button
- Thread cutter button
- Thread cutter
- Presser foot
- Presser foot holder
- Presser foot lifter
- Presser foot pressure dial
- Feed dogs
- Feed dog position switch
- Spool pins
- Spool caps
- Bobbin winder
- Bobbin case / cover
- Thread guides
- Thread take-up lever
- Hand wheel
- Power switch
- Power supply and foot controller jackets / sockets
- Foot pedal
- Extension table
- Carry handle
- Free arm
- Flat bed attachment
- Buttonhole lever
- Air vent
The stitch selector is used for choosing the type of stitch you want to use, such as a straight stitch, a zigzag stitch, or a buttonhole stitch. On mechanical machines it’s usually a dial, and on computerized machines it’s usually a touch screen or an LCD screen with buttons.
- Choosing the stitch type.
- The stitch selector is the first thing you’ll want to use when you start using your sewing machine. You will first pick the stitch type, and then adjust its other properties like the tension, stitch length, or width.
The tension selector allows you to control the tension that’s put on the top thread. It usually ranges from 1 to 9, and the higher the number, the higher the tension. In order to achieve straight, balanced stitches, you will want to find the correct balance for the fabric and thread you’re using. If the tension is too low, you’ll see that the stitches are loose and weak. If it’s too high, the thread may pucker and break. The default setting is usually 4-5, so that’s a good place to start. On mechanical machines, it’s usually a dial, and on computerized machines, it’s usually a touch screen or an LCD screen with up and down buttons.
- Controlling the tension of the top thread.
- You’ll want to check and adjust this every time you switch to a different type of fabric or weight of thread. Sew some sample stitches on a scrap piece, and adjust the tension if necessary.
- A good way to check if your tension is balanced is to closely look at the stitches on the top and bottom side of the fabric. If you can see the top thread peeking out on the bottom of the fabric, the tension is too loose and needs to be turned up. If you can see the bottom thread on the top side of the fabric, then the tension is too tight and needs to be turned down.
Stitch length and width selectors:
These selectors are used to choose the length and width of the stitch type of your choosing. The length refers to the distance between each new stitch taken, and the width refers to the distance between the inner and outermost points of the stitching. For a straight stitch, the length will control the length of each stitch, and the width will control the position of the needle. For a zigzag stitch, the length determines how short or long the distance between each step is, and the width determines how narrow or wide the zigzags are. So for example, for a really tightly packed and thin strip of zigzag stitches (like a bartack) you would decrease both the length and the width.
On mechanical machines, these selectors are usually on one or two dials. The more basic models may now allow you to fully customize the length and width, but rather allow you to choose from a few presets. You will need to adjust the length and width manually after selecting the stitch type. On computerized machines, it’s usually a touch screen or an LCD screen with buttons and you have more control over the exact length and width you would like. These machines also offer more guidance
- Choosing the length and width of the stitch type.
- These are the second settings you’ll want to adjust after choosing the stitch type.
- The default length of a straight stitch is 2.2 – 2.5 mm. If you’re working with a thinner, lighter weight fabric, you can try a shorter stitch length like 2 mm. If you’re doing topstitching of working with a heavier weight fabric, try a longer stitch length like 3 or 3.5 mm.
The speed controller is only found on computerized sewing machines, and it helps limit the speed your machine is sewing. It’s usually in the shape of a slide controller, and the speed you set it at determines how fast the machine will go when you use the foot pedal or the start / stop button.
- Controlling the speed of the sewing.
- It can be helpful to lower the speed of the machine when you’re sewing a tricky part of your project or when you’re working with difficult, slippery materials.
- It’s a good idea to set the speed to a medium when you’re winding a bobbin. Using too slow or too fast of a speed can cause tension issues on your bobbin thread.
LCD display screen:
Comoterized machines use a display screen to show you all the essential settings. The displays can be operated by touch or may have additional buttons next to the display. There you will often find the stitch type, length, width, and tension settings. More advanced machines can also display additional information, like whether or not a certain stitch type requires a specific presser foot or interfacing.
- Communicating the stitch type, length, width, and tension settings to the user.
Backstitch / Reverse stitch lever or button:
The backstitch or reverse stitch controller can be in the form of a little lever, or a button. When you’re pressing on it, the machine will sew backwards. This function is most often used at the beginning and end of each seam to help secure it into place by “locking” your stitches.
- Backstitching at the beginning and end of seams to lock them into place.
Reinforcement stitch button:
The reinforcement or lock stitch button is only found on certain computerized machines, and it serves to secure the beginning and end of your seams without you having to backstitch. When you activate it, the machine will take a few stitches back and forth to create a small knot.
- Securing the beginning and end of seams with a small, clean knot.
Needle and needle clamp:
The needle clamp is a metal part that is found directly above the presser foot, designed to securely hold the needle in place. There is a small screw to the right of the clamp, which needs to be loosened before a needle can be taken out or put in. You’ll then need to tighten it back up once a new needle has been correctly positioned in the clamp.
- Holding the sewing machine needle in place.
- The screw of the needle clamp is usually positioned in a rather tight area, which may be difficult to access using a regular full-size screwdriver. Your machine will likely come with a small screwdriver designed to fit into this tight space.
The needle plate is the metal plate that is covering the surface under your needle. It’s usually secured into place by a few screws, and it has an opening on it that reveals the feed dogs. It also features markings for common seam allowances in metric, imperial, or both. Some simpler models may not include the actual measurements (such as ⅜” or 1 cm) but simply have lines etched into the needle plate. In that case, you’ll want to measure the distance between the needle and the markings yourself and take note of it.
- Covering the internal mechanism of the sewing machine.
- Displaying seam allowance guides.
- As you sew, your machine will accumulate lint and fluff under the needle plate. Remember to clean this space regularly by unscrewing the needle plate and lifting it off. Reference your machine’s manual for specific instructions on how to remove the needle plate and how to best clean your machine.
The needle threader is only found on some machines, the more basic models may not include this part. It’s located just left of the needle, and you access it by pulling it down and rotating it out. It helps with quickly and easily threading the needle.
- Threading the needle.
- You can use it by pulling the threader down and rotating it out, and then pushing your thread towards the left following the grooves on the threader. When you rotate it back towards the needle, it’ll push the thread through the eye of the needle.
Needle up/down button:
The needle up / down button is only found on certain computerized machines, and it allows you to control the position the needle will be in when you stop sewing. For example, if the machine is set in the needle down position, every time you stop sewing the machine will drop the needle down and then stop.
- Controlling the position of the needle.
- This is a great function for instances where you want to stop with your needle down and readjust the fabric, such as pivoting at corners.
Thread cutter button:
The thread cutter button is only available on computerized machines that have an automatic thread cutter function. It usually has a small icon of scissors on it, and when pressed, it trims the top and bottom threads so can take your work out of the machine. On some sewing machines, the stitch locking function can be combined with the thread cutting one, in which case when you press on the thread cutter button as you’re sewing your seam, the machine will lock your stitches and then cut the threads.
- Trimming the top and bottom threads off your work.
- Press on this button when you reach the end of your seam and want to take your work out of the machine.
The thread cutter is a small blade that is usually located on the left of your machine, on the side panel. When you finish sewing your seam, lift your presser foot and grab your project. Pull on it until the threads are long enough to reach the thread cutter, and press the threads against the cutter to trim them off.
- Cutting the top and bottom threads to release your project from the sewing machine.
- Use it at the end of sewing a seam to quickly take your work off the machine.
- If your sewing machine (or overlocker / serger) didn’t come with a built-in thread cutter or the one on your machine is damaged or old, you can buy replacement ones like these ones from Singer and stick them to the side of your machine.
The presser foot is a small attachment that connects to the presser foot holder and helps keep the fabric flat as it’s being fed through the machine. There are a ton of different styles of presser feet designed for specific tasks or materials, such as a zipper foot, a buttonhole foot, an edge stitching foot, or a teflon foot. Depending on their intended use case, they can be made out of different materials and include different design details.
- Keeping the fabric flat as it’s being fed through the machine by the feed dogs.
- Helping with different sewing tasks and materials.
Presser foot holder:
The presser foot holder is the part to which you will attach your presser foot of choice. Most presser feet will quickly connect to the presser foot holder, but for some specialty feet (like a walking foot, a ruffler, or a quilting foot) you’ll need to remove this holder and attach the presser feet directly to the machine. There is usually a small screw to the left of the holder than can be unscrewed to remove thepresser foot holder.
- Holding the presser foot.
Presser foot lifter / lever:
The presser foot lifter is used for raising or lowering the presser foot. It’s usually located to the right of the needle or towards the back, and it’s a small plastic lever. Most machines will also allow you to push the lever up from its original position, which will further raise the presser foot. This feature is really useful for getting bulky fabrics or multiple layers of fabric in and out of your machine.
- Raising and lowering the presser foot.
- You’ll always want to raise the presser foot before you thread your machine, and lower it into place before you start sewing. Some computerized machines will give you an alert if you try to sew with the presser foot still up. You’ll need to raise it back up when you’re done sewing and want to take your project out of the machine.
- Some machines come with the option of attaching a knee lift to the presser foot lifter. This way, you can control the position of the presser foot with your knee, leaving your hands free.
Presser foot pressure dial:
The presser foot pressure dial is only found on some more advanced models of sewing machines, and it’s usually located on the left side or on the top of the machine. It’s used to increase or decrease the pressure that is applied by the presser foot on the fabric.
- Adjusting the amount of pressure applied by the presser foot.
- In most cases, you won’t need to adjust this dial. However, if you’re working with very light or very heavy-weight fabrics, you may want to adjust the pressure. For very light fabrics, try turning the dial to a lower number. For heavyweight fabrics, try turning the dial to a higher number.
Feed dogs sit directly under the presser foot and peek out of a rectangular cut-out in the needle plate. They have a bumpy, ridged surface that grabs the fabric and helps it move back as the needle is going up and down.
- Guiding and moving the fabric as you’re sewing.
Make sure you clean between the feed dogs using a brush or a pin. If there’s too much lint stuck in them the fabric may not feed through the machine smoothly.
Feed dog position switch:
The feed dogs position switch allows you to raise or lower the feed dogs. When the feed dogs are raised, they help move the fabric along. When they are lowered or disengaged, the fabric will stay in the same position even though the needle is going up and down to form stitches. It’s usually located at the back or the front of the free arm, so you may need to take the flat bed attachment off to access it.
- Raising or lowering the feed dogs.
- You’ll want to lower the feed dogs when you’re sewing on a button by machine, so that the needle simply goes in and out of the two holes of the button rather than accidentally sewing through it.
- Another great use for disengaged feed dogs is freehand / free motion sewing / quilting. Because the feed dogs aren’t moving the fabric in a straight line, you’ll have complete control over where the fabric travels. You can achieve intricate designs by guiding the fabric manually under the needle which will allow you to drawing with thread in a way.
Spool pins are long, thin pieces of plastic found at the top of your machine, onto which you slide your top thread spool. They can be vertical or horizontal depending on the model of your machine. Some machines come with only one pin, while others come with two built-in pins or one built-in pin and one separate pin and a hole to put it in. These two-pin options are helpful when you’re using a twin needle and need to thread two threads through your machine.
- Holding the spool of thread that is used as the top thread.
- If your sewing machine only came with one spool pin but you want to use a twin needle with it, you can put the second spool of thread in a jar or bowl on the table and thread it as usual. This also applies for oversized spools of thread that don’t fit on your spool pins.
Spool caps are used with horizontal spool pins to help keep your spool of thread in position. They come in different sizes to accommodate different sized spools.
- Securing the spool of thread into place with horizontal spool pins.
Bobbins are small cylinders made out of clear plastic or metal onto which you wound thread. Most machines come with a few spare bobbins, and you can also get additional ones so that you have enough for the different colors of thread you want to use.
- Holding the bottom thread.
- You will want to wound your bobbin with a matching thread before you start your project. If you’re planning on working on a really long project, you may want to wound a couple of bobbins in advance so that you can quickly replace them when they run out.
Make sure you use the recommended material and size of bobbin for your machine to get optimal results and keep your machine healthy: not all machines are designed for metal bobbins and the sizing can have subtle differences between brands / models!
The bobbin winder is a mechanism that is composed of a series of thread guides, a bobbin tension disk, a bobbin winder spindle, and a bobbin winder stopper. To use it, you’ll follow the thread guides to place the thread in the correct position, loop the thread around the tension disk, put one end of the thread through the hole in your bobbin, place the bobbin on the spindle, push the spindle to the side to activate the winder and press on the pedal or the start button of your machine. Once the bobbin is filled, it’ll hit the stopper and let you know that it’s time to stop winding. On some machines, you’ll also find a small thread cutter nearby so that you can quickly take your bobbin out of the bobbin winder.
The bobbin winder mechanism is usually located at the top of your sewing machine, and depending on the model it may be covered by the top lid of the machine. As the name suggests, it’s used for winding the bobbins with your thread of choice. Some more advanced sewing machines can also wind the bobbin while the machine is already threaded, but for most machines, you’ll want to wind your bobbin first and then thread your machine.
- Filling bobbins with thread.
- Some specialty threads may not be suitable to use with your machine’s bobbin winder, such as elastic thread for shirring. In that case, you’ll want to wind the bobbin manually.
- Don’t forget to push the spindle back to its original position once you’re done with winding the bobbins!
Bobbin case / cover:
The bobbin case or cover is the area where the fully wound bobbin is inserted into the machine. These will vary from machine to machine, and they will look and operate dramatically differently based on whether you’re using a top or front-loading machine. On top-loading machines, the bobbin case can be accessed through an opening on the needle plate. It’s usually a plastic, circular bed into which the bobbin is dropped. On front-loading machines, you’ll need to take the flat bed attachment off to access the front of the free arm, where the bobbin case is usually located. On these machines, it’s usually a smaller, round, metal casing into which you place the bobbin and guide the bobbin thread through a couple of slits.
- Housing the bobbin.
- If you’re using a front-loading machine, you can further adjust the tension of the bobbin thread by tightening or loosening the small screw that is found on the bobbin case. Remember to take a photo of its original position and orientation so that you can revert to it if it doesn’t work out. This should only be done if all other options are exhausted.
Thread guides are a series of notches, disks, slits etc. that help you correctly thread your sewing machine. They guide the thread through the correct mechanisms and spaces in the machine until it reaches the needle. They are usually found on the top and the front side of the machine, and they often include small notations like numbers or arrows to demonstrate the correct order and orientation of the threading process.
- Helping guide the thread through the machine.
- You’ll want to follow the thread guides exactly as they are designed to ensure your machine is correctly threaded.
Thread take-up lever:
The thread take-up lever is located inside a slit on the front of your machine, towards the left side, directly up from the needle. It’s a metal piece with a hook-like shape to it, and it goes up and down as the needle moves vertically. You’ll need to loop your thread through it in the threading process, so you’ll see that it has thread guides around it, pointing you in the right direction. Your needle must be up in its highest position for you to be able to easily access the relevant part of the thread take-up lever.
- Threading the machine.
- This is the last place you’ll need to pass the thread though before threading the needle.
The hand wheel is shaped like a disc and it’s located on the right side of your machine. As you turn it towards yourself, the needle will slowly go up and down, and the machine will start to sew.
- Manually changing the needle position to up or down.
- Slowly sewing over tricky areas like multiple layers or thick fabric.
It’s really important that you only turn the hand wheel counter-clockwise, that is, towards yourself. Turning it the other way may disturb your machine’s timing or cause jams.
The power switch is a small switch that lets you turn the machine on or off. It’s usually located on the right side of the machine, close to the power supply socket and pedal jack.
- Turning the machine on and off.
Remember to turn off your machine when you’re not using it to preserve energy and extend the life of the lightbulbs.
Power supply and foot controller jackets / sockets:
The power supply socket and the foot pedal jacks can be combined into one or found separately on different models of sewing machines. They are used to connect your machine to electricity and to the foot pedal.
- Connecting the sewing machine to power.
- Connecting the foot pedal to the sewing machine.
The foot pedal is a separate part that comes with your sewing machine. It’s a plastic pedal with a cable sticking out of it, and it may also be connected to the power supply cord. When you turn your machine on and step on the pedal, the machine will start sewing. The harder you press, the faster it will go.
- Controlling the speed of the stitching, as well as starting, pausing, or stopping the sewing.
An extension table is an accessory that doesn’t always come included with your sewing machine – although many quilting-oriented machines will include one. It’s a plastic surface that attaches to the plate of the sewing machine, extending your workspace.
- Extending the size of the workspace on your sewing machine for better supporting the size and weight of large scale projects.
The carrying handles are placed on the top of the machine, and they help you easily carry your sewing machine. Depending on the model, they may be on hinges so that you can fold them back when they are not needed.
- Carrying the sewing machine.
The free arm is accessed by pulling the flat bed attachment out and off your machine. It’s a raised bed that is narrower and smaller in diameter, which is helpful for sewing tighter areas like hems. You can slide your project onto the free arm, and it will freely glide around it as the machine is moving the fabric along.
- Sewing projects with small openings, like hems of trousers or sleeves.
Flat bed attachment:
The flat bed attachment, also called the accessory tray by some manufacturers, is the part of the sewing machine’s bed that you pull off to reveal the free arm. It’s usually U-shaped to fit around the free arm of the machine. Many models include some sort of accessory storage within this part.
- You can take it off to access the free arm of the machine.
- Storing small accessories like presser feet, needles, screwdrivers, additional spool pins, spool caps, etc.
The buttonhole lever is usually found to the left and back of the needle. You will need to grab its end and pull it down before you start sewing a buttonhole. It interacts with the buttonhole foot to help guide your machine sew the buttonhole in the correct dimensions. Some computerized machines will not let you sew a buttonhole stitch if the lever hasn’t been pulled down, but you may need to remind yourself to do it on more basic models.
- Sewing buttonhole stitches.
- Pull it down after you installed the buttonhole presser foot and before you start sewing the stitch.
The lightbulb(s) are located in areas surrounding the bed of the sewing machine and they help illuminate your workspace. They are often LED bulbs, and they come in warmer or cooler tones. Many sewing machines use the same type of lightbulb, but make sure to double-check before you buy a replacement.
- Lighting the workspace.
- They will automatically light up when you turn your machine on. If they don’t – try changing the bulb!
The air vent is normally found on the side of the machine, and it allows the air to circulate around your sewing machine’s motor in order to prevent it from overheating. Make sure it isn’t covered while you’re using the machine so the air can freely circulate.
- Cooling the motor while the machine is in use.
What to read next:
- 11 Different Types of Sewing Machines
- The Best Sewing Machines for Beginners – All Tested
- How To Set Up, Thread & Use Any Sewing Machine in 8 Steps
- How to Change a Sewing Machine Needle in 59 Seconds (Singer, Brother, Janome)
- How to Thread Any Bobbin (Singer, Brother, Janome) – 6 Ways
- How to Put a Bobbin in Any Sewing Machine – 4 Ways
This article was written by Nisan Aktürk and edited by Sara Maker.
Nisan Aktürk (author)
Nisan started her sewing journey in December 2019 and already has a fully handmade wardrobe. She’s made 50+ trousers, 20+ buttoned shirts, and a wide array of coats, jackets, t-shirts, and jeans. She’s currently studying for her Sociology Master’s degree and is writing a thesis about sewing. So she spends a lot of her time either sewing or thinking/writing about sewing! Read more…