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How to thread and use a sewing machine

It happens all the time. When I talk to people about my job, they all say “Wow, I wish I were able to do what you do, but I’m not capable of!”. I guess most of us dreamed at least once to be able to design and sew our own clothes but often thought sewing it’s some sort of dark magic you can’t learn unless you’re very very gifted. Well, my friends, here’s the good news: we were all wrong. I’m the living example of that: I started sewing my own clothes just one year and a half ago and I learned and accomplished so much since then. I even have my own small clothing collection now.

So don’t give up your dream of a beautiful handmade wardrobe!

First step: learn how to use your sewing machine. It will become your faithful ally. I do know some of you even have one, perhaps you inherited it from your grandma or you found it in a dusty loft or you even bought it yourself but never get the chance to learn how to use it. Well, go take it as this post will walk you through all the steps to thread and use your sewing machine. If you don’t quite know how does a sewing machine work, what are its main components and how do they function together, you can have a look at this other post. Ready? Let’s begin!

1 – Wind the bobbin.

First step is winding the bobbin. Sewing machines need an upper and a lower thread to form the stitches. The lower thread is kept in a small bobbin stored underneath the presser foot. The mechanism for winding the bobbin may vary based on the model of your sewing machine. I will show you one way, which is actually very common. Refer to the instruction manual of your sewing machine if you have doubts on how yours works.

Place the spool you want to use on the spool holder, secure it with the small plastic cap which will hold it in place. Place the bobbin onto the bobbin winder.

Then pull the thread out and around the bobbin winding guide.

If your sewing machine has a little thread holder/cutter at the base of the bobbin winder (as mine has), hold the bobbin and manually wrap the thread around it for a few times. Then slide it through the cutter that will hold the thread end in place. If that’s not your case, you’re going to have to pull the end of the thread through the little pinhole on top of the bobbin. Then you would hold that thread end as you start winding the bobbin for the first few seconds, so that it’s secured in place. To wind the bobbin, you first have to disengage the needle mechanism. In some machines you have to pull or push the handwheel, in others (like mine) you just need to slide the bobbin winder to the right. Refer to the instruction manual of your sewing machine for details on your specific model.

Press the foot pedal to start winding your bobbin. Keep and eye on the winding guide, as sometimes the thread might disengage from there and you really don’t want the huge mess coming after that! I usually keep my fingers around the winding guide to make sure the thread stays in place. Wind the bobbin as much as you want but never too much. In most sewing machines there’s a plastic stopper preventing from wrapping too much thread around the bobbin. Also, you want your bobbin thread to be evenly distributed. Now your bobbin is ready to use!

2 Thread your sewing machine.

Now it’s time to thread your sewing machine!

Thread guides might vary from sewing machine to sewing machine, but they’re pretty similar in most cases. Have a look at the instruction manual of your sewing machine in case you have doubts.

Most sewing machines also have threading diagrams printed directly on the machine, so it’s super-easy to thread them. Thread guides are usually numbered so that you know in which order to proceed.

Thread guides take care of the thread tension which, in turn, allows to form even and beautiful stitches. If your machine seems not to work correctly and you see ugly stitches, you may want to re-thread it and check the tension. In most cases this will solve the problem.

The sequence of images below shows you how to thread the machine through the guides all the way down to the needle. Remember to lift the presser foot up before getting started.

Note: if you don’t see the little “hook” (guide #4 in the pictures), try turning a bit your handwheel and it’ll pop up!

Now you can thread the needle. To make it easier, bring the needle all the way up using the handwheel or the needle up button (if you have an electronic sewing machine). You may also use the needle threader, if your machine has one, but I have to say I’ve never used it!

3 Load the bobbin.

We can now load the bobbin. There are two types of sewing machine: with a top-loading or a front-loading bobbin. If your bobbin case is located right under the presser foot and you can access it from the top (as you see in the pictures), then your machine has a top-loading bobbin. On the contrary, if you don’t quite see the bobbin, it must be a front-loading bobbin (as the one you see in this video). I will show you how to load a top-loading bobbin, as unfortunately I don’t have any front-loading bobbin machine.

To start off, remove the plastic bobbin case cover. Then, place the bobbin into the bobbin case so that the thread runs counter-clockwise. Most machines have a bobbin loading guide printed right on the plastic cover. If you’re not sure about yours, refer to the instruction manual for your model. Lock the end of the bobbin thread as instructed. In my case I have a couple of guides to pull the thread through.

Put the plastic bobbin case cover back in place. Now you have to bring the lower thread up. In some modern sewing machines (as in mine) this is an unnecessary step: the lower thread is automatically brought up for you as you start sewing. However, in some cases you may want to pull the lower thread up manually, e.g. when sewing gathering stitches.

To bring the lower thread up, hold the end of the upper thread with your left hand about 15-20 cm from the needle.

While holding the thread, turn the handwheel using your right hand, until the needle goes down and then up again. Now gently pull the thread end: it will come to the top bringing the lower thread with it. Catch the lower thread end and pull it out for about 10 cm. Bring both threads together under the presser foot and to the back of the machine.

4 – Adjust the settings.

Congratulations, you threaded your sewing machine!

There’s one more step to do before getting started sewing: adjusting the settings. This is something you’re going to need to do every time you start a new project, as stitch, tension and presser foot settings may vary based on the kind of fabric you’re using, particularly on its weight.

To know more about thread tension, presser foot tension and stitch length and width, check out my other post on how sewing machines work. Remember to always check all these settings on some scraps of the fabric you’re going to use: this will always ensure the best results. A little tip: you may also keep a notebook with some fabric swatches and the optimal settings you found for future reference. This way, you can always come back to that and use the same settings or use them as starting point to find the optimal settings on fabrics of similar types!

All sewing machines also have standard settings that work fine on many projects, check your instruction manual to find out about yours.

5 Get started sewing.

We are finally ready to sew!

Raise the presser foot using the lever and place your fabric under. Align the edges with your seam allowance using the guides printed on the throat plate. Then lower the needle (either turning the handwheel or using the needle down button). Always start about 2 mm away from the edge of your fabric to avoid it getting stuck inside the needle plate. After a few stitches (3-4), hold the backstitch lever or button and press the foot pedal to start sewing backwards until you have reached your starting point. This will secure the beginning of your seam. Then, release the lever or button and continue sewing forward.

Sew at your own pace, especially if you are a beginner. If your sewing machine has the speed control feature, set it to a medium-low speed and gradually increase it as you practice sewing.

Practice is really the secret to success, so gather some fabric scraps and practice a lot! You can also draw mini sewing patterns, to practice with real shapes, only at a smaller scale. Start with simple geometric shapes like squares, then dive into more complicated shapes. Here you can find some machine practice sheets: you can either sew directly on paper or transfer them to fabric. As you get more confident, start practicing with curves. Sewing curves is not too difficult, it really just needs some practice! Hand-draw random curves on some fabric using a pencil and then try sewing along those curves. The secret here is to go as slow as you feel comfortable, don’t rush trying to desperately follow a tricky curve, instead stop, raise the presser foot with the needle down and turn the fabric pivoting around the needle a tiny little bit before continuing along the curve a few stitches at a time.

You’ll see you’ll get better and better and soon you’ll be able to dive into your first sewing project! Perhaps a skirt or a simple top, what do you say?

So… that’s all for today’s post about how to thread and use a sewing machine. I hope you liked it and you’ll find it useful. Ask any question you may have commenting below or just drop a line to share your thoughts.

Ciao ciao!


12 responses to “How to thread and use a sewing machine”

  1. My wife is planning on purchasing a sewing machine soon because she wants to make a couple of quilts for our twin nieces that have a birthday coming up. I found it helpful when you explained that it is important to adjust the tension and stitch settings on the machine. These tips you shared will help my wife create some good looking blankets.

  2. Thanks for the tip to keep an eye on the winding guide as we press the foot pedal to wind the bobbin. I really like the idea of making some custom clothing using batik fabric because I think the patterns would really showcase my unique personality. It’s been a while since I’ve used a sewing machine, so the information you shared here will be really helpful!

  3. I like your suggestion to practice on fabric scraps until we get the hang of how to use a sewing machine. My mom just got an old sewing machine out of her storage unit that she’s planning on donating if no one wants it, but I think it’d be fun to have it repaired and learn how to use it now that I’m spending a lot of time at home. Since this will be a new experience for me, the tips you shared here will be really helpful to keep in mind as I learn!

  4. Excellent web site you’ve got here.. It’s hard to find quality writing like yours nowadays. I seriously appreciate individuals like you! Take care!!

  5. I am wondering. If I stop a seam in the middle of a piece of fabric, will the bobbin thread be under the material and the needle thread be on top?

    Thank you.

    • Hi there! If the tension is correct then for every machine stitch the two threads meet exactly in the middle of the fabric. If you stop your machine as you said the location of the upper thread also depends on your machine settings, i.e. whether you set it up to stop with the needle up or down. I hope this makes sense for you!

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