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Understanding a Sewing Machine

Martha Stewart Living, Volume 46

Models and makes of sewing machines may differ somewhat, but their fundamental features are remarkably similar; consult your machine's manual for specific instructions for care and cleaning. 

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1. Bobbin and  bobbin case: The bobbin is wound with thread that will make up the underside of a machine stitch. The bobbin case holds the bobbin, and is usually not interchangeable between machines. Use only bobbins recommended by the manufacturer for your particular model.

2. Slide plate or bobbin cover: Depending on the machine, a slide plate or hinged bobbin cover allows access to the bobbin.

3. Presser foot: This removable foot keeps fabric in place as you sew. Different feet are appropriate for various sewing techniques or fabrics. For example, a roller or nonstick foot is used for sewing leather and oilcloth smoothly.

4. Needle and needle clamp: Sewing-machine needles are removable and come in a variety of sizes. The clamp holds the needle in place.

5. Throat palate:  This metal plate, sometimes referred to as a needle plate, sits below the needle and presser foot. A small opening in the plate allows the bobbin thread to come out and the needle to pass through to make stitches. Most throat plates have small lines notched to the right of the presser foot; these serve as guides for seam allowances and for sewing straight lines. The plate can be removed to clean underneath.

6. Feed dogs: These small metal or rubber teeth pull the fabric between the presser foot and throat plate, and also regulate the stitch length by controlling how much fabric passes through at once. Always allow the feed dogs to move the fabric as you guide it -- manually pulling may cause the needle to bend or break.

7. Tension regulator: This dial controls the tension on the top thread. With proper tension the top thread and bobbin thread will join together in uniform stitches. If the tension is set too tight, the stitch will pucker and break; if set too loose, the stitches will be too loose. 

8. Take-up lever: The top thread passes through this metal lever, which moves up and down in tandem with the needle. Depending on the machine, the take-up lever may protrude from the front or be hidden inside the plastic casing. Before placing fabric under the presser foot, raise the lver completely (the needle will be at its highest point); this will keep the handle from snagging the fabric.

9. Bobbin winder tension disk: On machines that have an external bobbin winder, this disk helps guide the thread between the spool and the winder. 

10. Bobbin winder: The small spool is placed upon this while the bobbin is being filled. To ensure that the tread winds evenly, always start with an empty bobbin. 

11. Thread guides: From the spool, thread passes through these metal loops to help regulate the tension of the thread. 

12. Spool pin: This small dowel holds the thread. Some machines come with several spool pins for decorative or twin-needle sewing. Spool pins can be horizontal or vertical.

13. Flywheel: This knob, also called a handwheel, raises and lowers the take-up lever. Always turn the flywheel toward you.

14. Stitch selector: On older machines, a dial allows you to choose between different machine stitches. Newer machines have buttons to select stitches.

15. Stitch-length selector Use this dial or lever to set the length of the stitches on manual and some electronic machines. Stitches are measured differently, depending on the machine. They may be measured per inch, by metric scale, or simply numerically from 0 to 9. For general sewing, use medium-length stitches; for fine fabrics, shorter stitches; for heavier fabrics, or when basting or gathering, use long stitches.

16. Stitch-width selector This dial or lever controls the width of decorative stitches, such as the zigzag stitch.

17. Menu screen On newer electronic and computerized machines, the menu screen allows you to adjust functions and stitches, sometimes replacing the separate stitch, stitch-width, and stitch-length selector dials.

18. Reverse-stitch button Pressing this button reverses the direction of the stitches, allowing you to secure the thread at the beginning and end of a seam. (Some manuals call this a backstitch button.)

19. Foot controller The speed of the stitches is partially controlled by pressing on this pedal.

Safety Tips
When guiding fabric over the throat plate, keep your fingers at least an inch away from the presser foot at all times. If you pause between stitches, take your foot off the foot controller, so that you don't accidentally set the needle in motion. If you are taking a longer pause, turn the machine off completely.

Which Sewing Machine is Right for You?

More Sewing Basics

Sewing Projects


Comments (6)

  • Tiffany_Sun 26 Jan, 2010

    We hear you! We've added some tips for choosing the right sewing machine based on skill level. Take a look!

  • mlange 3 Oct, 2009

    I got a giggle when I saw the comments below, because I just returned from a sewing shop in my area - trying to learn about what sewing machine would be right for me. As a complete novice, I am desperately trying to find the episode where I saw Martha recommending one. Help! ;o)

  • blossomingbusiness 19 Mar, 2009

    Please Martha I am in agreement with these ladies...we need some advice on what sewing machines are best for beginners, intermediate, etc....thanx

  • NCavillones 17 Jan, 2009

    I agree with the commenters below! Even when I used the Machine Chooser tool on the Singer website, it returned a lot of results--how to choose between all the machines is a little daunting when you don't know why one feature is more important than another.

  • LaLaAndrew 22 Jun, 2008

    I also would like to see Martha do a show on the differences in sewing machines. I want to buy one and don't know where to start. The price range is between thousands and less than a hundred and have no way of knowing what will serve my needs at a reasonable cost. The retail stores have been of little help to date.

  • edieknits 16 Jan, 2008

    The above information is helpful, however,I would like to see Martha do a show on the differences and or benefits between embroidery, quilting and regular sewing machines.