Getting to know your sewing machine

Part One

After teaching sewing workshops for a good few years now, I know that people can feel daunted sometimes when they look at a sewing machine.  I promise it’s not as complicated as it looks so in this first post of my Top sewing tips series I’m going to show you the basics of setting up and threading the sewing machine.

To see it in action check out my latest Youtube Video!

The machine featured in these pictures is the Brother Innovis F420. These machines are provided to us on loan from Brother via our local sewing machine shop, Frank Nutt, and are the ones that we use in all our sewing workshops. 

Machine landmarks

No matter what model or brand of machine you have, there will be key landmarks that are the same. This is a really simple representation of the common parts of the machine but please be aware that exact positioning and design of parts varies from machine to machine.

When first setting up your machine the key parts you need to find are

  • the spool pin where the thread sits
  • the bobbin stand where the empty bobbin goes before you wind the bobbin
  • the tension disc so that when you do wind the bobbin it gets would at tension
  • there will be a few thread guides that help you thread the machine
  • the needle
  • the bobbin housing (this can either be top loading or front loading)
  • the hand wheel at the side of the machine (always turn this towards you

Winding the bobbin

The machine needs two threads to form stitches so you need to put thread from the spool onto the bobbin before you fully thread the machine.

Place the spool of thread onto the spool pin and guide the thread around the thread guides, making sure it catches under the tension disc – that bit is really important!

Next start to wind the thread around the empty bobbin manually – I usually wind it 4 or 5 times. On this machine you can then use the little thread cutter to trim the excess. If your machine doesn’t have this you may need to cut it with scissors or thread the end through the little hole in the bobbin.

The final stage will be activating the 'winding the bobbin function'. On this machine you have to click the whole bit that the bobbin is sitting on over to the right, following the direction of the arrow. Now when you put your foot into the pedal of the machine the bobbin will wind. You don't have to touch anything at this point, just let the machine do its thing, wind the bobbin. Once it's full the machine will slow down and stop. 

Threading the machine – top thread

Always make sure the needle is at the highest position when you thread the machine. You can do this by turning the hand wheel at the side, or if your machine has it – the needle reset button. On this machine that button will either fully lower or fully raise the needle. 

On this particular machine, there are handy lines and arrows that are numbered. Simply follow these arrows with the thread catching it in all the guides. Don’t forget the little one that is at the top of the needle. I can be hard to see!

Then either thread the needle manually or if your machine has it the needle threader.

Needle threaders typically make a loop of thread at the back of the needle so just pull this loop away from you to the back of the machine and feed it through foot.

Threading the machine  - bobbin thread

This particular machine is a top loading bobbin, meaning the bobbin drops down from the top of the machine.

Lift the little lid/roof off. Make sure the thread is hanging from the left of the bobbin so that it looks like a letter ‘P’ and drop it in.

This machine has a little guide that you can follow the thread around. In this case, you don’t need to pull the bobbin thread through to the top of the machine – it does it automatically for you once you start stitching.

If your machine doesn’t have that then you need to pull the bobbin thread up manually. To do this, hold the top thread under tension with your left hand. Turn the hand wheel of the machine towards you with your right hand and keep turning until the needle has been all the way down and all the way back up. Keep the top thread tight with your left hand and the bobbin thread will be pulled up. 

Feet and needle position

The little bit of the machine that the fabric sits under is called the foot. For most simple projects you will use the standard foot. It will have a little slit in it that the thread can pass through to ensure that as you sew, the tails of the thread are always out to the back of the machine.

On this particular machine the starting position or master position of the needle is to the left side of it. When the needle is here, that is what makes all the measurement guides on the plate of the machine correct. These are there to help you stitch straight lines.

On some other machines, this starting/master position might be in the centre of the foot. So it’s worth checking in your machine manual if you plan to use those guide markings.

Feeddogs and machine speed

The feed dogs are the little spiky grips that are under the foot of the machine. As you sew then move up and down and grip your fabric, helping it to pass through the machine. It’s the speed at which these feed dogs turn that determines how quickly your machine stitches.

When you put your (actual) foot on the pedal of the machine and press down these feeddogs start to move. The harder you press the faster they go – a bit like the accelerator pedal in the car.

Some machines, like this one, will have a speed control that basically sets a speed limit on the machine. So if it is at a lower speed setting, it doesn’t matter how hard you press the pedal, it will only go at a certain speed.

If the speed setting is as the highest speed, you can still sew slowly – just don’t press the pedal as hard!

Start sewing!

Now the machine is threaded you can start sewing! You’ll need to use the little lever to lower the foot of the machine down (this is usually at the back or right hand side of the foot). 

Activities to try

  • Start practising on one layer of fabric and just see what happens. Get used to the speed and co-ordinating pressing on the foot pedal and guiding the fabric through the machine.
  • Your hands should always be on the fabric, gently guiding it. Try to avoid the temptation to push or pull it though the machine as this can affect the stitch length. 
  • Try curves and try corners. To turn a sharp corner, stop sewing, leave the needle in the fabric, lift the foot up, rotate the fabric, lower the foot down again and continue sewing.
  • Stay tuned for the next instalment of my top tips.  I’ll be taking you through stitches, seams and seam finishes

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