Ultimate Sewing Machine Guide

ultimate sewing machine guide

Your Go-To Guide for Buying, Setting Up, Using, Cleaning and Maintaining a Sewing Machine

sewing machine parts
Get to know your sewing machine!

Choosing a sewing machine can feel like an overwhelming experience. Deciding which one is right for you, where to buy it, how to set it up on your own and keep it running smoothly are all things to consider.

Hopefully, this guide will have all the information you need to solve any sewing machine woes you may have.

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You will learn what to consider before you begin looking for a new sewing machine, tips on how to set it up, how to use it, including threading, winding a bobbin, selecting a stitch and adjusting the tension.

You will also learn how to care for your machine, and how to trouble shoot basic sewing machine issues. And trust me, even with the best sewing machines on the market, there will always come a time when it misbehaves, and you will need to know how to figure out what’s wrong with it.

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Buying Your Sewing Machine

Buying a sewing machine can be intimidating, whether it’s your first or looking to upgrade. There are hundreds of models under numerous brands that all have something different to offer. Here are some things to consider when buying your first, or next machine.

What is your Skill Level?

Understanding your skill level is important when buying a sewing machine. IF you are a beginner who is buying their first machine, select a beginner type model.

Brother CS7000i Sewing and Quilting Machine, 70 Built in stitches, 2 inch display, wide table, 10 feet included, available from Amazon (paid link)
Beginner Model: Brother CS7000i Sewing and Quilting Machine, 70 Built in stitches, 2 inch display, wide table, 10 feet included, available from Amazon (paid link)

More advanced machines come with many extra features that may be intimidating when first starting out. Many sewing machine company sites have their sewing machines categorized as beginner, intermediate and advanced, which can help you narrow down your search.

How often will you use your machine?

Knowing how often you think you will use your machine is important when choosing one, especially if you are a beginner. If you plan to use it a lot and you buy a very basic machine, you may outgrow it pretty quickly and be back in the market for a new one before you know it.

What do you like to make?

This is something many people don’t think about when buying a new machine. Do you just want to make small project, clothes, quilt or do embroidery? While you could buy a separate machine for all those tasks, you could just buy one machine that will allow you to do some aspect of all of them.

Tilly and the Buttons Make It Simple, Easy Speedy Projects you can sew up in an afternoon, from Amazon (paid link)
Tilly and the Buttons Make It Simple, Easy Speedy Projects you can sew up in an afternoon, from Amazon (paid link)

What are you willing to spend?

Sewing machine costs range from $100 to the cost of a small car! Knowing how much you are willing to spend on a machine is something to determine before you start looking. As a beginner, cheaper isn’t always the best option especially if you plan to use it often. And there is truth in the saying “you get what to pay for”.

Having an amount predetermined will help keep you from being overwhelmed by expensive machines and also help you see that you may be able to get a machine with several extra features and still stay within your budget.

 Computerized vs Mechanical

These days it is common to find a sewing machine that has a USB port, touch screen and even WiFi. While these are great features to have, some people prefer to push buttons or turn dials.

Most machine companies offer machines in both categories and will even have them sorted on their site. Knowing which type you prefer can help narrow your search when buying a sewing machine. If you are unsure which type you like, fine your nearest local dealer and try them out!

Janome 3160QDC Computerized Sewing Machine with hard cover, extension table, quilt kit, seam foot with guide, available from Amazon (paid link)
Janome 3160QDC Computerized Sewing Machine with hard cover, extension table, quilt kit, seam foot with guide, available from Amazon (paid link)

Where to buy your machine

While you may be able to find a good deal at a local big store, it may not be the best place to purchase it. Buying a sewing machine from a dealer will not only get you the machine, but also advice and assistance. A dealer can give you sewing machine buying tips to help you narrow down the selection. Dealers can also show you how to use a machine and allow you try them out before buying them.

Some dealers even offer small classes on how to use the machine and are available after your purchase to answer any questions you may have. Dealers sometimes even offer trade-in programs, so you can feel confident that if you outgrow your machine you can go back and get a new one. Even if you buy from a dealer you can still begin your machine search online and then find the nearest local dealer.

However, with Covid restrictions sweeping the world, you may not be able to get to a local dealer at all, and may have to rely on online searches entirely. YouTube offers tons of tutorials on buying sewing machines, and you can watch loads of reviews on different types of machines without leaving your home!

With that said, once you have found a positive review and you like the machine featured, you can then source it online, even on Amazon, and get it delivered right to your door! Lessons and troubleshooting videos for all sorts of machines are available on YouTube too, so you won’t be without help once it arrives!

Setting up your Machine

Once you’ve purchased your new machine, it’s arrived and it’s time to set it up. All machines will be a little different but there are some basic parts that can be found on all machines.

Power cord and foot control

Sewing machine power chord and presser foot
Sewing machine power cord and foot control

One of the first things you will need to do is locate and plug in your power cord and foot control. On some machines these two cord are joined into one on the machine side, and on others, they may be two separate cords. The area to plug in these cords are typically located on the back or right side of the machine. Watch this video.

Threading the Machine

Needle thread paths can vary by machine and brand. Many machines will have the thread path clearly marked on the machine with numbers or arrows to show you how to thread it. If not, then look for it in the Sewing Machine Manual that came with the machine. Watch this video.

Example of a thread path on a sewing machine
Example of a thread path on a sewing machine

It is crucial that you thread your machine correctly otherwise your stitch quality will be poor, with skipped stitches, bunching up or even worse, breaking some of the mechanisms around the bobbin area.

An example of skipped stitches
An example of skipped stitches
An example of bunching up
An example of bunching up

Thread paths may seem complicated but each area your thread passes through serves an important part in making your machine sew. In general your thread will pass from the spool at the top, through a guide, a lever, tension disk or knob, then the needle. Using a good quality sewing thread is also important to save you from broken stitches and snapped threads.

Gutermann Thread Notebook, available from Amazon (paid link)
Gutermann Thread Notebook, available from Amazon (paid link)

Winding and Loading the Bobbin

When you purchase a new machine it will generally come with a pre-wound bobbin already in place. Depending on how much you sew you may quickly run out of bobbin thread so it’s very important for you to know how to wind and replace the bobbin.

On more advanced machines, the bobbin can be wound from the needle thread with the machine completely threaded. However, on most machines, there is a separate path for winding a bobbin. This is another path that should be clearly marked on your machine with either arrows or numbers. Generally, this path can be as simple as passing the thread from the spool around a tension disk and then to the bobbin. Do not wind the bobbin by hand!

Once you have wound the bobbin, you will need to insert it into the machine. Bobbins are either top loading and can be dropped straight into the machine, or front loading and may need to be inserted into a bobbin case before being placed in the machine. Check your User Manual and learn how to do this correctly.

Top and front loading bobbins
Top and front loading bobbins

Turning the machine ON

Once you have the machine plugged in, needle threaded and a bobbin in place, you can start SEWING!

Typically, when you first turn a machine on it will automatically be set for a standard stitch length of around 2.5mm. This is considered a construction stitch and is a good stitch to begin practising with. Once you feel comfortable sewing with a straight stitch, play around with the other stitch option you have. Be sure to consult your Manual as to what presser foot needs to be in place for any decorative stitches you want to try. Watch this video: How to Sew Straight

Changing Settings

Changing settings on a machine varies greatly by machine. Some machines have knobs or button to push in order to change a setting, while others have touch screens. Your machine User Manual will come in handy when it comes to knowing what setting can be changed on your machine and what they do.

Stitch Selection

Straight stitches
Straight stitches

Changing the stitch type or stitch length will probably be one of the first settings you change on your machine as you experiment with it. Most machines offer both a straight and zig zag stitch. You will also have the option to change both the stitch length and width. Longer stitches are generally used for topstitching while shorter lengths can be used with zig zag to create a satin stitch or button hole.

Tension

Example of a tension dial
Example of a tension dial

Both the needle and bobbin thread have tension on them at all times that can be adjusted. In general, when you purchase a new machine the tension will be set to accurate levels for regular stitching on medium weight fabric.

The knob or dial to adjust the needle thread tension can typically be found on the front of the machine while the screw to adjust the bobbin thread tension will typically be found on the bobbin case, whether it is removable for a front loading bobbin or built in for a top loading bobbin.

When the tension is evenly balanced the needle thread should only be seen on the right side of the fabric and the bobbin thread only seen on the wrong side. If the bobbin thread shows on the right side, the needle tension is too tight and /or the bobbin tension is too loose.

If the needle thread shows on the wrong side the opposite is the case. In general it is easier to adjust the needle tension, so that should be tried first when attempting to balance the tension of the machine.

Always test your tension before you start a project, on a test piece of fabric that you will sewing with in that project. Also, when testing or balancing the tension, it is easier if you use contrasting thread colours in the bobbin and needle thread. This way will make it easier to see which thread is causing the issue.

Cleaning your Machine.

With every project you sew, your machine gets a little dirtier. This can simply be dust or bits of fabric and thread that may get caught in the machine. It is important to clean your machine on a regular basis to keep it running smoothly.

Remove dust and lint

The exterior of the machine can be cleaned and dusted with a soft cloth. The interior of the machine can be cleaned in several areas and you may want to consult your Manual before you do so. A lint brush, small vacuum or canned air can be used to remove lint and dust from your machine. If using canned air, ensure the angle pushes the air and dust OUT of the machine. Watch this video: How to clean a sewing machine.

Falcon Dust compressed gas cleaner, available from Amazon (paid link)
Falcon Dust compressed gas cleaner, available from Amazon (paid link)

Oil

It is also important to oil components of your machine from time to time. You want to use an oil specifically made for sewing machines (like Singer All Purpose Machine Oil), not just any household oil. Some machines come with an oil pen or small bottle of oil. Again, consult your Manual for tips on how to oil your machine. Watch this video: How to oil and clean a sewing machine ( front loading bobbin) and How to oil and clean a sewing machine (top loading bobbin)

After you have oiled your machine, you should run some scrap fabric through your machine to absorb any excess oil left behind, so it doesn’t stain your new fabric.

Basic Trouble Shooting

Whether you are just learning to sew or you’ve been doing it for years, it can be frustrating when your machine doesn’t work properly. Here are some tips on how to troubleshoot some basic sewing problems.

Machine not sewing

If the machine is simple not sewing, this can be caused by several things. First, ensure that the machine is threaded correctly. Some machines will not sew if this is done incorrectly. Check that the presser foot is lowered completely. When stitching on thicker fabric it can be easy to overlook this step.

Poor Stitch Quality

bent or broken needle
Bent or broken needle

Skipped stitches or other stitch problems can be caused by improper threading of the machine. Re check the needle thread path and ensure it is threaded correctly. Also check that the bobbin thread is correctly coming from the throat plate of the machine. If these are still correct and the machine is still stitching poorly, check the needle. The needle could have been bent after hitting a pin. Trust me, this is a common issue and has happened to me many times. It’s as simple as changing a needle.

Thread breakage

Thread breakage can be caused either by the needle or thread. First, ensure you are using a good quality thread that’s not old or brittle. Next, ensure you are using the right needle for the thread you are using. If you are using a needle that doesn’t have a large enough eye for the thread to go through, the thread can shred or bunch up behind the needle.

Breaking Needles

Needles need to be changed on a regular basis. A dull needle won’t be able to pierce the fabric and could break, or damage the fabric. Also ensure you are using the correct needle for the type of fabric you are sewing.

Smooth Sewing

Learning how to use and properly care for your sewing machine will keep it running smoothly for years to come. Whether its a new machine or an upgrade, it’s always a good idea to know how to set up the machine. Once it is set up, it is a good idea to get to grips with changing settings, cleaning and maintaining it and troubleshooting basic issues. Not only will this keep your sewing smoothly through each project, but it will keep the sewing process enjoyable and will make you want to keep sewing and learning more and more.

Sewing Machine Problems and how to solve them, available from Amazon (paid link)
Sewing Machine Problems and how to solve them. A trouble shooting guide, (Kindle edition) available from Amazon (paid link)

You can also read a related post for newbies: Sewing for Beginners

I have lots of free sewing patterns you can try by browsing this section.

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Happy sewing and machine buying!!

ultimate sewing machine guide

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