How to Use a Sewing Machine for the Absolute Beginner

May 28, 2021

New to sewing and just a beginner? Do you have a new sewing machine but not sure how to use it? Need to sew a quick project and borrowed a machine from a friend? Now what? Now that you are sitting in front of the sewing machine, we need to walk through the steps so that you can sew safely and start from the very beginning. Gather your fabric, plug in the machine and let’s go!

DISCLOSURE: THIS POST MAY CONTAIN AFFILIATE LINKS, MEANING I MAY GET A COMMISSION IF YOU DECIDE TO MAKE A PURCHASE THROUGH MY LINKS, AT NO COST TO YOU. PLEASE READ MY DISCLOSURE PAGE FOR MORE INFO.

Gather Materials

Sewing machine – Almost any kind will do as long as it is good working condition. Needs the ability to do a straight stitch and reverse stitch. Really, that’s it for now! Go here if you want to see good machines for beginners.

Thread – Good quality thread, doesn’t have to be expensive, just relatively new.

Fabric – A nice, woven quilters cotton is ideal. Anything that is woven will do. Save the stretchy knit fabrics for later (or you might want to throw the machine out the window before you have finished your first trial run) *A fabric with straight lines is a great place to practice! Just follow the lines. Get fabric in fat quarters if you just want a little bit for experimenting without committing to a lot of cost.

Straight pins – For pinning the fabric together. In the beginning, just about anything will work.

First steps

Is the sewing machine out of the box or dusted off yet? If not, do that… Place it on a sturdy surface and pull up a chair. The first real thing you need to do is get familiar with the machine. When first sitting down at the machine, you will likely feel a little uncomfortable. It’s ok, everyone does. Just like when you test drive a different car, you need to be able to reach the pedals, know where the windshield wipers are etc. Make sure it is plugged in, the foot pedal is plugged in properly and the needle is inserted properly.

Make sure machine is threaded properly and the bobbin thread is pulled up to the top. If your machine is not threaded or you want to double check the threading, see this post on threading a sewing machine. We want to check and double check the thread because when there is an issue with a sewing machine, it is usually a thread path problem. Thread path issues are the easiest to check and where you should start if you are having problems.

Here is my trusty Bernina. Please don’t feel like you need a super, crazy, advanced machine like this when you start. You do not need anything nearly this expensive. I grabbed it because it was already out and that meant I didn’t have to take the time to unearth another machine. Remember, I’m lazy in stuff like this so I can spend my time taking crazy up close photos and videos to help you learn more quickly.

If you have tried sewing on a machine before and had thread problems, check out this thread bunching solution guide.

Get your thread bunching solution guide

Prepare to use the sewing machine

Prepare the fabric if needed by ironing it flat. It is good to get in the habit of ironing your fabric, you’ll end up with straighter seams which look more pro!

Use two layers of fabric to imitate seams and other realistic situations in sewing. This means two single layers laid together. Pin the fabric edges together if they don’t naturally want to stay together. Sometimes static electricity is our friend. Here is a post on pinning fabric for sewing if you need a refresher or haven’t done it before.

Make sure machine is plugged in and on

Place foot pedal, flat on floor

If you have the option to control the speed, set it to low to begin.

Feed dogs should be up. If you don’t know where it is, look at the area around the needle, are there little metal zig-zaggy things moving up and down if you turn the hand wheel toward you? Make sure no fingers are in the way of the needle.

DO NOT PUT YOUR FOOT ONTO THE FOOT PEDAL UNTIL TOLD TO BELOW. This eliminates painful accidents!

How to use the sewing machine

Place stitch control on straight stitch if it isn’t already there. Usually this is indicated as a dotted, straight line on the machine. If you can control the stitch length, put it at 3mm and stitch width 0, or on machines with a simple dial, use a ‘medium’ stitch length .

Sit up straight comfortably in front of the machine. Make sure you can see the machine bed and the needle.

You need to always have the needle in view.

Lift presser foot, lever is most easily accessed with the right hand. Lever is usually straight behind or to the back and right of the needle. Lift the lever so it lifts the presser foot, it will click into place when it is all the way up.

The needle should also be in its highest position so we can slide the fabric in without snagging it or your finger. If you have a needle up button, press it. If you do not have a needle up button, turn the hand wheel towards you until the needle is all the way up. The easiest way to tell if the needle is all the way up is to look at the take up lever, it too should be all the way up. Place practice fabric under presser foot. Here the needle is up and so is the presser foot.

See this photo showing the throat plate on the machine. There are multiple marks on the plate to make it easier to keep the seam allowance even. Using the edge of the presser foot as a guide, place the edge of the fabric about 5/8 in away from the right edge of the presser foot. That 5/8 in is called the seam allowance. It changes depending on the sewing pattern but 5/8 is a good width for practice.

Place the top edge of the fabric just past the top edge of the presser foot, away from you. If you place the needle into the fabric too close to the edge, the needle will pull the fabric down with it into the bobbin compartment and likely cause the machine to jam. It happens regularly, don’t fret.

Click here for your thread bunching solution guide

When thinking about how to put the fabric under the needle and presser foot, try to keep the less bulky side on the right. We do not want to have to shove a lot of fabric in that space in the middle of the machine bed. It gets awkward. In simpler terms, keep the smaller side of the seam pointing to the right. This will become another automatic habit.

Lower presser foot by pushing down the lever you used to raise the presser foot, the machine will likely not sew unless it is down. (old machines will sew, new machines will beep at you to warn you that it isn’t down – Lever up = presser foot up, lever down = presser foot down)

Holding onto the two threads, put the needle down into the fabric, either by turning the hand wheel towards you or pressing the needle up/down button until the needle is down in the fabric. This is one of those habits that will help you get a better start with less issues. Older machines and machines without a needle up/down button, the needle is all the way down when the take up lever is all the way down. Machines with needle up/down, just press the button once or twice to get the needle down.

Sewing machine needle going into fabric in preparation to sew
It looks like I’m holding the thread but it is on the thread cutter to the upper left of the screen.

Keep holding the upper thread and bobbin thread out behind the needle, they should be about 4 or more inches long. I find it more convenient to hold them in your left hand, at an angle to the back and left of the needle. Hold onto them for now.

With the needle down, place your foot on the pedal but DO NOT PRESS DOWN YET. Use the foot that you have more control over please! If you are of driving age in the US, it will likely be your right. This foot needs to be coordinating with your hands the whole time the machine is sewing.

Take a deep breath.

READ FROM HERE DOWN TO THE ** BEFORE TOUCHING YOUR FOOT PEDAL

Drive the fabric

When you slowly press down a little bit on the foot pedal, the fabric is going to be pulled away from you towards the back of the machine and the needle is going to go up and down. The feed dogs come up and put pressure on the presser foot to grip and move the fabric. Do not let your fingers follow the fabric under the needle. OUCH.


Your hands will be steering the fabric under the needle while you foot controls the speed. Just like driving a car. DO NOT FLOOR IT, YET…

When the needle starts moving up and down, you’ll have to figure out how to steer with your hands and coordinate the speed with your foot to keep going in a straight line at the same time. This first test run should be a straight line. We are trying to keep the stitch about 5/8 in away from the edge.

Most sewing machines have lines marked on the sewing bed and/or throat plate with measurements. Just keep your fabric edge on that line and you will keep a consistent seam allowance the entire time. This takes practice, you will not have a perfect line the first few tries. And some of us just don’t ever have a perfectly straight line. And it’s ok! (I fall under this category, I am just to wobbly and too much of a klutz.)

After about three stitches you can let go of the threads and put your other hand on the fabric. Away from the needle of course. Holding the threads at the beginning of the stitching line is another HABIT you need to get into. It prevents so many thread tension issues, you will gain confidence when we eliminate the issues, and you can sew smoothly right away.

Pull out pins when you get to them. Slow down and stop the needle a few stitch lengths before the pin. Remove the pin, I like to just slide it out with my right hand and either put it down in front of the machine where you have a pin holder/tray/catcher waiting. Or just leave them to the right on the bed of the sewing machine.

This type of sewing, close to the edge and in line with it, is the most common type of sewing. This is where we are joining two pieces of fabric. Think of all the seams in your shirt, pants, whole wardrobe!

When you are reaching the end of the ‘road’ and approach the end of the fabric, gently lift up off the foot pedal to slow down. There is no brake on the sewing machine, just by lifting off the pedal will stop the needle. Here you’ll be able to make a choice:

I like to sew off the end (keep going without stopping until you are past the bottom edge of the fabric) for some reason it just works more smoothly and that’s how I learned when I was young.

You can sew off the fabric if you want or you can stop right before the end.

When you are done sewing the line, put the presser foot up. Then raise the needle all the way up again.

Finish with the needle up. So you can pull out the fabric without breading the needle.

Either push the needle up button or turn the hand wheel until the take up lever is all the way up and pull the fabric out of the machine.

Trim the thread leaving a small tail (3-4 inches) on the practice fabric and leave at least 4 inches coming from the needle and bobbin. This sets you up for your next bit of sewing, you don’t have to do any prep to get the thread out 4 inches, it’s already done. Another good habit!

Cutting the thread on the built in thread cutter on the bernina.

**Now that you have read down to here, you can go ahead and try it at your machine.

The goal of sewing is to have a nice smooth line of stitching. In this practice run we just laid down a line of stitching. The stitches should all be a uniform length and close to the fabric.

Here is a video showing what we just walked through. No audio, just notice the steps and how slow I go.

If you want to get some more practice on the same fabric, just sew another line next to the first one. Keeping the same distance between the lines and keeping them straight is the goal. Use the right edge of the presser foot this time to keep straight stitching. Line up the right side of the presser foot with your last line of sewing. Stitch and you’ll have a line parallel to the first. Keep going!

After getting comfortable with this first stitch to practice, we will introduce the idea of backstitching to secure the thread. Backstitch is just like the straight stitch but we insert a few extra stitches at the beginning and end of our stitch line.

If you are having issues with the thread not laying close to the fabric or knotting up, you can check out this free Thread Bunching Solution Guide.

Click here for your thread bunching solution guide

Backstitching

Backstitching (not to be confused with the backstitch in hand sewing) is a method of securing your thread while sewing on a sewing machine.

Set up your fabric where you want to begin sewing.

Put the needle down.

Start sewing with your thread held and go forward 3-4 stitches and lift your foot off the pedal to stop sewing.

Press the reverse button on the machine – you might need to hold it in or some machines will let you lock it in place, look this up in your manual before proceeding in real time.

Stitch backwards 3-4 stitches so you end up back where you started sewing.

Now, take the machine out of reverse and stitch forward all the way until the end.

When you get to the end, instead of sewing off the edge, stop at a stitch or two before the edge.

Press the reverse button and place 3-4 stitches going backwards.

Start stitching forward again until you either reach the end or you can run off the end.

Here is a diagram

Here is what that looks like in real time.

These few stitches at the beginning and end of the line of stitching secure the thread so that it doesn’t go anywhere. Without them, your thread has a much higher change of coming out.

This is another HABIT you need to get into, securing your stitching. There are a few places where it isn’t necessary but we will get there some day.

Eventually, you’ll get so comfortable sewing that you can do the reverse button without taking your foot off the pedal. For now, just get comfortable at the machine, you’ll know when you’re ready to reverse while still driving. That’s like a stunt driver move at this point, cool but kind of scary if you aren’t ready for it!

Practicing

Keep practicing. I like to take a pen or marker and draw lines on the practice fabric. Try staying on the lines.

Curves

This stitch on the machine is called the straight stitch. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do curves with it! Just like driving a car, if you keep the wheel straight you will go in a straight line. If you turn the wheel while moving forward you will drive in curvy lines. With the sewing machine, while still gently gripping the fabric, move your hands right and left to see how much of a curve you can do. Take some practice fabric and draw wavy lines on them. When you get more practice done, you can even try to sew a circle! Or spirals, zig-zags or whatever you want. This straight stitch is what quilters use to sew their quilt tops.

Troubleshooting

Can’t stay on the line? Get more driving time behind the machine, practice, practice, practice. I’ll bet you’ve heard that a few times in your life… So true.

Poor stitch quality? Evenly tensioned and spaced stitches are what should happen with a well maintained machine. Take a look at the Thread Bunching Solution Guide if you’re having issues.

Inconsistent stitch length? Make sure you let the foot pedal do the driving. Do not pull the fabric under the machine at a different speed than the feed dogs are feeding it to the needle.

Fabric gets sucked down into the inner belly of the beast? Gently pull on it while gently giggling the hand wheel. Just giggling it a tiny bit back and forward since you should not move it away from you ever. This is just to loosen up the bobbin case and needle which are likely pinching the fabric and holding it hostage.

Thread breaks? Check thread path first. If it keeps happening and you can’t physically see if it is getting snagged on anything, get new thread. Old thread has a greater chance of breaking, it weakens over time due to air and sun exposure.

If you are having issues with the thread not laying close to the fabric or knotting up, you can check out this free Thread Bunching Solution Guide.

Click here for your thread bunching solution guide

This simple, basic, easy, straight stitch is really the most common stitch used for making things! After you practice it and get comfortable with it, you’ll be able to tackle beginner projects with ease!

I’m so excited to teach this to others, I want you to feel the joy and sense of accomplishment that I do when I learn something new. Especially if that new thing gets me closer to mastering a new hobby. Keep Sewing!

Please feel free to email me if you have questions or want to show me your first sewing lines! I want to know how it’s going….

DISCLOSURE: THIS POST MAY CONTAIN AFFILIATE LINKS, MEANING I MAY GET A COMMISSION IF YOU DECIDE TO MAKE A PURCHASE THROUGH MY LINKS, AT NO COST TO YOU. PLEASE READ MY DISCLOSURE PAGE FOR MORE INFO.

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