When you buy your first sewing machine, there’s a heck of a lot to learn! You’ll have to master all the different sewing techniques, sure, but then there’s learning to use your machine itself. Likewise, it’s tricky to shop for your first machine, even if you’re reading comprehensive reviews like ours. After all, you’ll need a decent understanding of sewing machine anatomy to have any idea what we’re talking about.
With that in mind, we’ve put together this basic primer. In it, we’ll walk through all the key components of any sewing machine, and explain what each part does.
Let’s look at them in the context of the Janome Magnolia, which is one of the sewing machines we recommend on this site!
As you can see, we’ve marked out specific components above. Using the diagram for reference, read on to learn about all the parts.
- Spool pin
The spool pin does exactly what you think it does! It holds a spool of thread in place while you wind your bobbins. You’ll normally sew using thread would into bobbins, rather than a spool itself. So, this is a component you’ll use when you’re getting ready to work, rather than when you’re actually going through a project.
- Bobbin winder spindle
This is where the bobbin goes while you’re winding thread onto it. It’s the same as the spool pin, except this is for the bobbin instead of the spool.
- Bobbin winder stopper
This component is triggered when a bobbin reaches capacity. It’s a switch which will stop the machine winding any more thread. Older machines had a manual switch, but most sold today have this component, which allows the machine to wind and stop automatically.
- Stitch width dial
The stitch width applies to zig-zag and other pattern stitches, where you’ll have a wider stitch than a simple straight line. This dial lets you adjust the width of your zig-zags and other non-straight stitches.
- Stitch selector dial
This dial is the way to pick between the different built-in stitches on your machine. Even basic manual machines should have about a dozen stitches onboard. The best have little graphic indicators, so you can see what the stitch will look like, find a corresponding letter, then scroll to that letter on the dial.
- Hand wheel
The hand wheel allows you to move the needle up and down manually. It’s how you’ll set the needle to the up position before you start a stitch, and bring it back up at the end of a stitch, if the machine hasn’t done that by itself. Most computerized machines let you set a preferred position, but mostly you’ll use the hand wheel to get the needle and thread where you want it.
- Stitch length dial
Just as the stitch width dial controls the width of zigzag and pattern stitches, the stitch length dial controls the length of any stitch you use–even straight lines. Like your hand-stitching, a shorter length on the machine will look more like a clean line and hold things more tightly. A longer length will be looser and have more jumps.
- Reverse stitch lever
The reverse stitch lever switches the direction of the feed dogs and needle. The machine will feed fabric back toward you, so you can backtrack your stitches and lock them off.
- Power switch
This might be the simplest part on a sewing machine! It switches the whole thing on and off. Enough said!
- Top thread guide
This guide keeps the thread lined up when it’s being wound onto a bobbin. You won’t need to mess with this component apart from making sure the thread is set into the slot when you go to wind bobbins.
- Thread tension dial
When your machine is sewing, it keeps the thread at a certain level of tension. Having tension in the line keeps things from bunching up or getting tangled.
Most machines these days will have an automatic tensioning system onboard, which means that they ought to stay tensioned correctly the majority of the time.
However, most machines will get off track at some point. This dial lets you tweak the tension settings to get the machine back on track.
- Thread take-up lever
This is another part of the tensioning system. It feeds the thread to the needle, and maintains tension in the loop. You shouldn’t need to use it, apart from getting thread set into the guides on your machine when you start a project.
- Needle clamp screw
This screw tightens to hold your sewing needle in place, and loosens when you want to remove/switch needles. You’ll need a small screwdriver to manipulate it, and you can expect to get one with your machine.
- Presser foot
The presser foot sits on top of the feed dog (we’ll get to that in a minute!). When the presser foot is in position, it keeps fabric flat and moving steadily through the needle.
The presser foot is completely smooth, and works much like the ski on a snowmobile. It’s spring-loaded, with a curved front edge. That’s how it adapts to changes in thickness and layers as you sew.
There will also be a lever next to the presser foot, which allows you to raise and lower it. You’ll lower the foot onto your fabric when you start to sew, and raise it to release the fabric when you’ve finished stitching.
- Bobbin compartment/cover
Looking at the diagram carefully, you’ll see a clear window in the metal plate work under the needle. That clear piece is the cover for the bobbin compartment, which sits below the surface. When you go to sew, you’ll place a wound bobbin in the compartment, then pull the thread up to the needle. That’s where your thread will come from as you work. Having a clear cover is great, because you can see how much thread is left.
- Bobbin cover release
There will be some sort of catch or button on the cover of the bobbin compartment, which allows you to open it up.
- Feed dog
The feed dog is the textured metal component under the presser foot. The texture on the feed dog grips fabric, and pulls it along under the presser foot. The feed dog is super important, since it’s what keeps fabric moving under the needle as it sews.
You shouldn’t have to mess with the feed dogs, though. Good feed dogs show their worth by the fact that you never notice them! They just work.
The needle is fairly straightforward. Just like when you’re sewing by hand, the needle on your machine has a hole for thread, and a point. The difference is that they’re in the same place on a machine, since the machine can’t pull the entire needle through the fabric with each stitch.
All you need to know about the needle is how to thread it (usually by hand, following the thread guides on the casing of your machine), change it, and which one to use.
Changing needles is a matter of loosening the screw we’ve already mentioned, removing one needle, and inserting another. Very simple!
Choose needles based on the thread size you’re using, as well as by their sturdiness. Working with leather or canvas requires a thicker, more rugged needle than working on muslin.
- Needle plate
The needle plate is the sheet of metal covering the are of the machine where the needle works. It usually has measurements etched into it, so you can get a quick reference as you stitch. You shouldn’t need to remove or modify the needle plate at any point.
Number 20 isn’t on our diagram, since it’s going to be located on the floor. The pedal, like a gas pedal in a car, stops and starts the sewing machine. The firmer you press it, the faster the needle will go. The pedal is your primary means of control, even though many computerized machines also give you precise speed control and push-button operation.
Well, now you’ve met all the key components of your sewing machine! Hopefully, this little primer will help you get more out of our reviews, and make it easier to get started using your machine when you buy one! Thanks for reading.