Sewing machine.

Don’t be scared of your sewing machine!

Using a sewing machine can be daunting, but once you’re started it opens up so many possibilities. Barley Massey gives some tips to help get you started.

Barley Massey

First things first, make friends with your machine. Introduce yourself and treat your machine with care and respect but remember you are the master!

Before you start, invest in some good quality thread and machine needles for different fabrics (for example, if you are working with denim you will need heavier duty needles, for jersey a ballpoint needle, for silk a sharp/fine needle and so on). Then rummage out some old pillow case or bed sheets to shred up for test runs (a medium weight cotton is the easiest of fabrics to practice with).

Setting up your sewing machine

The sewing machine operates using an upper thread which threads over the top of the machine and a lower thread which is wound onto a bobbin and is inserted in the machine either as “front loading” or “drop in”/“top loading”. Once set up, these two threads interconnect to create stitches.

Most modern machines are labelled with numbers and direction arrows to follow with your thread when setting up. Follow dotted lines for the bobbin winding and a heavy line for the main thread up. It’s important to follow each step (or number), as missing one of the steps out can affect the tension of the stitches and even the functioning of the machine.

Make sure you put in the bobbin into the machine in the right direction. For drop/top loading the thread needs to wind off anti-clockwise (when you look at the bobbin it looks like a ‘P’ ) For front loading the thread needs to wind off clockwise (when you look at the bobbin it looks like a ‘q’) The bobbin is then dropped into a metal bobbin case and the thread is taken through a small gap in the casing and pulled around so it looks as if it’s threading through the hole in the casing. The bobbin holder has a small arm which needs to stay upright and then ‘clicked’ into the machine (use the hand wheel to create space for the bobbin arm).

Once the top threading is done, you now need to roll the hand wheel towards you to pick up the lower bobbin thread and bring it up to the sewing area or “dog teeth”. Make sure both threads sit under the presser foot (which holds the fabric to the dog teeth) and go towards the back of the machine. If they face towards you they can give you grief and cause tangles.

Barley leading a sewing class.

Quick tips while sewing

  • Ensure the presser foot lever is down, so that the foot grips your fabric, otherwise you will be creating lots of loops of thread underneath the cloth (this can cause the machine to jam too).
  • To change direction leave the needle in the cloth, lift the presser foot lever and pivot the cloth around on the needle. Put the presser foot back down to continue.
  • The foot pedal drives the motor and the amount of pressure you put on it effects the speed. Practise your “clutch control”: you might prefer to work without shoes for sensitive contact with the pedal!
  • If the fabric feels stuck, or you are unable to remove it from the machine, try turning the hand wheel around to release. If this doesn’t work you can unscrew the plate around the dog teeth, lift off the machine and gently cut away the ball of thread that may have formed underneath.
  • Go through the different stitches and settings. Make yourself a sample cloth with notes on settings as a reminder until you get more familiar with the different stitch functions.

Troubleshooting at a glance

If your stitches aren’t looking even or balanced check the following:

  • Have you threaded each step/number?
  • Is the bobbin inserted in the right direction?
  • Is the needle bent/blunt/right for the fabric?
  • Is there fluff/lint gathering in the bobbin area?
  • Are you using a good quality thread?

Have fun with your sewing!

Barley Massey offers regular classes in building your confidence in using a sewing machine at Fabrications, East London. ‘Provisional Driving’ is an introduction to using a sewing machine which includes her ‘learn to sew’ T-towel/fabric handout. Barley has run sewing workshops on behalf of Love Your Clothes: at the most recent event, a participant commented: “I’ll be dusting off my machine and using it now.”


Barley Massey

I set up Fabrications in 2000 on Broadway Market in Hackney, East...