Your Sewing Machine – Basic Features

As part of my Back to {Sewing} Basics Series, I thought the best thing to start with is the one main piece of equipment you need!

So you’ve got a sewing machine but you’re not sure what to with it? Hopefully this guide to basic machine features will give you a head start!

The machine in the picture is my machine – a Janome 419S. It is about 8 years old, and I bought it second hand from eBay. It is a basic model, and there are many, many different makes and models of machines available to purchase. But – a bit like a car – they are all different but there are several features that all sewing machines have in common and if you are a beginner sewist, it is handy to know where they are and what they do.

Firstly I’ll look at the features on the front main body of the machine. This is where all machines have a diagram of the different stitches it can perform, and either a dial, lever or electronic option to change the stitches, the stitch length, and in some machines, the needle position.

Stitch length – some projects, like button holes, will require tiny stitches. Other projects, like gathering, will require long stitch length. Stitch length also requires adjusting for some of the decorative stitches. Your machine’s manual will tell you the required stitch length recommended for certain stitches. This dial/lever/button allows you to alter it.

Needle Position – personally, I use the edge of my presser foot to guide me for sewing a seam allowance. Being able to reposition the needle means I can still do this, and change the size of my seam allowance. The needle can move from left to right, with 0 being the far left position and 5 being the middle. When changing needle position, always use the hand wheel to take your needle down into the fabric before beginning to sew – you may accidently move it on top of your presser foot and break the needle (yep, I’m guilty of that several times!)

Reverse lever – pressing this allows you to sew backwards. Some
more advanced machine models have a knotting function, but most don’t,
so to secure your stitches when you start and finish sewing, reversing
back and forth over a couple of stitches acts to knot your thread.

Stitch Guide –  A diagram of the stitches your machine can sew. They can be chosen using the stitch selection dial pictured below. Many basic machines will have a dial like the one pictures, but more advanced models are often electronic and the user will type the a number into the machine to choose their chosen stitch. Some machines offer as many as 60 stitches.

 Next is the arm area of the machine. This is the area where the machine is threaded.
Thread Guide & Thread Take Up Lever – The thread is taken from the spool and threaded through these areas before being threaded through the needle. The reason the thread is sent through this little maze in the machine is to create tension. The tension will ensure even, smooth stitches on both the top and bottom of the fabric. 
Thread Tension Dial -You can adjust the tension of the thread using this dial. Different types of fabrics require different levels of tension – sturdy fabrics like denim will require a different setting to a delicate fabric. If you are unsure, your machine manual will suggest the tension setting for various fabrics, and I also recommend testing on a scrap of fabric before you start your main project.
Pressure Foot Lifter – lever that raises the presser foot up and down.
Needle Threader – small lever that pulls down. The thread is wrapped around it and a small hook will push the thread easily through the needle for quick threading. Some basic beginner models may not have this feature.
Needle Clamp – This is a screw that can be loosened to remove and change the needle. Whenever you change your needle, make sure this is screwed in firmly, but not so tight that it cannot be easily undone.
Next is the area of your machine devoted to thread – the top right of your machine.

Spool Pins – This is where your spool of thread will sit. Most machines will have one or two of these. I have never required the second one, although it is used when sewing with a double needle.

Bobbin Winder Spindle – When winding a new bobbin, the thread will sit on the spool pin, be wrapped around a small thread guide located next to the thread guide on the arm of the machine, then threaded though the empty bobbin. To activate, this spindle is pushed to the right, and the bobbin will be wound by pressing the foot pedal. This process may be slightly different in other machines, but your machine manual should give you a step by step guide with diagrams. If not, try YouTube for an instructional video. Once the bobbin is full, the bobbin winder stopper will cause resistance and the bobbin will cease to wind.

Now to the bobbin area. My machine has it’s bobbin located underneath the needle, other machines have their bobbin above. Either way, the mechanism is the same.

Feed Dogs – these act to move the fabric through the machine as you sew. If you sew and take your hands away from the machine, the fabric will continue to move through as it stitches. This is the work of the feed dogs. The feed dogs can be dropped down so you can sew with free movement. This is often done during quilting, sewing tight curves, and general freehand stitching. The feed dogs can be lowered using the Feed Dog Lever.

Needle Plate – the area under the needle. Has different measurements marked into it to assist with seam allowance.

Bobbin Case – removable case that the bobbin is loaded and threaded into.This little case keeps the bobbin thread’s tension.

Hook race – the area where the thread from the needle picks up the bobbin thread to create the even stitch on both sides of your fabric.

And finally, on the sides of my machine.

Presser foot pressure dial – allows you to change the pressure of your pressure foot. I rarely change mine, it stays on 3 for general sewing, although some projects that have more bulk require less tension.

Hand wheel – allows you to move the needle manually. I use this feature all the time, to begin my sewing with the needle in the fabric, to end sewing with the needle in a down position, and to ensure the needle is in the fabric when turning corners.

Power Source – where the machine turns on and off, and where the foot pedal plugs into the machine. Most foot pedals will also be connected to a power lead that plugs into an electric socket.

So there you have it! Got any questions? Please ask! Have I missed anything? Let me know!

7 thoughts on “Your Sewing Machine – Basic Features

  1. I'm a brand new sewer! I bought a sewing machine second hand 2 months ago and have yet to sew anything. Jill (Moxiegirl) sent me here! I am hoping to sew SOMETHING this month! 🙂

  2. Brilliant! I have a seeing machine that my MIL gave me earlier in the year an I have only used it twice when she's come to visit! My sewing expertise has lead to very intricate and high end items such as breast pads and baby bum wipes. Yep, I'm a real pro 😉

    I have bought fabric to make a textile book for my baby but get overwhelmed without someone here to guide me through; I suspect these posts may be just what I need 🙂

  3. Great post Ros, the pressure dial was giving me hell, I have Mum's old machine, she quilts and when I got it I was going out of my brain as to why I couldn't get the tension right, she had changed it for her quilts.

    Looking forward to the rest of this series!

    1. Hi Connie, yes this was a great machine and a real work horse. I used it regularly for three years until I upgraded to new.

Leave a Reply