sewing 101: know your machine

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With over one hundred people (and climbing!) following this course as I share it this month, I imagine there are AT LEAST 70+ different machines represented. For me to acquaint each of you with your own specific make and model isn’t possible, but I can acquaint all of you with the parts of a sewing machine and their functions.

While you may not have a speed control dial or an operation panel, you will have a handwheel and feed dogs and a throat plate. And while they may not look exactly the same on every machine, their functions are universal. And thus, this lesson will be useful for all machines. It’s good to know your own machine – but it’s also handy to be able to jump onto a friend’s machine without feeling completely disoriented!

And please, feel free to use the comments sections of these lessons as a forum to ask questions, discuss and review machines, or to heckle me from the back of the class because you’re too cool for school and are insulted by me pointing out the location of the main power switch (ahem, you & you know who I’m talking about! Don’t think I haven’t noticed!).

No matter your skill level (and y’all seem to be all over the board, with the majority of you being beginning beginners), take today to really look  your machine over. I’m not too proud to admit that I’ve owned my machine for about a year now (happy anniversary, baby) and only a few months ago did I discover my feed dog position switch. I had just never looked back there before! Totally new information.

Use these photos as a guide to tell you what you’re seeing and what it does. And don’t feel funny if you don’t have all of the same features – I’m just showing them all because they’re there and I’m a thorough kind of gal.

Okay, here we go…

Names of Machine Parts & Their Functions

*I’m going to go at these in alphabetical order so you can find what you’re looking for easily. I will always list the parts with the functions beneath the photo.  Also, I’m going to show five different views of the machine, so there will be some doubling up.

buttonhole lever – lower this bad boy when you are in button-hole-making mode. It works in conjunction with the buttonhole foot to make sure the hole is the size you want.

feed dogs – I love this name. It’s the little teeth-grippy things that move in a circular up and down motion to grab the fabric and move it back as the needle does the work. In a nutshell: it advances the fabric. In less of a nutshell (perhaps a nut case?): when you adjust the length of your stitch, it tells the feed dogs how frequently to advance the fabric. Also, some machines have feed dogs that also move left to right. Just for fancy.

handwheel – this is how you manually raise and lower the needle. Always turn it towards you.

knee lifter mounting slot – don’t scoff, it’s a real thing. See below and it will all become clear.

needle threader lever – we will get into this more tomorrow when we talk about threading the machine. I think this might also be a considered a bonus feature, though I believe many machines do come equipped with some sort of needle threader. Hunt around to see if yours does (and if it does, do a happy dance – tomorrow will be easier!).

operation buttons – not all machines will have these. These buttons raise and lower the needle, backstitch, and cut thread loose. Without these, you can manually raise/lower the needle with the handwheel (see above), backstitch with a backstitch button (your machine will have one of these), and cut threads loose with your trusty snips. They’re handy and addictive, but your garment will likely turn out the same with/without “operation buttons”.

operation panel – not all machines are digital. But, if your machine is digital, this is likely where all of the adjusting of decorative stitches, stitch lengths/widths/fonts, and general merriment goes on. If your machine is not digital, you will probably determine stitch styles/lengths/widths/tension on rotary dials or something similar in this general area as well. Nobody judges analog machines – they do great, great work!

presser foot – the proper presser foot is key to making sure your stitches are doing what you tell them. Your machine should have about five or so that come standard (we will talk all about feet on Friday), and you can always get fancy and buy additional feet (like a ruffler foot!) that do fancy party tricks for your friends. For now, just know that this is called the presser foot and that it is interchangeable depending on the stitch you are planning to execute.

speed control – some machines have a pedal that will speed or slow based on pressure, other machines have a dial/control on the body of the machine itself, and many have control in both places. If you’re sewing a hem along the side of a long curtain and you’re pretty confident that you can sew a straight line, go all out speed-wise and get it done. If you’re turning delicate curves or just a few careful stitches, take it easy and go slowly.

thread cutter – hunt around your machine to find this because, I think, every machine has a thread cutter somewhere. No guarantee that the blade is sharp if your machine was handed down from sweet Grandma, but it should be there. The thread cutter is useful if you don’t have snips handy and want to set your fabric free from the machine after your finished stitching.

throat plate (or needle plate) – I’ve always called it a throat plate but it seems like folks are now calling it the needle plate. Far be it from me to be stuck in my ways. Needle Plate it shall be. This is the (usually) metal piece that has marks on it to indicate seam widths (like if you needed a 5/8″ seam, you would keep the raw edge of your fabric running along that particular mark as you stitch so you CAN sew in a straight line!).

wide table – all machines come with a small, removable table (you would remove it to sew something circular like a sleeve or headband or something) that stores your machine feet and other handy tools. Some machines also come with (or you can buy separately) a wide table that adds extra surface area for bigger projects like quilting. Usually these also have ruler marks on them for handy reference as you sew.


feed dog position switch – (my latest discovery!) use this to raise or lower your feed dogs. You will almost always want them to be “on” or “up”, but occasionally (like when you’re freehand quilting), you can be amazing and lower your feed dogs. Yes, that’s a funny name. I like it!

handle – yes, that’s exactly what it is.

handwheel – see above.

presser foot dial – use the presser foot dial to adjust the amount of pressure that the presser foot applies to the fabric. So, if you are stitching together two pieces of high pile chenille, you may want to have less pressure so your fabric can sail through more smoothly.

presser foot lever – Use this to raise and lower the presser foot


buttonhole lever – see above

needle – yes, there she is. the key to any successful sewing machine experience. (well, I suppose thread is also key…) Replace your needles regularly, and while you can use a universal needle for “all fabrics”, it is better to use specific needles for specific fabrics. You can get a ball point needle to sew knits (to avoid snags and to handle the fabric better), a heavy-duty needle for heavier home decor fabrics, or a lighter duty needle for delicate fabrics. If you are frustrated with the performance of your machine, check your needle type and age – you may need a replacement.

needle threader lever – see above

presser foot – see above

presser foot holder – this is what holds the presser foot in place. You can either do a quick release and replace for any standard foot, or you can unscrew and remove the entire presser foot holder to install a specialized foot that will not fit into the quick release holder.

thread cuter – see above


air vent – to keep the machine cool while it runs. Don’t cover the vent while your machine is being used or bad things could happen.

foot controller jack – this is where you plug-in the foot pedal (some machines – like my Sergio – have a giant uni-plug for the pedal and the power)

handwheel – see above. again.

main power switch – use this bad boy to – you guessed it! – turn the machine on and off

power supply jack – get electricity to your machine. (see “foot controller jack” for further notes)

top cover – this keeps dust out of my thread area, though I don’t think it’s something that comes on all machines across the board.



And now: The Nitty Gritty. A lot of this has already been covered, but I believe that a seamstress (or seamster) should know the names of the parts of her (or his) machine. Write them on your heart.

bobbin cover – it’s going to be about 50/50 whether your machine’s bobbin is “top load” or “front load”. Top loading bobbins (like mine) are dropped into the bobbin housing from above. A front loading bobbin actually has removable housing – you take it out, get the bobbin situated, then pop it back into your machine to complete the loading process. We’ll talk about this more tomorrow – with video!

buttonhole lever – see above. Again.

feed dogs – see above. still a funny name.

needle – see above.

needle bar thread guide – we will cover this tomorrow, too. It’s key that your thread slips behind this thread guide before it is threaded into the eye of the needle.

needle plate – see above. But also, this is a better view of the guide marks for sewing a straight line.

needle plate cover –  remove the needle plate cover to clean the bobbin case or to *ahem* retrieve a broken needle that may have slipped through the cracks.

presser foot – see above. The most standard foot is the “J” foot – used for straight stitches and zig zags. Makes such a difference to use the proper foot with the corresponding stitch!

presser foot holder – see above. This is a better view of the black quick-release lever and the screw that holds the presser foot holder in place.


And now, because you’ve been such good students and we still have time, remember the “knee lifter mounting slot” in the photo of the front of the machine? Y’all. This is the knee lifter:

“What on earth is that jimmy-rigged pole sticking out of your machine?”, you may ask. It’s a magic wand. With the knee lifter in place, I can stitch happily along, raise the presser foot lightly – while keeping both hands free to handle my fabric – then lower it back into place and continue my stitch. Ever appliquéd an owl or an initial onto a onesie? Had about a million tight little corners to turn and had to ker-chunk the presser foot up and down with your hand? No more! You can lift it slightly and smoothly with your knee like it’s no big deal. It’s among my best friends, the knee lifter.

Do any of y’all have a knee lifter? I’ve heard that a lot of times you either love it or have no use for it – thoughts?


That’s all for today. Tomorrow, we turn the machine on! And, there will be videos! See you then. And feel free to use the comments section for questions or conversation (or heckling).

Have a lovely Wednesday!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received the Brother NX800 machine mentioned above for free in exchange for a mention of the product in my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers.

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34 Responses

  1. Keight 4 April 2012 at 10:45 am

    I am certifiably too cool for the power switch, baby. In all seriousness though, you are killing this so far. Really impressed and simultaneously butt-clenchy at the thought of how stressed writing this series would make me. That’s some fusiboo love from the back of the classroom. Also:sweet captcha is making me very happy

    • Christine 4 April 2012 at 11:42 am

      Wait, Keight (which I just typed ‘Iekght,’ which seems normal), why don’t you use the power switch? Don’t you studiously turn off all electrical devices when you’re done with them for fear of a lighting bolt sending a power surge through your lines and frying everything and everyone inside the home? (We’ve discussed the evil that is electricity before, so hopefully you understand why I’m such a freak.)

  2. Clarissa 4 April 2012 at 11:15 am

    I bought all my “tools” today! I know, I’m a day behinde on that BUT I did pull out my sewing machine, dust it off and look at it. While my machine is now where near as cool as yours, it was nice to be able to “see” what you are talking about. I’m slightly giddy about this series. :)

  3. Christine 4 April 2012 at 11:39 am

    Okay, I’m one of those who has no use for the knee lifter. I think it’s due to the height of my table, but in my world, the knee lifter is more accurately called a “boob lifter.” And not in the good, supportive bra sense. My boobs are not that dextrous. I leave the lifter in the box.

    Re: presser foot J: What else would you use for straight stitch? I ask because this is also my favorite foot and I didn’t know I had any other options for straight.

    Finally, thank you for reminding me about which direction to turn the handwheel. Sometimes I cheat and turn backwards and I feel a prick from my conscience. Never again.

    • Raechel Myers 4 April 2012 at 11:57 am

      Stine – I feel like we’ve had the knee lifter conversation before. Bummer for table height!

      Also, I take it back about presser foot J. It’s the one you should use for a straight stitch. I had been using N for some monogramming and tried to move on to straight stitching with the same foot – moving back to J made me feel both happy and like an idiot.

  4. Stephanie 4 April 2012 at 11:48 am

    My machine is a 1967 Singer. She is blue and pretty, but very basic! I am learning to love her after my White brand machine that I purchased new in 2004 died on me a few months back. My “new” one was my mother-in-laws that she had given up on years ago. A trip to the repair shop and she is good as new. The beauty of an older all metal machine in my humble opinion. Anyway, just wanted to say thanks for all your work on the lessons. Though I do know some, I will certainly learn more. Irene (I can’t be the only one that names her machine can I?) will be following along!

  5. Jennifer O. 4 April 2012 at 12:16 pm

    Wow, such great information for a newbie like myself! I can wait to get home from work, “get to know” my machine (which has never been turned on!), and take notes ;)

  6. Lisa V 4 April 2012 at 1:41 pm

    Great start so far Raechel….I’m loving the detail. Also loving the banter between the girls at the back of the class ;) and I have never heard of a knee-lifter…….my machine’s got a lot of fancy functions but not that one. Learn something new everyday!

    My advice to new sewers…make sure you are using the matching brand of bobbins for your machine. Each machine has a preference for shape/width/thickness and using the right one makes everything way smoother. I tried for a few months with cheap generic bobbins and the tension issues were crazy. My bobbin would jump in the bobbin cover and the thread would throw a complete tantrum requiring me to re-thread a lot. Once I got the right ones…it was smooth sewing. Just my 2 cents :)

  7. Sarah M. 4 April 2012 at 1:43 pm

    I am SO excited! :) My brand spanking new machine will be here tomorrow…and I’m going to a fabric store tonight to pick up my “class” supplies! Again, thank you so much for doing this! I am actually looking forward to having Friday and Monday off so I can dive in head first and read the whole manual, etc. before we start sewing! Once I get my machine, I may have some questions :).

  8. Katie Bernshausen 4 April 2012 at 2:25 pm

    Loving following along! :)

    I don’t see a bobbin threader, if that’s what it’s called, listed or pictured. Is that because it’s not a standard and if it isn’t I’m just curious how you would thread a bobbin.

    Thanks for taking the time to teach! I look forward to your post everyday!

    • Tracy 4 April 2012 at 3:31 pm

      On my machine its standard. But, Rae’s machine is way more advanced and fancy. Mine isn’t digital.

    • Raechel Myers 4 April 2012 at 11:03 pm

      Hi Katie!
      The bobbin threader is definitely standard. I didn’t know whether I should post that anatomy photo today or tomorrow with the bobbin threading instructions. It will be up tomorrow. Sorry for the confusion!

  9. Tracy 4 April 2012 at 3:32 pm

    I have never seen a knee lifter! that would be super handy! and, alas, my machine only came standard with 2 feet, not 5. *sigh*

  10. Melanie 4 April 2012 at 4:25 pm

    I’m fascinated that you said all handwheels turn towards you! When my grandmother taught me and my cousins to sew we had several machines and at least one of them turned away from you. Perhaps recent machines are more standard.

  11. Micaela 4 April 2012 at 8:34 pm

    Hey Raechel! I was just wondering if we could get a list of when all the lessons will be? So I can write in my agenda what days I have school? ;) Thanks!

    • Raechel Myers 4 April 2012 at 11:06 pm

      Hi Micaela!
      I have it all planned out but I hadn’t published the dates with the lesson names because I wasn’t positive about all of the dates (for example, we may need more or less days on the pattern). Let me see what I can do though, because I see that it might be helpful. If I post some kind of schedule I’ll be sure to announce it within a lesson.

  12. Carey 4 April 2012 at 11:05 pm

    Totally missed the feed dog switch on the back of mine also. Would never have even thought to look for it. Also I’m a little jealous of your knee lifter. I have never seen one of those but I really wish my machine had one. I just bought a brother se400 and I think that might be its only current flaw, because otherwise I’m pretty sure that machine could sew without me.

  13. Kirsten 5 April 2012 at 8:40 am

    Ok, I’m totally digging on that knee lifter! Seriously, how fun is that!?! Also, I have a new{er} Brother machine too and I’ve had trouble finding a ruffler foot that works well in it {my needle breaks almost every time. It’s a very frustrating process}. If you have a great recommendation, I would love to hear it. I great ruffler foot for my machine would be like the perfect extra lens for my camera. :)

  14. Danielle 5 April 2012 at 12:12 pm

    I know this has nothing to do with sewing but I saw they have hide and sweak shoes for kids for 19.99 at !!!! Not sure when the sale ends!

  15. Marcella Vander Eems 5 April 2012 at 2:08 pm

    Tried to buy the heavy canvas interfacing but they had no idea what that was at my local JoAnn store…
    another name I should try to look for it under?

    • Raechel Myers 5 April 2012 at 2:14 pm

      Hi Marcella,
      Sandi Henderson (the pattern designer) lists it as can as interfacing, but I believe she meant that we will use heavy canvas as interfacing. So any heavy canvas or home decor fabric will do. Also, if you are using home decor fabric as your main fabric, you can skip the lining step all together.

  16. Melissa 21 August 2012 at 5:17 pm

    Thank you, M’am! I am loving your tutorial and the format you have selected…I bought a new machine and am determined to learn to sew beyond the four corners of a pillow! On a sidenote – is there an alternative pattern you can suggest for the market bag? I have hit a few of the links to buy and they all seem to be sold out…thanks in advance!!


    sidenote: LOVE the Captcha

  17. Brittany 30 April 2014 at 12:47 pm

    Hi there! I am a late comer to your blog. I am interested in learning about sewing especially for home accents, and baby stuff. I have read a lot of the sewing 101 info, which is awesome and very informative, but I am wondering how I can get a machine like yours? Is it orderable? I have not sewn a say in my life and I feel like I need to see exactly what to do or else I will be lost. You have explained things very well, and I am looking forward to following along. :)

  18. Rikki 4 April 2016 at 9:42 pm

    My machine is a 1950s Kenmore. I guess I will have to download the manual for this part. On to my bigger issue (or maybe not an issue, you tell me) – I only got one presser foot with this machine. How do I know which one it is or if I need to buy a different one?


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