How Does A Sewing Machine Work? Our Definitive Guide!

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Last Updated on 14 January, 2021 by Shine

Have you just picked up yourself a new sewing machine and need to understand how it all comes together? So how does a sewing machine work?

The good news is that almost all sewing machines work in the same way and have done since 1834! So once you understand how one works, you’ll be an expert with every sewing machine!

Very simply, there are two ways to use a sewing machine. The first way is very straight forward, plug it in and make sure there is power to it. Choose your stitch and pattern and you’re good to go. The second way is to use a manual sewing machine. You can use the handwheel or treadle and this will work the needle. 

But what else goes into making a sewing machine work? How do the bobbins work? If you’re looking for answers to these questions (and more!), then look no further! We have created an in-depth step by step guide of how sewing machines work below!

How Does A Sewing Machine Work - Everything You Need To Know!

Sewing machines were created to make life easier and more efficient, especially when it comes to sewing. They were so good at this, they’ve stuck around with the same technique ever since! 

The best way to keep your life seamless (pun most certainly intended) and easier is to learn how a sewing machine works.

The below step by step is for an electric sewing machine. Manual sewing machines operate in the same manner but they don’t have so many parts so the principle is almost exactly the same!

Fun Fact! Sewing goes a seriously long way back. In fact, it was one of the first skills that Homo Sapiens developed. 

Archaeologists have found evidence to suggest that people used to sew different types of fur, skin and other materials together as a way to make clothing. This goes as far back as 25,000 years!

Setting Up Your Sewing Machine

Before you dive straight into sewing machine itself, you will want to make sure that it’s on a sturdy and secure surface. The best thing you can do for yourself is to ensure that you can be comfortable too, plenty of legroom. 

You will want to have your machine all set up and ready to go so first things first, switch the power on. 

If you’re having trouble locating the switch, it’s often on the right-hand side of the machine.

Now take your spool of thread and put it on the spool pin. Then you can take your thread and take it through the thread guide. This will be on the top of the machine and won’t be too far from the spool pin. 

If you look to the right of the where the spool pin is, you will see the bobbin winder and the stopper. You will need to ensure that your bobbin is in place and that the thread is attached to it.

Now comes the exciting bit - for some! If your sewing machine has a stitch adjustment dial, you can select the type of stitch you’d like to use. 

On the left side of the machine, you should see a thread take-up lever. See it? Run your thread through it. 

Once you have done that you can adjust the tension for the thread. It’s important to have the correct tension for your sewing machine to work properly.

Time to thread the needle! 

Finally, check your underneath bobbin to ensure that you have the thread for your choice of stitch. 

All setup! 

How Does The Bobbin On A Sewing Machine Work?

A bobbin will give you the thread underneath when you are sewing. That is the very simplified explanation of what a bobbin is - to be fair, that’s pretty much the full explanation too, they’re fairly simple things, bobbins!

The colour of the bobbin thread doesn’t have to be the same as what is on your spool. You can change it up for different effects or if the thread isn’t something that will be visible. 

A bobbin is usually a standard size of about 1inch in diameter. Construction material-wise, there isn’t anything particularly standard about them but they are commonly made from stainless steel or other metals, sometimes plastics. 

You can get ready to use bobbins and these have a thread that is wrapped around the spool already. 

Before using your sewing machine, you will need to make sure the bobbin is in the winder after you have threaded a little bit of thread through the top of the bobbin. 

A good tip is to wrap the thread around the bobbin before you have started sewing. If your sewing machine has an underneath bobbin holder, then you can pop your bobbin in there and just pull some thread out.

Sewing can now commence! 

Did you know? Sewing needles used to be made using bone or ivory. Before sewing machines were commonplace, a lot of sewing was done by hand. 

People didn’t use metal or steel needles, they had to use needles that were made from ivory or bone.

The Workings Of A Sewing Machine

While there are a lot of different manufacturers of sewing machines out there, they all work in pretty much the same way. 

Whether you have a manual or electric sewing machine, the principle is much the same. They both use power to move the gears. This causes the needle to move up and down and that puts a thread in your fabric. Pretty simple, right?

Each part of a sewing machine will do its thing to make sure you get the best stitch for your project.

With a manual sewing machine, we’re thinking one which is powered by a foot will use a treadle and belts. These are what move the gears and the needle. This will already move every other part. 

Foot powered sewing machines are simple in their operation and that is what many people find appealing about them.

When we said sewing machines work in a similar way, we weren’t kidding. Handwheel models do the same thing, though you won’t find a treadle on them. 

With handwheel models, all of the parts will be moved by hand. All of the parts are the same, gears and belts are what makes the moving parts move. 

Then when it comes to the electric sewing machines, they do the same job but use electric to make the parts move. This can save you a lot of time and energy. 

Whichever sewing machine you have, there will be a rotating cam shaft. This cam shaft works to handle the movement of all the parts.

So what turns the shaft? That depends on your sewing machine!

If you have a foot pedal style one, it will be the treadle. Handwheel will turn it on the manual ones and for electric, the electric motor will turn the treadle. 

These are the simple workings for a sewing machine.

Did you know? Have you ever wondered why the buttons on women’s garments are on the left side? 

Buttons used to be considered very expensive, only wealthy women who had domestic help were able to afford them. Putting the buttons on the ‘wrong’ side made it easier for the domestic help to button them up. 

The Inner Workings Of A Sewing Machine

The cover of your sewing machine hides the magic of how it all works. 

If you take off the cover, you will be able to see a lot of different gears, pulleys, belts. It doesn’t stop there, as there will be quite a lot that you just can’t see. 

An electric motor is what is running all of these parts (on an electric sewing machine). This electric motor is attached to a drive belt. 

Now the drive belt will rotate the upper drive shaft. The shaft is very important, it moves a lot of different mechanical parts. 

A crank is one of these parts. While every part of a sewing machine is important - nothing in there doesn’t serve a purpose. The crank will move the needle so that you can sew so it’s fundamental to the machine!

Did you know?? Do you want your garment to last a long time? How does 100 years sound? Cotton fabrics life span is around 100 years. If you look after it in that time, it could be even longer!

How Do Different Stitches Work On A Sewing Machine?

Depending on your project, you might be wanting to change up the stitches you do. A different stitch here and there can really add to a project so it can be a nice thing to do. 

But how do you actually do it? Let’s find out! 

Loop Stitch

There are some differences between stitching your fabrics together with a sewing machine and doing it by hand. 

With hand sewing, you will often use a loop stitch. Usually this involves a needle and thread through the two bits of fabric. Once your needle is through, you can tie the thread through the eye of the needle. Then pass both through the fabric. This causes them to be sewed together - easy! Loop stitch done!

It isn’t that simple on a sewing machine. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible. 

However, this machine hasn’t hung around for so long because it can’t do things, it certainly makes up for the shortcomings!

The sewing machine will take the thread some way through the fabric, not all the way. 

The eye of a needle on a sewing machine is behind the sharp point, as opposed to the end.

As we know the motor drives things, this includes the needle bar, which will go up and down. 

Once the needle point has gone through the fabric, it is then able to pull a small loop of thread from one side to the other. 

Underneath the fabric there is a mechanism and this grabs the loop. It can then wrap it around a different piece of thread or the same bit of thread, just another loop.

Loop stitches can come in all different shapes and sizes and they all do things differently. 

Let’s start of with the most simple of loops stitches - the chain stitch. 

To make a chain stitch is fairly simple on a sewing machine. It will loop a single bit of thread back on itself. 

A presser foot holds down the fabric. When you start a stitch, the needle will pull a loop of thread through this fabric. 

This bit happens pretty quickly so you may miss it when it’s actually happening. There is a looper mechanism and this works in tandem with the needle. 

The loop of thread that has been created will be caught by this mechanism just as the needle is coming up. 

The feed dog mechanism will pull the fabric forward once the needle has pulled out of the fabric. 

Then the needle is good to go through the fabric again. The loop which has now been created will pass through the middle of the loop that was made previously. 

Again, the looper will grab the thread and loop it around the next thread. This carries on until you tell it to stop. It also means that every loop will hold the preceding loop in place!

One of the main advantages of this type of stitch is how quickly things can be sewn. While it isn’t the strongest stitch around, you can get the job done very quickly. Just be mindful that the entire seam (and all of your hardwork!) can be undone if the thread is loosened. 

Still, the chain stitch has its place and it’s worth knowing how it works!

Fun Fact! September is National Sewing Month! This tradition has been around for a long time, 1982! President Ronald Reagan created it and it was designed to honour sewing. 

Originally in America but it has spread internationally. As a result, September is great month for finding lots of sewing exhibitions and events.

Lock Stitch

The loop stitch is speedy and gets the job done but what if you want something a bit stronger? Then the lock stitch may be the answer you’ve been looking for! 

The stitch can be found on almost every sewing machine out there so you should find that yours has this function!

A chain stitch works by effectively chaining the loops together. A lock stitch works in a similar manner but it will use the bobbin to get more thread. This locks the stitch in place and makes it a sturdier stitch overall. 

What is really important when it comes to doing a lock stitch is that the bobbin and shuttle hook are in place correctly.

The bobbin will be used to being the thread from underneath the fabric. The needle will then grab that thread and pull the loop through the fabric. 

The feed dog mechanism is then able to pull the fabric forward, just like it did on the chain stitch. Once the fabric has moved, the stitched is locked to the bobbin thread. Rather than the loop that will follow it. 

The sewing needle will create a loop. When this happens the shuttle hook will take that loop and pulls it around the thread that is coming from the bobbin. 

The result? A nice strong stitch, that isn’t too complicated to do once you get the hang of it! 

Fun Fact! We have said so many times that “all sewing machines are similar” but that hasn’t stopped people making different models. 

By the time of the 20th century, there was more than 4000 different types of sewing machines that had been invented. 

A lot of these have disappeared, some due to having lots of problems. Sewing machines that seem to have done well are those that a simple to use and are reliable. 

Final Thoughts

Knowing the basics of how a sewing machine works can really help you make the machine work for you. 

It can speed up the process of getting it ready for sewing your latest project - who doesn’t want that? Straight into the exciting bit!

The great positive is, that should anything go wrong, you might be able to repair it yourself. This will obviously save you money but it can also mean that you won’t be without your sewing machine for too long and that’s a real plus!

Models will vary but the principles are still very similar. 

So there you have it, hopefully you will be feeling much better informed and able to see your sewing machine in a whole new different light! 

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Amy Law is a freelance content writer covering a wide range of topics, from travel, to technology and fitness, from home and kitchen to garden. When not writing, she enjoys road cycling around the beautiful UK and venturing further afield on two wheels when time allows.
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