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Anatomy of a Sewing Machine

In this week's sewing techniques I thought I would go right back to the basics and share a 'Anatomy of a Sewing Machine' as knowing how your machine works is an essential part of sewing.

There are countless models and makes of sewing machines and they all differ in a varied assortment of ways, but their fundamental features consist of common parts that work together to create a stitch.

I use the basic John Lewis JL110 Sewing Machine in pink to do all my sewing tutorials both here and in my book 'Torie Jayne's Stylish Home Sewing' published by Cico Books.

Learn the anatomy of a sewing machine with this easy-to-read, illustration along with detailed descriptions of what each part does...

Presser foot: This removable foot keeps fabric flat, taut and in place as you sew. Different feet are appropriate for various sewing techniques or fabrics, such as sewing oilcloth, zippers or button holes. The upper part of the foot, called the ankle, is usually screwed onto the machine securely; the lower part may include a quick-release mechanism for changing presser feet.

Needle: The needle moves your thread through the fabric, it’s eye is just above the point. Needles come in a variety of sizes and styles. The needle you use depends on the type of fabric you are using. See my 'How to choose the right sewing machine needle' guide for further information.

Needle clamp: Sewing-machine needles are easily removable. The clamp holds the needle in place, tighten and loosen this clamp to release or secure the needle in place.

Needle plate: This is the flat metal plate that sits below the needle and presser foot, that protects the inside of your sewing machine. A small opening in the plate allows the bobbin thread to come out and the needle to pass through to make stitches. Most thread plates have small lines notched to the left and right of the presser foot; these serve as seam guides that indicate how far from the edge of your fabric you are stitching. The plate can be removed to clean underneath.

Feed dogs: These small metal or rubber teeth that stick up from the needle plate pull the fabric between the presser foot and thread plate, and also regulate the stitch length by controlling how much fabric passes through at once. The feed dogs move faster or slower depending on how hard you press the foot pedal. Always allow the feed dogs to move the fabric as you guide it -- manually pulling may cause the needle to bend or break.

Tension control: This dial controls the tension on the top thread. Your thread runs between various tension disks, and the amount of tension you set your regulator to will determine how much pressure these disks put on your top thread. With proper tension the top thread and bobbin thread will join together in uniform stitches. If the tension is set too tight, the stitch will pucker and break; if set too loose, the stitches will be too loose. With the presser foot up, you should feel little resistance when pulling the thread through the machine. Lower the presser foot and gently pull the thread. You’ll be able to feel that the tension discs are now engaged.

Take-up lever: The top thread passes through this metal lever, which moves up and down in tandem with the needle. Before placing fabric under the presser foot, raise the lever completely (the needle will be at its highest point); this will keep the needle from snagging the fabric.

Bobbin winder tension disk: On machines that have an external bobbin winder, this disk helps guide the thread between the spool and the winder and keeps the thread taut whilst winding the bobbin with thread.

Bobbin winder: The bobbin is placed upon this peg that spins the bobbin as thread is wound upon it. The bobbin winder is powered by the foot pedal when your needle is disengaged. To ensure that the thread winds evenly, always start with an empty bobbin.

Bobbin winder stop: Many machines have a built-in device to stop winding when the bobbin is full. If your machine has such a device, let it tell you how much to fill the bobbin. If not, fill the bobbin no further than its edges.

Thread Guides: Used to keep your thread in place as you sew — they are located at various points on the machine.

Presser Foot Lever: This lever lowers the presser foot into place when you are ready to sew, and lifts it up when you want to move your fabric.

Reverse stitch lever/button: Pressing this button or lever reverses the direction of the stitches, allowing you to backstitch which secure the thread at the beginning and end of a seam which prevents the ends from coming loose.

Stitch Length Dial: Use this dial or lever to set the length of the stitches. Stitches are measured differently, depending on the machine. They may be measured per inch, by metric scale, or simply numerically from 0 to 9. For general sewing, use medium-length stitches; for fine fabrics, shorter stitches; for heavier fabrics, or when basting or gathering, use long stitches.

Stitch Selector: Allows you to choose between different machine stitches based on your project needs. Also lets you choose the width of your stitch for a zig zag or other decorative stitch.

Hand Wheel: This knob raises and lowers the take-up lever which in turn moves the needle up and down. You also use the hand wheel to disengage your needle so that it doesn’t move while you wind a bobbin.

Spool Pins: This small dowel holds the top sewing thread while you sew. Some machines come with several spool pins for decorative or twin-needle sewing. Spool pins can be horizontal or vertical.

Bobbin and bobbin case: The bobbin is wound with thread that will make up the underside of a machine stitch. The bobbin case/cover is a plate or hinged door that holds the bobbin in place and protects the bobbin mechanism. The bobbin cover is usually not interchangeable between machines. Open the bobbin cover to replace the bobbin and clean the bobbin area or case. Bobbins can be inserted through the front (front-loading) or top (drop-in), depending on your machine. Use only bobbins recommended by the manufacturer for your particular model.

Consult your machine's manual for specific instructions for care and cleaning.

How-to step by step

  • Anatomy of a Sewing Machine 1-01

    Step 1

    Thread plate, Thread Guide, Needle, Presser Foot, Feed Dogs, Seam allowance guides, Needle Plate, Needle Clamp

  • Anatomy of a Sewing Machine 2-01

    Step 2

    Bobbin & Bobbin case


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