What You Need to Know
There are literally hundreds of moving parts in a sewing machine. Let’s go through them from top to bottom, just to keep it organized 😁; we’ll follow the thread first, then start at the top again for additional parts. Now, the terms I use may not be what they’re really called, but I’ll do my best to make it descriptive or at least cause a smile. Think of this as your glossary for sewing machine knowledge.
The area on the right side of the sewing machine. This part may have all your stitch options, hold dials for changing stitch specifications, or it may be a digital/computerized panel.
The upper part of the sewing machine that comes away from the body toward the left; it holds the needle, foot, and is the part threaded. The upper arm also has a lot of the functioning guts inside to make the aforementioned needle and foot work in their correct motions.
Free Arm (or Bed)
This is the narrow “arm” that comes out from the main part of the machine; it holds the bobbin and needle plate. We don’t typically think about this one much, but it’s sure nice to have this narrow bit for mending circular items such as cuffs or sleeves.
Extension Table (or Accessory Compartment)
This removable section of the free arm extends the bed of the machine for greater sewing space. On most models it also acts as a notions holder where extra presser feet, needles, bobbins, and other accoutrements can live while not in use.
The foot or base of the machine… its only function (although important) is to stabilize the machine on a surface. Treadles don’t have a flat base, theirs is a base screwed into the table.
Thread holder (or Spool Pin)
This is the all-important “stick” where your thread spool sits and releases thread as you sew. You may even have two of these, which is a useful bonus!
Tension Guides (but we’re going to call it the Thread Trail)
Hopefully you have arrows to direct you on where to go from spool through the needle eye. There is a correct way to follow the trail down to the needle! If you have an older machine, it’s time to whip out your trusty machine manual and find that section—it should be near the beginning quarter of the manual. To not have this information could mean you’re not going to be sewing… or there will be a perpetual string of four-letter words and a hate for sewing (and we definitely DON’T want that!). If you don’t have your manual, it’s time to pull out the old google and search for it. Trust me, you’ll thank me later. And if you’re truly having issues finding it, please reach out, I may be able to help.
Thread Take Up Lever
It's the lever that moves up and down, holding tension on your thread as you sew.
Unless you have an ooolllder machine you will probably have a light under the main part of your machine to illuminate what you’re sewing.
This bar holds your needle and is separate from your presser foot bar. Typically, the needle will be held in place by a screw mechanism that applies tension to your screw. If you don’t screw it in tight enough the needle can fall out while sewing 😬 and if you screw it in too tightly you may end up stripping the screw (then no sewing for you until it gets fixed 😫).
Needle Thread Guide
This little “hook” is the last step in the trail before being threaded through the needle.
This holds your needle in place (big surprise, right? 😁). The important thing to note is the needle itself and how it fits in the holder. Typically, the needle will have the flat part toward the back.
On most machines there is a bump on the upper part of the machine, typically on the left side. The bump is a cover for a sharp blade; the blade is for cutting thread after you’ve ended your seam. Gently pull your project toward the cutter, get the thread in that covered space, and pull, the thread should cut away from your project and the remaining top and bobbin thread are a perfect length for continuing with the next seam.
Presser Bar Lifter
The lever at the back of your machine that can lift your presser foot higher, so you can get thicker material under the foot and needle.
Presser Foot Bar or Shank
This is the bar the presser foot is attached to. It is also the determiner of whether you have a “high shank” or “low shank” sewing machine. Knowing the high/low shank-ness of your machine is important for a couple of your presser feet, like the ruler foot if you are going to do any ruler quilting—a way later blog post. It may also come in handy to know if you are looking to get some “off brand” feet—although I’m not a fan.
Presser Foot Ankle
If you have this part, it is small and connects the bar to the foot—your specific setup may differ slightly here.
Our sewing feet… they vary by usage.
The metal plate the that covers the bobbin and inside guts of the machine. It has a couple holes in it, including where the feed dogs come up.
These helpful bits come up from the needle plate (the four bumpy strips under the presser foot in the picture), helping to move your fabric past your needle as your sewing.
This may be on or near the needle plate or it may be on the front of the free arm. It’s the cover keeping your bobbin (and thread) in place.
Throat or Throat Space
This is the gap between the bulk of the machine (on the right) and the needle area (purple line to purple line). It’s typically referred to in inches when you’re machine shopping. Smaller, simpler machines will likely have a smaller throat space and machines with more functions, like quilting or embroidery will have larger throat spaces. This throat space is especially important to us quilters… it means we can get more quilt in the throat when we are quilting our quilt sandwich.
Back at the top (typically)…
This mechanism is typically to the right or behind the thread holder. It’s a mechanical part that will wind bobbins for you. On newer machines it is a separate motor from the main sewing motor, although most machines will not allow you to use both at once (hence why you can buy a separate bobbin winder, similar in size to an eyeglasses case.
Bobbin Winder Stopper
This is the bumper that oftentimes will let the sewist know the bobbin is full and automatically stop.
Bobbin Winding Lever
There is usually some kind of lever action needed to activate the winding motor, either the push or pull of a knob or bobbin spool.
Control Panel or Screen
Depending on the age or extravagance of your machine this may be stitch pictures on a knob you adjust, in a “grid” you reference on a digital screen, or on a fully digital screen tapping pictures to make choices.
Handwheel (aka Flywheel or Balance Wheel)
This know is on the side of your machine near the top. It can go forward or backward, but with the newer machines backward motion is not recommended unless in an emergency—rats’ nest or stuck fabric.
Unless you are working on a treadle you have a power switch. I think these are typically on the right side of the machine, along with the plug-ins for the power cord and foot pedal.
Do I really need to explain this one??? 😁
The pressure on this with your foot (it sits on the floor) makes the machine work, lifting your foot stops the function of the machine. An alternative option to the foot pedal is the knee lift or control, operated with your knee.
Some additional goodies you may have…
Automatic Thread Cutter
This handy little blade is near your bobbin case and with the push of a button will cut both the top and bobbin threads at the perfect length needed to be able to start your next seam; it saves you both time and money (on thread).
I LOVE this mechanism for saving my eyes from having to thread my needles myself! On some machines there is a certain way to continue threading your machine that will connect to an automatic or manual arm that threads the needle for you.
This list is one you will want to bookmark and refer to later if machine sewing is new to you, think of it as a glossary of terms for your machine.
Be sure to check out the next blog post in this series as goes through more specifics on threading, details on feet and needles, and what to look for when shopping for a sewing machine.
Please let me know by contacting me or commenting below with any questions.
Warmth & Love,
If you like this post you may find these ones interesting as well:
- Let's Talk Thread
- Basic Quilting Tools
- Basic Quilting Terminology
- Quilt Block for Beginning Quilters
- Let's Talk Fabric Quality
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