What are All the Parts of a Sewing Machine?
Cover Image: What are All the Parts of a Sewing Machine?

Welcome to the wonderful world of sewing! For generations, sewing has been a useful way to repair or repurpose old clothing, but for a while there, this craft appeared to be dead. It was revived once the trend of DIY crafts and projects came to life, and more and more people are now tackling the idea of sewing their own clothes or putting pieces of fabric to good use.

But, just like every other craft, sewing is something that you have to learn about and master in time. Even if some projects are small and compatible with manual sewing, those of you who want to step up your game will eventually need a sewing machine.

Intimidating to some, but useful to many, the sewing machine is made of dozens of components. It’s true that you can learn what a sewing machine does by briefly skimming the manual, but once you understand the purpose of the different parts, you will truly know how to make the most out of every sewing experience.

Sewing Machine Parts

It’s true that different sewing machine brands have different designs that might determine the positioning of certain parts, but the majority of them have a series of universal parts that you will encounter to matter what brand of machine you choose. In the following paragraphs, we’re going to go over most of the parts that you’ll find in just about any sewing machine model, with a brief explanation of the role of each.

Handwheel

closeup of balance wheel of old vintage sewing machine

One of the upper parts of the unit, the handwheel is typically placed at the far end of the machine, so that you can easily access it (typically with your right hand). The role of the handwheel is to make the needle go up and down, but you have to make sure to turn it into your direction at all times.

Mechanical sewing machines could have two handwheels: one is generally placed on the machine’s right side, and helps you move the needle up and down. It should be used whenever you stop sewing, to remove the needle from the fabric. The other handwheel on mechanical sewing machines is designed to help you select between different stitches supported by your machine.

OPTIONAL: LCD Display

There are two types of sewing machines: mechanical and computerized. The latter type includes an LCD display, which is designed to show you important information (such as stitch length or tension level). Naturally, the variety of information shown on such a display depends on the brand of the sewing machine you own and how advanced it is.

LCD displays on top-of-the-line machines can also give you information such as images of the chosen stitches. This is an uncommon and more advanced feature, but one that will give you a better grasp of what you’re doing.

On the other hand, people who own a mechanical sewing machine will not have an LCD display and will have to choose their stitches using the second handwheel.

Bobbin Winder Stopper

a close up focus of Bobbin Winder Stopper in a sewing machine

This is one of the major parts when it comes to winding bobbin thread. It helps stop the winding once the bobbin is full. There are certain sewing machines that lack this specific component, in which case you’ll have to pay close attention to how you wind the bobbin.

If your sewing machine doesn’t have a bobbin winder stopper, you will have to manually release the foot pedal when the spool is almost full.

Bobbin Winder Spindle

This particular component is the spot where you have to place the bobbin to wind it. Specifically, you have to press the bobbin down on the spindle and then push it to the side, as this helps lock it in place.

Bobbin Winder Tension Disc

What is tension on a sewing machine? Well, the winder tension disc works together with the winder spindle to help you wind thread on a bobbin. The first step requires that you put the bobbin on the winder spindle, as explained in the paragraph above. Then, you have to pull out a long thread piece and place it around this tension disc. This will force the thread to stay in a position where it doesn’t get all tangled up.

Thread Spool Spin

The thread spool pin is the place where you mount the upper thread. For the most part, sewing machines have two of these thread spool pins, which automatically means that you can work with two needles (which means two upper threads). This feature will help you create decorating projects, but also makes it easy to sew hems.

Upper Thread Metal Guide

Cropped image of senior tailor threading needle of sewing machine at sewing workshop

This metal guide is where the upper fret goes. The role of this component is to make sure that the thread doesn’t get all wacky on the fabric. This is where your thread needs to go before you place it around the take-up lever.

Take-Up Lever

Considered to be one of the most essential parts of a sewing machine, the take-up lever is here to make sure you avoid birdnesting while sewing. Birdnesting is the popular term used to describe jammed stitches, and it often occurs when people don’t thread their sewing machines properly.

To avoid birdnesting, the top thread should always go around the take-up lever. This helps the stitch stay tight and ensure a smooth sewing experience.

Tension Dial

Located on the upper part of your sewing machine is one of its most important parts: the tension dial. As far as sewing machines are concerned, tension is a term used to describe the control the machine has on the thread and needle, to make sure that you end up having strong stitches.

You simply can’t start sewing if your upper and lower thread don’t have the right tension, because your project will be ruined. There are newer sewing machines models with automatically adjustable tension, which means that you won’t have to worry about working with this dial. However, older models require that you manually adjust the tension every time your start a new sewing project.

If you are not sure what the right tension for your project is, adjust the dial to 3. Most sewing machines will allow you to choose a tension setting between 0 and 5.

Speed Control Lever

Changing speed. Attentive young worker of a professional tailor house sitting at the table and changing speed on a modern sewing machine

Roughly translated, the speed control lever will allow you to establish the number of stitches your machine can perform in a single minute. Most machines will have this feature, some of them with a maximum speed of 800, while others with a speed of a maximum 1.200.

The general rule of thumb states that if you’re working on a project that requires sewing a very large piece of fabric, it’s best that you set the machine on the highest speed, to be more efficient timewise. If you’re working on projects that require attention to fine details, you are better off using the machine at the lowest speed.

Reverse Button

The location of the reserve button will depend on the brand of sewing machine you have. For example, if you own an older model, it probably has a mechanical button positioned somewhere around the take-up lever (it should have some text accompanying it, for proper identification).

This button is useful for starting or finishing a seam. Instead of manually lifting and lowering the footer, you can use this button to reinforce a stitch and make it go back and forth a few times. This final touch will prevent the stitches from coming undone.

Power Button

a close up shot of on and off switch of a sewing machine

The main role of the power button is to dismiss the use of a foot pedal, which can end up hurting your feet when you have to use the machine for longer. It enables you to power on and turn off the sewing machine. It is the best feature to have when you’re working on time-consuming project, where you would otherwise have to put a lot of effort and strain on your feet to keep the machine going.

Needle Screw

The name of this component is pretty suggestive: it’s screw that makes sure the needles is fastened and secured in place, so that it won’t fall off while you’re sewing. Depending on the model you have, the manufacturer might have included a screwdriver designed specifically for this screw.

Needle

The needle is probably the easiest to recognize part of a sewing machine. While it needs no introduction and its role is very clear to all, it’s important to mention that, for a successful project, you will have to use the correct type and size of needle.

Bobbin Lid Release Button

Before explaining the purpose of this part, here is something you should know: machines can either have a top-loaded bobbin, or a front-loaded bobbin. If you have a top-loaded bobbin, the button will release the lid that covers said bobbin. The machines that have a front-loaded bobbin system have the bobbin located in a vertical position.

Presser Foot Releaser

a close up shot of Presser Foot Releaser of sewing machine

The role of this part is to help you lift the presser foot, granting you easy fabric access. Working with this part requires a close inspection of the instruction manual that came with your specific sewing machine (for example, there are models that require operating a screw to change the presser foot).

Presser Foot

This is the second most identifiable part of a sewing machine, because it’s the one responsible with holding the fabric in place while you work your magic. It literally presses down on the piece of fabric that you want to sew.

Generally speaking, projects require that you use a universal presser foot, but specific projects will turn out better if you have other types to choose from. For example, there are certain types of fabric that require specific types of presser feet, so that the fabric doesn’t stick to this part. Some examples of presser feet include embroidery foot, satin stitch foot, button sewing foot, straight stitch, and others.

Built-In Needle Threader

Although this feature is not available on all machines, it is a great feature to have. It does exactly what it says: threads the needle for you. It is also an amazing feature for people who have visual difficulties. What this does specifically is to insert the thread into the needle for you. All you have to do is to slowly move the thread down the needle.

If you own a sewing machine that doesn’t have this component, you can turn to a self-threading needle.

Feed Teeth

a close up shot of sewing machine feed teeth

The feed teeth are responsible for fabric movement as you’re sewing. This means that you should avoid forcefully pushing or pulling the fabric. These teeth have a rotating movement that push the fabric away from you, as the needle moves up and down.

If you ever find yourself in a scenario where the feet teeth are not pulling the fabric properly, they might need to be adjusted in the right position (you’ll use the feed teeth lever for this).

Feed Teeth Lever

The feet teeth lever allows you to determine if you want to manually push the fabric as you sew, or if you want the feed teeth to do this for you automatically. For example, if you are sewing a button, you don’t want the feed teeth to move the fabric as a few, in which case you have to lower this lever.

The exact position of this lever will depend on the model of sewing machine you own. The manual should give you detailed instructions on its location.

Bobbin

The bobbin is the heart and soul of the sewing machine. The bobbin is placed inside a case that is either made from plastic or metal on a top-loaded sewing machine, or metal, when talking about a front-loaded machine. Generally speaking, bobbin cases made from metal are more durable, and they are less likely to cause any problems.

The bobbin case has a screw outside of it, which can be used to adjust the tension of the thread. This is something that you should only mess with if your thread it either too tight or too loose.

Bobbin Lid

Sewing Mechanism. Needle, Foot and transparent bobbin lid.Macro.

Your bobbin is usually housed and covered by a transparent lid. Both top-loaded and front-loaded machines have a transparent lid, provided that you have a new model, and not an ancient one. The purpose of this transparent lid is to always let you know how much thread your bobbin has left.

For proper maintenance, you want to lift the lid and clean underneath it (you can also do this when you change the bobbin thread). In time, lint will build-up on this lid and could eventually end up in other parts of the machine, causing a malfunction.

Extended Arm

The extended arm is great for when you want to work with large pieces of fabric. It is often referred to as an “extended table”, and it’s a feature that manufacturers like to point out if their sewing machines have it.

What this arm basically does is to give you some extra flat surface to keep your fabric at hand, for a smoother sewing experience. Depending on the type of sewing machine that you own, this extended arm can be removed, so it won’t get in the way if you don’t need it. Industrial sewing machines are more likely to come with an extended arm.

Illuminating System

Newer sewing machine models have a light bulb that’s generally located somewhere around the presser foot, so that you can get a clearer view of what you’re doing regardless of the light conditions in the room. Even when you’re working in a space with plenty of light, shadows are bound to obstruct your vision, so light will be very useful.

These illuminating systems are generally comprised of two light bulbs, with a wattage of about 15 to 20 watts each. If one of these should burn, you will have to find an exact replacement, so it’s important to check the user manual so you’ll know exactly what to buy.

Buttons

Sewing machine with a lot of buttons isolated on a white background

Depending on the type and model of sewing machine that you own, you will have different buttons to serve different features. Some of the buttons will grant access to functions such as the type of stitching options the machine has in store for you.

Older sewing machines, as well as mechanical models, don’t generally have these function buttons. As mentioned before, with these models, you will be able to select the type of stitch by using the second handwheel.

There are also machines (such as Singer) that have a mode button. This allows you to shuffle between the different modes that will be visible on your LCD display. In general, computerized sewing machines all have some equivalent for the mode button. As always, you will be fully informed on what these buttons do when you read the instruction manual.

Electrical Cord

The electrical cord is what powers up your sewing machine. Each sewing machine will come with a compatible electrical cord, which can ensure the right amount of voltage. In the US, for instance, the standard voltage is 110 volts, while European electrical equipment has a standard of 220 volts.

Foot Pedal

Teen girl using a sewing machine with a foot pedal. Full body isolated on white.

The foot pedal, just as the name suggests it is a plastic component that you can control with your foot to adjust the speed of the machine. Just as cars have an accelerator pedal, the sewing machine has this foot pedal which, once released, will turn off the machine. Alternatively, you can use the power button to replace the need for the pedal.

Free Arm

The majority of sewing machines have a free arm. This is typically hidden behind the accessory compartment, so moving it will grant you easy access to the arm. This particular component is useful for projects that involve circular sewing, like cuffs.

Accessories

Your sewing machine will most likely be delivered with some accessories that are very useful, once you understand what they do. Naturally, each manufacturer may choose to include different instruments in the accessory kits of their machines, but there are a few standard ones that you should expect to receive regardless of the brand you bought:

  • Brush – Most machines will come with a brush that makes it easier for you to clean the machine. Even if it sounds easier and tempting, never clean your machine using an air blower. The lint that accumulates in certain compartments of the machines can end up spreading everywhere, jamming parts that might cease to work.
  • Screwdriver – As we’ve mentioned before, your machine will most likely come with a screwdriver compatible with the screw used to fasten the needle.
  • Seam ripper – This little tool is often included in the accessory kit of a sewing machine. It is used to remove the stitches, as it has a blade placed at the tip of the tool.
  • Quilting bar guide – Quilting is a particular part of seaming, and a quilting bar guide can be paired with a presser foot to help you quilt. This little contraption goes through the presser foot, and acts like a guide that will help you maintain a sewing position, thus guiding you to follow an existing stitch.
  • Oil dropper – this is usually a small plastic squeeze bottle with a narrow tip for squeezing oil onto the working parts to keep them lubricated. If you don’t know how, you should definitely learn how to oil a sewing machine.

Conclusion

Congratulations on having the courage to learn something new and venture into the world of one of the oldest and most rewarding craft: sewing. Understanding where the parts of a sewing machine are and how they come together, and function is the first step in gaining a deeper, more complex understanding of the possibilities you have when you know how to operate a sewing machine.

While it’s not important that you learn all of this by heart, you will get to memorize these parts in time, the more your work with your sewing machine. Remember to always read the instruction manual when you buy a new sewing machine model, because it can explain exactly which part is where and what you can do with it. And if you’re looking for a good machine, read more here.