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Anatomy of a Sewing Machine: The Parts and What They Do

Knowing how your machine works is an essential part of sewing. Although a marvelous array of sewing machines are available, from simple straight-stitch models to computerized “sewing systems,” most machines consist of common parts that work together to create a stitch. Here’s a look at these common parts and what they do.

Anatomy Diagram of a Sewing Machine. Identify these common features on your machine.

Get to know your sewing machine! Identify these common features on your machine.

  1. Hand wheel: Turn this wheel to adjust needle height. Always turn the hand wheel toward you.
  2. Spool pin: The spool pin keeps the spool in place while the thread feeds through the machine. Some machines have both horizontal and vertical spool pins.
  3. Spool cap: The spool cap slips onto the end of the spool pin and holds the spool in place.
  4. Bobbin pin/winder: Built-in bobbin winders may be found on the top, front, or side of a sewing machine. Most winders consist of a bobbin pin to hold the bobbin while the thread is being wound, thread guides for maintaining tension, and a start/stop lever. Some bobbin winders have built-in thread cutters.
  5. Thread guide: Thread guides may be hoops, discs, or flat metal shapes that pinch or direct the thread to feed it through the machine without tangling and at the correct tension.
  6. Take-up lever: The take-up lever is a metal finger with a thread guide that moves up and down, pulling thread from the spool and feeding it through the machine.
  7. Tension regulator: Tension discs pinch the thread as it moves through the machine, and the tension regulator controls the amount of “pinch pressure” the discs exert. Tension discs on the outside of older machines are controlled with a knob or adjustable screw. Newer machines house discs inside the machine casing, and tension is adjusted by a dial or control on the machine front.
  8. Needle position: Machines may have multiple needle positions, allowing the needle to be moved left or right of the center position. Changing the stitch line in this way is handy for creating multiple lines of stitching.
  9. Needle stop or up/down: Some machines allow the needle to be set to stop in either an up or a down position. This saves time when pivoting around curves and corners.
  10. Stitch width adjustment: If your machine has zigzag stitching capabilities, it has a stitch width adjustment. This allows you to alter stitch widths to create a number of different stitch patterns.
  11. Stitch length adjustment: This control adjusts the length of each stitch by changing the amount of fabric the feed dog pulls through the machine.
  12. Reverse: Almost all machines have the ability to sew in reverse. Older machines may have a lever controlling which direction the feed dog pushes fabric through the machine. Newer machines have a quick reverse button used to sew a few stitches or stitch continuously in reverse.
  13. Stitch selector: Use the stitch selector to choose which stitch you’d like to use. Many machines feature a number of built-in stitches: straight stitch, zigzag, buttonhole, blind hem, etc.
  14. Presser foot: The presser foot works with the feed dog to move fabric evenly through the machine. When the presser foot is lowered, it engages the tension discs and presses the fabric beneath the foot against the feed dog. 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.
  15. Presser foot pressure control: This control adjusts the amount of pressure the presser foot applies to fabric as it feeds beneath the needle. Increase pressure when sewing heavy fabric and decrease pressure when sewing lightweight or thin fabric.
  16. Presser foot lifter: This lever, located above the presser foot at the back or side of the machine, raises and lowers the presser foot. When the presser foot is lifted, the tension discs are disengaged, and the fabric will not feed through the machine.
  17. Needle: The needle carries the upper thread through the fabric to create a stitch. Specialty needles are available for specific stitching needs.
  18. Needle threader: Some machines have built-in needle threaders. Threaders have a tiny hook that swings through the needle eye, catches the thread, and pulls it back through the eye when the threader is released.
  19. Thread cutter: Some machines have a built-in thread cutter near the needle area. To use the cutter, raise the presser foot and remove the stitched piece from the machine. Pull both the threads over the cutter’s shielded blade to cut them.
  20. Needle clamp screw: Tighten and loosen this screw to release or secure the needle in place.
  21. Stitch plate: The stitch plate, also called a needle or throat plate, is a flat metal piece below the presser foot. Slots in the plate allow the feed dog to push the fabric along. A hole or slot admits the needle carrying the top thread through the fabric. Straight stitch plates have a single small hole to guide the needle and create uniform stitches. Zigzag stitch plates have a wide needle slot to accommodate decorative stitches. Guidelines marked on the plate help you align the fabric beneath the needle. Most stitch plates are removable for cleaning.
  22. Feed dog: The feed dog is a toothed metal piece below the stitch plate that moves up and down to push the fabric along beneath the needle. Stitch length is controlled by how much fabric the feed dog moves.
  23. Throat: The throat of a machine refers to the open space between the needle and the machine housing. A large throat is helpful when sewing bulky fabrics and large projects like quilts.
  24. Bobbin cover: The bobbin cover is a plate or hinged door that protects the bobbin mechanism. Open the bobbin cover to replace the bobbin and clean the bobbin area or case.
  25. Foot control: Like the gas pedal in a car, the foot control regulates the machine speed.

In addition to these common parts, your sewing machine manual will have specific information about your machine. Now that you know how a sewing machine works, it’s time to start your first project! Happy sewing!

From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Sewing by Missy Shepler and Rebecca Kemp Brent