How does a Sewing Machine Work? ABC’s Of A Sewing Machine

How does a sewing machine work? If you are as curious as most people tend to be about the appliances they use , you must have asked yourself this at one point or the other.

Let’s give you one fun fact; the sewing was first invented by an Englishman named Thomas Saint in the year 1789.

Since then, a lot has changed about the sewing machine and its operations. In the same vein both people, geographical boundaries, culture as well as technology have changed. New inventions keep evolving and existing ones evolving of which the sewing machine is not an exception.

With the advent of modern technology however sewing has gotten easier, simpler and faster. For whatever time you spend with your sewing machine to be fun and productive, these three components must be present in your sewing machine .

Therefore it is very important to learn how a sewing machine works.  There are also some fundamental things you must know about the sewing machine before you know how it operates. Find out more on this in our previous post on how to use a sewing machine.

If you have an understanding of how a sewing machine works and what it comes with, then you may really understand why you need one. In this article, we shall attempt at taking a critical look at how the sewing machine works. We shall also be unveiling the different types and parts of the sewing machine.

How does a sewing machine work
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Main Components of the Sewing Machine    

Despite advanced technical skill and the technology available today, the fundamental operation of the contemporary sewing machine remains the same. This is as compared with the basic function and workings of the first sewing machine.

Let’s take as an example ‘how to form a stitch’; it is observed that the same principle is in use. This involves interaction of the topmost thread which emanates from the upper thread spool with the thread below. This lower thread emanates from the bobbin below.

To better understand how a sewing machine works, we need to look at some main components without which a sewing machine cannot function. Below is a brief description of the function of the three most important and main components of a sewing machine. These items are not necessarily an integral part of the sewing machine but they are critical for its functioning.

  1. Thread – To come out with good quality clothing, the use of good and high quality thread is more of a necessity than an option. It is important you make detailed enquiries about the best quality thread you will need for your sewing machine. It is a fact that sewing threads are of different kinds and will be suited for different fabrics. A good knowledge of different threads for your sewing machine will therefore be an advantage.

  2. Needle – Needles come in different sizes of length and weight appropriate for different kinds of fabric as well as sewing styles. It is therefore important you get acquainted with the size of needle you will need to sew a particular fabric. The design you intend to sew could also determine what type of needle you would require for your stitching. Thus the needle required for embroidery may not be the same you will need for seam stitching. Knowing the right time and how to replace the needle of your sewing machine is equally important. This is because a needle that is not in good shape can affect your stitching and quality of your work.

  3. Bobbin – The bobbin of a sewing machine is very critical in stitching. This is because it is responsible for housing the lower thread of the machine while sewing. It plays an important role in stitching because the thread must be properly wound in the bobbin. It must also be properly put in the bobbin case for the lower thread to emerge to the top for sewing to commence. It is very important to consult the manual of your sewing machine in dealing with the bobbin.  This is particularly so when you are attempting to insert the bobbin case into the machine for the first time.  It is usually easier fixing bobbins that are at the machine top than the one usually fixed under.
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Types of Sewing Machines

Sewing machines can be delineated either by the model or its functionality/specialty. There are 4 different models of sewing machines and they are:- manual , mechanical, electric and computerized.

Conversely, there are also 4 types of specialty sewing machines and they are:- Overlocker/ serger, coverstitch, embroidery and industrial.

Models Of Sewing Machine

Manual Sewing Machines

This machine is the traditional sewing machine that has endured over the years. It is usually operated with the aid of a foot pedal. This machine can be termed as an antiquity as it is old fashioned. If you find this type of machine still in use, it most likely that electric motors would be affixed.  With this, the manual machine would combine its time tested ruggedness with the advantage of speed and efficiency of an electric machine.

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Mechanical Sewing Machines

This is undoubtedly the sewing machine used by a vast majority of people involved in stitching today.  It is mainly operated with the use of knobs and dials which helps in adjusting the length of your stitches. These setting devices also help in determining the tension of the sewing thread in the process of sewing.

These machines equally come with a number of built in stitches for making button holes, decorative designs plus other stitches.  This machine gives the user optimum services without all the complications associated with electric or electronic devices. In as much as this machine will serve optimally, it is in no way in the class of the electronic or computerized machines.

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Electronic Sewing Machines

The electronic sewing machine is an upgraded adaptation of the mechanical model.  The difference is that it is powered by electricity, operated by pressing buttons and has LCD screen for features display. This machine’s length and width stitches are automated and automatically configured.

They have many features that add convenience and pleasure to your sewing. These include several automatic overlock stitches and a buttonhole setting amongst others. 

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Computerized Sewing Machines

This sewing machine is the perfect model that comes with the latest innovation needed in contemporary sewing operations. It has the ability to download patterns and thoroughly synchronize both speed and needle functions. It also gives accurate stitching and has memorized operations stored in its panel. It perfectly co-ordinates the different sewing operations without stress.  

This brand of machines have inbuilt touch screens with USB ports for sewing patterns as well as embroidery designs. This automatically makes sewing operations smooth and seamless. These computerized machines come with a price tag that is way higher than that of other models. This is because of its technologically designed inbuilt features, functions and immense choice of stitches.

These stitches are selected with an electronic push button as well as LCD touch screen. The machine is also designed to automatically work on the width and settings of the machine. This setting gives the stitch accurate proportion. You can however change any of the settings in this very innovative computerized machine by simply pressing the stitch controls.

The highly computerized and sophisticated features of this model can easily overwhelm a beginner. With regular sewing and experience garnered over time however, these features become less difficult and confusing. The importance of constant use of and acquaintance with the machine manual can never be over emphasized.

This machine has an embedded motor device that controls the swing of the needle left and right. The other motor moves the machine’s feed dogs to the front and back. This enables you make use of the sewing machine with great level of exactness. This model has inbuilt memories which users can always refer to when sewing different fabric designs. The inbuilt memory of this machine is detailed as it relates to arrangement of stitches.  The computerized machine can also legibly sew letters for monogramming work.

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Specialty Sewing Machines

Sewing machines are either classified by their mode of operation or their functionality. Apart from machines that do regular fabrics and designs, there are others that are specialized in their function. They include the following:-

Overlocker/ serger

This type of machine is basically used for finishing of the edge of fabric so as to prevent it from frazzling. This gives the seam and hems of your fabric a professional touch. This machine model typically uses four threads while some other models use two, three and even five threads.  

Although, they cannot sew button holes as well as fancy stitches, they do a good job of stitching the seam of fabrics. The machine joins both the front and back sides of clothes together neatly and perfectly.  They also trim off excess fabric while sewing, with the use of inbuilt cutting blades.

The Serger or Over locker machines are an effective and fast sewing machine models but they cannot replace the normal sewing machine at home. They are mainly used for finishing seam edges, for seam stitching as well as cutting of the seam.

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The Coverstitch machines are equally used to prevent the unprocessed border or fringes of your fabric from ruffling. It is equally good at constructing a seam when joining your fabric.  The finishing of your T-shirt neck band or that of a sweat shirt is a typical example of the function of a coverstitch.

The operation of the Overlocker can easily be confused with that of the Coverstitch but they are distinct in function. Whereas the Coverstitch comes handy for constructing fabrics, they cannot cut your fabric. This is because they do not come with inbuilt blades. The functions of both machines are therefore different and one cannot perform the function of the other.

However, there are sewing machines that combine both the function of overlocking and coverstitch. But most of such machines usually present a lot of mechanical complications and problems in the course of usage.  They are equally not too easy to operate and come at a price that can buy the two machines separately.

Therefore purchasing the two machines is more advisable so you can get the full benefits of both sewing machines.

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Embroidery Sewing Machine

This machine specializes in creating elaborate and complex decorative needle work referred to as embroidery. It is also used to design graphic letter symbols on fabrics. This is referred to as monograming.

Computerizing the embroidery machine has made its usage easy and less complicated. This is because embroidery designs can easily be downloaded or uploaded on the computerized machine. This makes the job of doing any embroidery design fast and straight forward.

With the embroidery machine, designs and figures that consist of recurring shapes and colors can be sewn.  This machine makes use of memory card or USB stick which you can plug to your computer to upload or download designs. Where the embroidery machine comes with inbuilt designs, the use of a memory card to download designs might not be necessary.

Once you select your embroidery design and place the fabric in a supporting underframe or structure, the process begins.  Some embroidery machines also double as sewing machines.

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Industrial Sewing Machine

This particular sewing machine is designed for heavy work hence the name and is mainly for professional use. This machine is ideal for garment factories and people in big commercial sewing business. It sews with precision, speed and can stitch through all types of fabrics including thick layered materials.  It can make both thick fabric and leather accessories such as bags and the likes.

The industrial brand of sewing machines are specifically designed for particular roles hence they are not versatile. They are however perfect and very precise in the particular stitching they are designed for. This machine is both rugged and efficient and was designed to work all through the 24 hour duration of the day as well as 7 days nonstop. They do not require very regular maintenance.

Now that we have covered the above basics, let’s move on to how a sewing machine works.

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The Workings Of A Sewing Machine

The mechanism of a sewing machine is predicated upon 2 major principles:

Double-threaded Stitching

Every sewing machine, irrespective of its time of origin, function or operation operates with the same basic principle. It doesn’t matter the name we have given them whether mechanical, electronic, electrical or computerized. Every addition to the first sewing machine made is just to improve speed, efficiency and ease of sewing. The basic working mechanism of the sewing machine has remained.

Since sewing was initially done by humans through hand stitching, a way has to be found that would enable a machine to deliver the same result. For handmade stitching, the sewer is armed with a needle and thread as his basic tools.

The thread is passed through the needle and he is ready to begin stitching his fabric. Here stitching is done by passing the needle with thread through the fabric and pulling the thread in the process. In the case of handmade stitching therefore, the role of the needle is major.

For the sewing machine however, the major role of the needle is to make a hole in the fabric and push through a thread. The thread being pushed down will then interact with the one below and both will be pulled up by the needle. It is the interaction of the two threads resulting in a knot that forms the center or basis of the sewing.

Apart from the needle, other parts or components of a sewing machine also have their roles in the stitching process.

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Synchronization of the stitching and fabric motion

It would be impossible to use the sewing machine effectively without the coordination of the different mechanical parts. It is these parts that enable the rotation of the machine’s motor which in turn facilitates sewing. We have seen that stitching comes about when the needle interacts with the two threads in the sewing machine.

The machine’s presser foot as well as its feed dog are responsible for pulling the fabric forward as the stitching occurs. It is the ability of the presser foot and feed dog to pull the fabric while stitching occurs that brings harmony to your sewing. The synchronizing of the stitching of the fabric with its forward motion is the second major principle in stitching with the sewing machine.

Different Ways The Sewing Machine Stitches

The Loop Stitch

Stitching a fabric together with the sewing machine cannot be the same with hand sewing. What you do with hand sewing is to pass both the thread and needle through two pieces of fabric for the purpose of attaching them together. The thread is then tied through the needles eye, passed through the pieces of the fabric and it gets down to the loop stitch. This is not so with the sewing machine.  

The machine puts the thread in a position where it can meet with part of the fabric. The eye of the sewing machine’s needle faces downwards through the tip towards the sewing surface. Once the needle is threaded, the bar of the needle is used in fastening the needle together with the machine.  

When the power is turned on, the bar of the needle moves in an upward and downward direction. By so doing it helps in positioning the threaded needle to the sewing material. The machine’s needle bar gets powered by inbuilt motor devices that make sure every moving part is working.  

Once the needle is passed through the material being sewn, the loop is pulled to the location where the stitching is happening to fasten it. There is also an inbuilt mechanism that gives the loop an upward pull round to another thread or loop. This inbuilt mechanism is underneath the material being sewn. There are different kinds of loop stitches which the machine handles in different ways.

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The Chain Stitch

Sewing machines do handle the Chain Stitch easily. This is because the fabric sits on a steel plate of the machine as the foot of the presser holds it down. The machine needle forms a loop at every stitch and once this is done, an inbuilt mechanism takes hold of the loop as the needle goes up.

When the needle goes off the fabric, it is moved forward by this mechanism. When it comes down to form another loop, it passes through the center of the first one.

The same mechanism holds the loop and enfolds it round the next one that the needle has created. This process is called chain stitch due to the way the loops get interlocked in the form of a chain. One link holds the other one in place and so on.

The Lock Stitch

Almost all sewing machines have this rugged stitching style irrespective of their type or make. It has a mode of sewing operation similar to that of chain stitching. The difference is that it joins more thread with the help of the bobbin thereby locking the stitch.

The most vital parts which this stitch comprises of are the shuttle hook and bobbin assembly. The bobbin takes the thread under the material being sewn and distributes it through the inbuilt device.

The needle, like the chain stitch, also moves the loop so formed through the material being sewn. The stitch that is formed is locked through the thread from the bobbin. This happens when the hook of the shuttle holds the loop pulling it round the thread from the bobbin. It is the bobbin that houses the lower thread. This method of stitching comes with a durable strong stitch.

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Expert Tips On How a Sewing Machine Works

  • In setting up your sewing machine for stitching, the first step is to discover the location of its power switch. After this has been done it will be necessary to place the spool of your thread on its pin.

  • The thread is then taken all through the machine’s thread guide into the bobbin winder. The bobbin once affixed to the winder would require the stopper to keep it firm to enable the rewinding process.  This is where the adjustment dial of your stitch should be set appropriately for use. However, this applies to only to sewing machines that have stitch adjustment setting.

  • The thread is passed all the way to the take-up lever of the machine. It is at this point that the relevant adjustment to achieve the appropriate thread tension is done. The right thread tension must be gotten for your sewing machine’s proper functioning.

  •  Having threaded your needle, it is time to ensure the bobbin below is properly set to come up with the upper thread for stitching.  Once this process is completed, you are ready to turn on your machine to commence stitching.

How To Avoid Having Issues With Your Sewing Machine

A sewing machine is a complex piece of mechanical cum electrical appliance and as such will usually have maintenance issues. These issues are mostly as a result of human errors in not sticking to the guidelines for using the sewing machine.

 These errors could range from improper threading to error in fixing the needle. Not taking basic precautions before and after use of the machine could also make it develop faults. There is therefore need for regular routine maintenance of your sewing machine.


It can be quite fascinating to know how your sewing machine functions. With this knowledge you might not need the services of a professional for every maintenance work.

This knowledge would be most valuable to the proper functioning of your machine as you will be personally acquainted with your sewing machine. A full grasp of the workings of your machine will enable you operate its better with faster result. Added to the above advantages is the fact that you will save some money on repairs you end up fixing. There is no doubt you have everything to gain by knowing how your sewing machine works.