Tips & Jargon Buster!!

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Be guided by the sewing machine presser foot

As you sew, try to keep the side of the presser foot running down the edge of the fabric. Keeping the foot aligned with the fabric's edge creates a perfectly straight stitch.

Use the needle plate guides

Look closely on the needle plate of your sewing machine and you will normally see some straight lines running from front to back. These parallel lines are drawn at fixed distances from the needle.

Lay the edge of your fabric up along one of these lines and sew slowly, trying to keep the edge of your fabric touching the line that you've chosen.

Mark out your seams

Use a clear plastic ruler to draw the seam that you want to sew on to your fabric with tailor's chalk.

Most rulers have a bevel on them, which you can line up against the edge of your fabric – this will help you to draw your seam at the same distance into the fabric without measuring it.

Use tacking stitches

A tacking stitch is a rough, long hand-sewn stitch that keeps two pieces of fabric together while you sew them.

The advantage of tacking things before you sew them, versus pinning, them is that you don't have to keep stopping and starting to remove the pins, so you can avoid the inevitable wobble that comes with starting up your foot pedal. 
Beginner's guide needles & threadUsing the correct needle and thread is very important for getting great results from your sewing machine.

Sewing machine needles

Sewing Heavy Fabrics with Heavy Duty Sewing Machines

Use a strong needle, either a 100/16 or 110/18.

Turn the hand wheel and start with the needle deep in the fabric.
Don't be afraid to turn the hand wheel at times, you may need this to get the machine started on really thick work. Also very handy for turning a corner and for more intricate areas of your work.

Use a strong thread. Ticket 40 bonded nylon is very popular with leather work, upholstery, canvas, outdoor materials, horse blankets. A V69 thread for sails and outdoor materials etc. (All available in our shop)

When using larger reels of thread, best to use a thread stand to enable a free flow for the thread going into the machine.

The walking foot attachment. Very handy for thick multiple layers of fabric, to stop them moving out of position and to give you a more even stitch. Also very handy on slippery and stretch materials.

Other handy feet include: Piping foot, Teflon Foot and Roller foot....

Needle sizes

For best results on your sewing machine, you'll need the right needles

Sewing machine needles come in different sizes. Confusingly, two systems of naming the sizes run side by side; imperial sizes go from 9 to 18, metric sizes from 65 to 110.

In both cases the larger the number, the bigger the needle. You'll probably find that a packet of needles is marked with both the imperial and metric sizes.

You need to choose the right size needle for your fabric. Using a large needle on delicate fabric, for example, will cause visible holes and may cause problems such as the needle shoving the fabric down into the bobbin casing. You might also find that the stitches slip.

On the other hand, using a small needle on heavy fabrics can cause trouble such as the needle breaking under the pressure.

Needle types for simple sewing tasks

There's a wide range of needle types to choose from, depending on what you're sewing:

Universal: The needle's point is slightly rounded for use with knit fabrics, but sharp enough to pierce woven fabrics.

Denim/jeans: This type of needle has an extra-sharp point and stiff shank, which makes it suitable for stitching denim, heavy imitation leather or other densely woven fabrics.

Ballpoint: This needle has a blunt, rounded tip that slips between fibres rather than piercing them. Use this needle for sewing coarse knits, Lycra and other fabrics that tend to run if you snag them.

Twin needle: Twin needles are constructed with two shafts on a crossbar that extends from a single shank. They're ideal to use for decorative stitching and creating multiple, uniform stitching rows. Two numbers are listed on the packaging; the first number represents the distance between the needles and the second number is the metric needle size.

When should you change the needle on your sewing machine?

Needles can blunt quite quickly, especially if you're sewing synthetic fabrics. Blunt needles will not only damage the fibres in your fabric, possibly snagging it, but will also cause skipped stitches and occasionally puckering.

The basic rule is to change the needle for each new project, depending on how much you used the needle for the project before. But it's always worth changing your needle before starting to stitch something made from expensive fabric – needles are cheap and easily replaced.

Thread for your sewing machine

Types of thread

Cotton: Suitable for light to medium-weight fabrics that have little or no stretch to them. Cotton thread will not 'give', and the stitches may break if used on a stretchy knit fabric.

Polycotton: This thread is usually labelled 'all-purpose' and is the thread you will see most frequently in fabric shops. It's suitable for all types of fabrics and for both hand and machine sewing.

Polyester: Most suitable for synthetic fabrics or fabrics with a lot of stretch to them. The finish of this thread, however, can appear waxy or shiny.

Silk: Silk thread is more elastic than cotton, so opt for silk if your fabric has stretch to it. Use on very thin or delicately woven fabrics such as those used for lingerie or sheer garments.

Heavy duty: Used for sewing projects that require extra strong and durable stitches, such as upholstery using very heavy or stiff fabric.

Choosing the colour

Choose a colour of thread that matches the most dominant colour in your fabric.

If you can't find a perfect match, select a thread one or two shades darker. Stitches made with a lighter shade of thread will stand out more.

Help with choosing your needle size and thread

There are several places you can get advice on choosing the right-sized needle and thread for your sewing machine.

Many sewing patterns recommend fabric, needle sizes and threads for their specific projects.

Ask for help from haberdashery staff when buying your fabric or pattern.

Check the instruction manual of your sewing machine as this will usually contain a guide to needle sizes and thread.

Jargon buster

Vast leaps in technology have been made as fashions and techniques have changed. Although the basic principle remains the same, the sheer range of sewing machine features can be confusing, particularly if you're a first-time user.


Sewing machines use two separate threads to make a stitch – the needle thread, which comes down from the top of the machine, and the bobbin thread, which comes upwards from the bottom of the machine.

A bobbin is a small spool for holding the thread in the bottom of the machine; it sits in a compartment under the needle. Thread needs to be wound onto the bobbin before you start sewing. Most electric machines have a bobbin winding function.

Bobbins in older machines load from the side and usually sit inside a metal case, which helps to control the tension in the thread. New machines often have a drop-in bobbin, which loads from above. Sometimes they have a see-through cover over the bobbin compartment, which makes it easier to see how much thread is left.

Feed dog

If you look at the plate under the sewing machines needle, you'll see tiny saw-shaped metal teeth sticking up through it. These teeth are part of the feed dog, a metal plate responsible for feeding fabric from the front to the back of the machine.

As the needle comes up out of the fabric after making a stitch, the feed dog teeth rise up and grip the fabric against the presser foot, then slide backwards and pull the fabric with them.

Some machines have a ‘drop feed dog’ function. This means that you can fix the feed dog in the down position. When the feed dog is down you move the fabric manually under the needle in the direction that you choose. This is useful for embroidery and mending.

Free arm

A free arm is a cylinder on the bed of the sewing machine that allows you to sew things like pockets and sleeves. It usually works by detaching a piece on the base of the machine, leaving the arm protruding.

Knee lifter

Found on some machines, particularly those by Elna and Bernina, a knee lifter is a lever which can be pressed with your knee, allowing you to lift the presser foot without taking your hands off your work. It enables you to move the fabric freely for quilting, sewing around curves and embroidery - ideal for large projects and giving you an extra hand to help with fiddly projects.

Needle plate

The needle plate is the part of the machine that fits over the feed dogs on the bed of the machine and covers the bobbin. It also has a hole that the needle passes through. Plates often have a series of lines etched on them. These lines indicate the distance away from the needle. They can be used as a guide to help you sew in a straight line and also to keep your stitches a set distance away from the edge of the fabric.

Presser foot

The presser foot holds the fabric flat under the needle and in place against the needle plate. This stops the fabric from moving about while you sew. There is a range of different presser feet available designed to do different jobs such as inserting a zip or sewing blind hems. Presser feet are either held in by a screw, or a foot-holder clip which makes them easier to change.

Sewing bed 

This is the bottom arm of the ‘C’ of the sewing machine that houses the bobbin. It is often made of two parts: The free arm is a protruding cylinder that can be used to sew smaller or tubular pieces of fabric such as pockets and sleeves.

The extension table fixes around the free arm to create a wide and flat area that is more suitable for supporting and controlling large pieces of fabric.


A spool is the cylindrical plastic holder that carries the thread.

Stitch selector

Sewing machines come with a range of stitches to choose from. The stitch selector controls where the needle moves as it to stitches, which governs what the stitch looks like. For instance if the needle alternates left and right between stitches it creates a zigzag stitch.

Basic machines have a dial that you turn to select the stitch you want. More expensive machines let you select a stitch by pressing a button or using a touch pad. Both types are usually illustrated to show you the stitch that you're selecting.

Accessories for your sewing


Must-have sewing machine kit includes at least two pairs of scissors

You'll probably need a least two pairs of scissors.

Bent-handled shears

A pair of bent-handled shears is used for cutting out fabric. The lower blade is angled so that it allows fabric to lie flat while it's being cut. Use these scissors only for cutting out fabric, never cut paper with them as it will blunt them.

Sewing scissors

You'll need a second, smaller pair of scissors for trimming seams and facings.

Pinking shears

If your sewing machine doesn't have an overlock or zigzag stitch, it's worth investing in a pair of pinking shears, which have zigzag blades that form fray-resistant edges.

A tape measure is essential

A thread clipper is a small tool that has spring-action blades but no handles; it's quicker to use to clip threads as you sew than a pair of scissors.

Measuring tools

You'll need measuring tools to obtain pattern and body measurements and to help you create good-quality work on your sewing machine.

A tape measure is essential; make life easier for yourself by buying a retractable tape measure that automatically rewinds the tape at the touch of a button.

A clear-plastic ruler can be useful for marking out where you'll sew your seams when you're just getting started.

Marking tools

You will need some kind of marking tools for transferring pattern markings on to fabric and perhaps for marking out where you want to sew your seams.

Tailor's chalk blocks are the most basic sort of marking tool; chalk is removed from fabric by brushing.

You can also buy tailor's chalk in pencil form, use a quick marker pen or use dressmaker's carbon paper with a tracing tool.


You can use a wine cork as a substitute pincushion

Pins are essential for joining pieces of fabric together temporarily as you assemble your work. Look for all-purpose pins to begin with, but remember to invest in finer pins if you will be sewing delicate, expensive fabrics.

Pins with colourful plastic heads can be easier to see, both on your fabric and when you drop them on the floor. A magnet is helpful for retrieving steel pins.


Very useful for keeping your pins and needles to hand while you're sewing. There's also less chance of creating a horrible mess with a pincushion than an open tin of pins if you knock it on to the floor by accident.

A wine cork makes a satisfactory impromptu substitute.


Buy spools of all-purpose polyester thread in white, beige, black, navy, green, brown and red to start you off.

Seam ripper

Undo sewing machine mistakes with a seam ripper

Unfortunately you're bound to make mistakes when you first start sewing, so a seam ripper is useful. 

Also known as a Quick UN pick, it's a small hook with the blade at the bottom, that you push through the fabric to open up seams and buttonholes.

Sewing machine needles

Buy a multi-pack of sewing machine needles in different sizes so you'll have something for light, medium and heavy-weight fabrics.


There's no need to go out and buy a wide range of buttons. Remove the buttons from clothes that are too well worn to go to the charity shop, and keep the spare buttons that are supplied with new clothes.

Sewing box

Keep all your sewing gear together in a sewing box
It's useful to have somewhere to keep all your sewing stuff together.
It doesn't need to be a dedicated sewing box; a simple plastic food box is good enough to begin with. Keep the plastic protective cases from camera film for storing buttons.

Ironing board and iron

You won't get great results from your sewing machine if you work with crumpled fabric. Pressing your work as you go is the key to creating beautiful garments and soft furnishings.

Use an ironing board with a padded cover, a steam iron and if necessary a pressing cloth.

Sewing machine instruction booklet

If you use your sewing machine frequently, it's likely that you'll become familiar with all of its functions. But most people get their sewing machine out when they have a project to do and forget the details that help them get the best results.

Keep your sewing machine manual to hand when you're using it and refer to it the minute you encounter a problem. This will make sewing a more pleasurable experience and reduce the amount of frustrations you encounter.

Sewing books

Like the instruction booklet for your sewing machine, a good book on how to sew is absolutely essential.

You can buy shorter books that deal with subjects such as soft furnishings or dressmaking, but it's more than worthwhile investing in a book that covers every thing to begin with.

Look for a book with a guide to the parts of sewing machine, using and adapting patterns, how to use stitches, plus basic and advanced techniques.

You can often find these kinds of books in discount book stores, charity shops or at jumble sales. Your local library will also have a range of books on sewing.

Service the machine yourself. Getting your machine serviced? Try this help before you spend money.

Understanding your machine and how it works is helpful in doing your own repairs, but even if you have no knowledge of the mechanics, you can learn to spot problems that can be fixed quickly and easily, sometimes by just making a minor adjustment.

The machine itself: Most machines have small holes in various places for oiling purposes. Always keep your machine oiled and dust-free. If the machine has been unused for some time, clean and oil it well before beginning, then sew on scrap fabric until you are sure there is no oil leakage.

The needle: Your needle must be the proper size for each fabric type used. Choose a size 10 to 12 needle for lightweight fabrics such as lace and nylon. A size 14 needle is appropriate for most cottons and jerseys, but choose a size 16 for lightweight denim or thick fabrics. If you are experiencing needles which break during stitching, try going up a size with your needle. If your fabric pulls up as the needle goes up, switch to a needle which is a size smaller. If a change in needle size does not help the problem, take a moment to assure that the needle is as far up as possible before tightening the screw which holds the needle in place. Also, on most machines, the needle threads from left to right, so make sure of proper needle placement.

The thread: Thread should also be selected depending upon the type of fabric which will be sewn. Don't skimp when it comes to purchasing your thread, it's wise to select a good quality thread rather than experiencing difficulties with a less expensive choice. If, while sewing, you are experiencing thread which breaks, it's possible that you'll need a heavier weight of thread to continue.

The bobbin: Never hand-wind bobbins. Instead, use the accompanying bobbin winder which is attached to most machines. Winding bobbins by hand can cause a multitude of problems during sewing. In addition, bobbin casings must be oiled regularly to prevent problems with the bobbin turning properly. The bobbin, when inserted properly into the bobbin casing, should spin counter-clockwise when thread is pulled.

The tension: Your machine has a tension setting which must be adjusted for each fabric type that you sew. If you are experiencing fabric that "wads up" while sewing, loosen your tension, but only slightly, and then try sewing again. If it continues, loosen tension a little bit more. If you see stitches that rise up from the fabric, tighten the tension slightly. On most machines, loosening the tension is done by turning the tension knob to the left; tighten by turning slightly to the right. When using a semi industrial / heavy duty sewing machine best to keep high tension on the thread whilst you sew multiple layers.

Before beginning any sewing project, use a scrap piece of the same fabric that you will be sewing. To test the tension, needle and thread, sew a few stitches one way, turn and come back. Now, remove the scrap fabric and look at the stitches. If you can see holes which are larger than the thread, your needle is too large. If your stitches look pulled, lessen the tension. If your stitches seem loose, tighten the tension before beginning the sewing project. If the bottom stitches are all wadded up, it's likely that you don't have the machine threaded correctly.

A general rule of thumb is to adjust the top tension when having problems with the bottom thread and adjust the bobbin tension when experiencing problems with your top stitch. To adjust the bobbin tension, most machines have a small screw on the side of the bobbin casing. Turn slightly to the left to loosen bobbin thread, turn to the right to tighten.

When beginning to sew, hold the needle thread and the bobbin thread in one hand while guiding with the other. Don't pull, but hold taut. After a couple of good stitches, you can let go of the threads. Holding these threads during take-off prevents the thread from tangling and hanging up in the machine.

If the thread tangles in the bobbin casing during stitching, clip threads to remove fabric from under the needle. Open bobbin area and remove any loose or tangled threads. Even the tiniest piece of thread which has remained stuck in the bobbin casing can cause the machine to sew improperly. Check to see that the machine is threaded correctly and that the bobbin is inserted properly in the casing.

Following these few trouble-shooting tips, you should be able to make most minor repairs on the machine without professional assistance.

Happy sewing!!

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