Sewing 101: Your Guide to Top Brands, Machines, Stitches, Needles, and More
Using a sewing machine can be daunting for beginners. Between different brands and machines, as well as the many varying types of tools and accessories, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
This article is a comprehensive guide to sewing. We're going to cover the most popular brands, the different types of sewing machines, types of stitches, needles, threads, bobbins and even some patterns.
Whether you’re looking for the right type of machine to purchase, are unsure of which needle and thread are right for your project, or need a fun pattern to get started with, we’ve got you covered.
If you want to jump to a specific section you can use the guide below.
Top Sewing Machine Brands
There are numerous sewing machine brands out there, but a few stand apart from the rest.
Brother, Singer, and Janome are the leading names in sewing today, with a wide range of available machines for many purposes.
Praised for functionality, reliability, and innovation, these brands all have something special to offer.
Brother International Corporation is a brand of home and business products that has been operating since 1954. Brother offers one of the widest selections of sewing and embroidery machines around, with an extensive number of machines for any sewing need.
Brother has several categories of home sewing machines, including:
- Standard sewing
- Sewing and embroidery combination
Brother frequently develops new sewing machine models in order to keep up with new and innovative technology. Additions including Quick-Set™ bobbin, Automatic Height Adjuster™, and My Custom Stitch™ are exclusive to the Brother brand, putting the company at the forefront of the sewing machine industry.
If you'd like to see some reviews on Brother sewing machines you can see them here.
The Singer brand is entirely dedicated to sewing products and was established in 1851 when Isaac Singer patented the first-ever practical sewing machine. Today, the brand is known for their reliable, classically-designed machines.
Singer sells electronic and mechanical sewing machines as well as sergers and embroidery machines. The brand’s product range has something for everyone with basic models for utility needs, advanced machines with high-tech features, and everything in between.
Mechanical sewing machines can be tricky to find nowadays--most popular models are computerized with as many technical features as possible. However, the Singer brand still values the exceptional durability that mechanical machines offer by including several mechanical models in their current product lineup.
If you want to see some reviews on specific Singer sewing machines you can view them here.
Janome remains at the head of the sewing machine industry by making innovation a priority in their products.
Being the first brand to release a computerized home sewing machine in 1979 and a long-arm home quilting machine in 2003, Janome’s cutting-edge technology is remarkable.
The current leading Janome sewing machine is the Horizon Memory Craft 15000, and it’s the first wireless-enabled sewing machine ever released.
This gives sewers the option to use their iPad or PC to send designs or oversee stitches on their sewing machine.
Janome’s current product lineup includes 14 models of sewing, embroidery, and quilting machines, as well as a few sergers.
This brand’s selection of products is smaller because each model is highly modernized, including more advanced technology than the machines that came before.
When you purchase a Janome model, you’re getting the highest level of innovation currently available in a sewing machine.
Our Janome sewing machine reviews are on our review page, here.
Types of Sewing Machines
In order to start machine sewing, finding the perfect machine for you is key. There are all types of machines out there that cater to different needs, from basic utility sewing to quilting and embroidery.
When it comes to sewing machines, there are three main categories: mechanical, electronic, and computerized.
Mechanical sewing machines have been around longer than both computerized and electronic machines.
These machines require “hands on” adjustments using dials, knobs, and levers.
Instead of pushing a button to achieve a certain stitch length, for example, you’ll rotate a dial to the desired measurement.
Mechanical machines are more old-fashioned in functionality than computerized and electronic machines, often producing less exact results.
However, the simple features of a mechanical machine are often great for beginners. Also, mechanical machines are generally the most affordable type of sewing machine that you can purchase.
Electronic sewing machines have stitch options that are chosen electronically using push buttons, an LCD screen, or both. Stitch length and width specifications, needle position, and other settings can be set quite precisely on an electronic machine, although they are more expensive than mechanical models.
Computerized sewing machines are the most high-end machines available. The general functionality is the same as an electronic machine, but computerized machines can perform embroidery in addition to utility and decorative stitches.
Computerized machines are the most expensive models but also offer the widest range of advanced features.
Features and Specifications
Beyond the basic sewing machine categories, sewing machines differ in the features they offer. These features make a big difference in how the machine operates and will greatly impact which machine is the right fit for you. Consider these common sewing machine features:
- Automatic needle threader: If you often strain your eyes when struggling to get your thread through the eye of a needle, then look for a machine with an automatic needle threader. This feature does the work for you, getting your machine ready to go quickly.
- LCD screen: Electronic and computerized machines often have a built-in LCD screen for making accurate stitch adjustments.
- Free arm: Cylindrical pieces for garment construction, including collars, cuffs, and pant hems, can be tricky to maneuver. That’s why many sewing machines have a built-in free arm, which separates the layers of these pieces for more convenient stitching.
- Built-in light: While you’re sewing, you need to be able to see small, detailed stitches with clarity. Some machines have a built-in light bulb to illuminate your workspace, no matter what the light conditions in the room are.
- Sewing speed: You’ll often see sewing machines advertise the ability to sew a certain number of stitches per minute. Most machines intended for at-home use have a sewing speed of under 1,000 stitches per minute; heavy-duty machines generally have a speed of over 1,000 stitches per minute.
- Foot control vs. stop/start button: Sewing machines are traditionally controlled with a foot pedal. You press on the pedal with the right amount of pressure for how quickly you want to sew. Modern machines often also have a stop/start push button, granting you the option to operate the machine manually.
Types of Stitches
Stitches are, of course, an extremely important element of machine sewing. Machines come with varying selections of stitches; while one model may have 10 built-in stitches, another could have a selection of 150 stitches.
It’s crucial to note that when it comes to stitches, more is not always better. If you’re only purchasing a sewing machine for basic projects and won’t make use of over 100 stitches, (many of which would be decorative), then you’ll be better off with a smaller stitch selection.
Utility stitches are basic stitches that are used for the majority of at-home projects, like straightforward repairs and construction. When a machine has a limited selection of stitches, it likely only includes utility stitches, such as:
- Straight stitch: This stitch is the most basic machine sewing stitch. It creates a line of straight, identical stitches. Use it for any basic project.
- Double needle stitch: This stitch creates two rows of straight stitches using two needles.
- Basting stitch: Basting is a technique that’s used to keep fabric in place temporarily, usually for gathering or when tailoring a piece of clothing. Sewing machines often include a basic stitch so that you don’t have to do it by hand.
- Locking/tacking stitch: When you want to knot off the end of a row of stitches, use a locking stitch, (also called a tacking stitch). It will automatically end the row with a hidden knot. There is also often a stitch option that will automatically tie off the stitch at the beginning and end of a row.
- Zigzag stitch: The zigzag stitch can serve several purposes: to provide additional give in a seam for stretch materials, to easily finish off raw edges, and to span a larger area of fabric when attaching trims or appliques. Zigzag stitches can also be used for satin stitching because rows of stitches are aligned close together.
- Overcasting stitch: An overcasting stitch is used to finish the edge of a fabric neatly.
- Blind hem stitch: As you’ve probably guessed, a blind hem stitch is used to create a blind hem, which is when two pieces of material are sewn together to create a seam that can’t be seen from the front.
- Knit stitch: When finishing edges using knit fabrics, use this stitch to handle the stretchiness of the material more easily.
- Stretch stitch: You can use a stretch stitch for general sewing with stretch materials. Using either the stretch stitch or the knit stitch keeps seams from popping or becoming wavy.
- Triple stretch stitch: When you need a stronger stitch for stretch fabrics, you can use a triple stretch stitch, which creates three rows of stitches that alternate going forward and backward for added durability.
Another type of stitch that you’ll find built into most modern sewing machines is a buttonhole stitch. To make the process of creating a buttonhole simpler, many machines include several stitch choices, such as:
- Automatic buttonhole: With an automatic buttonhole stitch, just input the size of your button into the machine--it will create a perfectly sized buttonhole on its own.
- Basic buttonhole: Use this stitch to create a buttonhole with squared-off ends.
- Rounded buttonhole: As the name suggests, this stitch will create a buttonhole with rounded ends. It’s typically used for thin, delicate materials.
- Keyhole buttonhole: A keyhole buttonhole has one end that’s rounded end and one end that’s square. This type of buttonhole has more width when opened to accommodate big buttons.
- Knit buttonhole: This stitch is specifically for use with knits.
- Stretch buttonhole: This buttonhole will have fairly open stitches for use on stretchy materials.
In addition to buttonhole stitches, many machines include a button stitch. This stitch goes through the holes of a button to secure it in place. You’ll typically need a button sewing foot to perform this stitch.
When you see a sewing machine that has hundreds of built-in stitches, the odds are that many of those options will be decorative stitches. Decorative stitches are intended to add extra flair to your projects and come in many varieties. You’ll see stitches that create decorative hems, flowers, scrolls, borders, hearts, etc.
Satin stitches are another way to add visual interest to your projects. These stitches are sewn tightly together for a look that’s similar to embroidery, creating designs like scallops, zigzags, diamonds, and more.
Types of Sewing Needles
Selecting the right type of needle to use is essential for successful machine sewing. There are multiple kinds of sewing needles available for use with different types of materials. Make sure to select the appropriate needle for the fabric you’re sewing; otherwise, you may end up with sloppy stitching or even damaged material.
- Universal point needle: A universal point needle is great for use on a variety of projects, including those using knit or woven fabrics. Sewing machines generally have this type of needle included in the box.
- Ballpoint needle: Specifically intended for use with knit fabrics, ballpoint needles have a rounded point. This ensures that the tip won’t get snagged or caught on knit materials.
- Sharp point needle: Use sharp point needles to work through materials that are closely woven, to complete topstitching projects, and to create exceptionally precise stitches.
- Denim/jeans needle: Use a denim needle, (also called a jeans needle), to sew through thick, heavy-duty materials. This type of needle has a reinforced blade to go through heavy materials cleanly.
- Stretch needle: Stretch needles are intended for use with elastic and extra stretchy materials such as spandex.
- Twin needle: You can make two rows of stitches at the same time using a twin needle, which is two connected needles. Make sure to use a twin needle that spans an appropriate distance for your machine’s stitch plate.
- Topstitch needle: A topstitch needle has an eye with additional length for straight, precise stitching no matter what type of thread you’re using.
- Metallic needle: Since metallic thread can become brittle and break easily, you need to use a specific metallic needle when working with this specialty thread.
- Embroidery needle: Embroidery needles have an extra large eye to ensure that embroidery thread doesn’t knot or tangle.
- Quilting needle: Quilts have added thickness and require a special type of needle, which has a somewhat rounded point and tapered body.
- Leather needle: It’s important to use this special type of needle whenever you’re sewing leather so that you don’t damage or make holes in the material.
Types of Thread
Once you’ve found the perfect needle for a project, you’ll also need the right type of thread. Thread comes in countless varieties, each differing in material, construction process, color, etc. These are the main categories of thread for sewing machines:
- All-purpose: You’ll likely use all-purpose thread for the majority of your projects. It’s made of either polyester or polyester wrapped in cotton for durability with some flexibility.
- Heavy duty: Sometimes called upholstery thread, heavy duty thread is made entirely of polyester. It’s great for use with thick or heavy fabrics like leather, canvas, vinyl, or upholstery fabric.
- Invisible: Invisible thread is used to create stitches that blend into the fabric, but it can be tricky to use and may gradually lose its elasticity. It’s constructed of polyester or nylon; note that nylon can melt when exposed to extreme heat, (i.e. an iron).
- Metallic: Metallic thread is used to achieve a beautiful visual effect because of its shine. However, it tends to break more easily than other types of thread.
- Cotton: Cotton thread has no pliancy, creating a smooth, satiny look. It can be used for many types of basic projects but shouldn’t be used with knit materials.
- Silk: Due to its thinness, flexibility, and ability to not leave holes in fabric, silk thread is an excellent choice for basting and embroidery. It’s also a good choice when working with silk and wool fabrics.
- Elastic: For shirring and smocking, you can use elastic thread, which simply has a thin, elastic center.
- Quilting: Quilting thread for machine use is made entirely of cotton. It has great strength and shine.
- Embroidery: Made of either polyester or rayon, machine embroidery thread is great for decorative purposes but shouldn’t be used for practical projects, such as clothing construction.
- Topstitch: Topstitch thread is thicker than other thread types and is made of either polyester surrounded by cotton or heavy-duty polyester. It’s generally used for decorative stitches and seams and must be used with a large topstitching needle.
When selecting a thread for machine sewing, double check to make sure that you’re not accidentally purchasing a hand sewing thread. Thread for hand sewing, hand quilting, and hand embroidery are constructed differently than thread intended for machine use and could ruin your project.
It’s worth it to spend a little extra money and purchase high-quality thread instead of a less expensive alternative. Cheap thread will break easily and you’ll end up going through more spools of thread than you would with a slightly pricier, but well made, option.
Choose a thread that matches the color of the fabric you’re using. When you’re unable to get a thread that matches, choose one that’s slightly darker over one that’s lighter in color; dark thread will be less noticeable.
The bobbin is yet another crucial component to machine sewing. It’s a small spool that holds thread for the machine to use for certain types of stitches.
The bobbin must be wound with thread before it’s set into a sewing machine. Sewing machines usually have either a push/pull bobbin winder or an automatic declutch winder. With both of these setups, you’ll use a foot pedal to control the winding of thread onto the bobbin; the difference is:
- Push/pull bobbin winder: Before winding the bobbin, you’ll push the winding pin to the right to lock it. Once the bobbin is fully wound, pull it back to the left.
- Automatic declutch bobbin winder: An automatic declutch bobbin winder provides the safety of preventing the needle from moving while the bobbin is being wound. It will also automatically stop once the bobbin is fully wound with thread.
When sewers run into trouble with their machines, it’s often because of the bobbin. Check out these tips to prevent bobbin-related issues:
- Make sure you’re using the right type of bobbin for your machine. The size and material of the bobbin can drastically affect the machine’s tension settings and the quality of the stitches it produces.
- Be conscientious when setting your bobbin. Sewing machines are designed for the bobbin to spin in a certain direction, so check the manual before you start.
- Be sure not to overfill the bobbin with thread, as doing so can cause a number of issues in the bobbin compartment.
- Always have extra bobbins on hand. You’ll need more than you think since different projects often require different types of thread.
- Any form of damage to a bobbin can throw off your machine’s functionality. If you accidentally drop a bobbin, check it for dents or other issues before using it.
Tension is another element of machine sewing that can cause trouble for sewers. When your machine’s tension is off, you’ll be able to tell because the thread will pucker, create loops, and just generally create sloppy stitches.
Setting your machine up correctly can help prevent tension issues. When you’re threading the machine, keep the presser foot in the up position. Set the spool in place, unwind about a foot and a half of thread, and pull it taut. Then, you can just click the thread into the tension disks.
Your machine’s tension regulator controls the distance between the tension disks. When the disks are closer together, the tension level is higher. When they’re further apart, the tension is lower.
Dust accumulation can also throw off your machine’s tension, so be sure to use a cover when it’s not in use.
If you’re noticing thread loops on the top side of your fabric, or the “right” side, it means that the upper thread tension is set too tightly. If the loops are on the underside of the fabric, the thread on the bobbin is too tight.
The upper thread can be adjusted using a tension dial or buttons, depending on the machine. To find the right tension setting, use a scrap of spare fabric and test different levels, only going up or down by a single notch. You’ve reached the correct tension setting when the stitches come out smooth, neat, and even on both sides of the fabric.
Adjusting the bobbin thread tension is somewhat complicated and should only be attempted after adjusting the upper thread tension. If your machine has bottom loading bobbin, you’ll need to remove the bobbin case and tighten or loosen the tension screw at the side of the case. For machines with top loading bobbin, you’ll have to find the screw within the machine, which is a bit trickier.
To determine whether the bobbin thread tension is too tight or too loose, simply pull the thread from the bobbin case. If it’s too tight, the thread won’t unwind when you pull it; if it’s too loose, it will unwind easily. You’re aiming for the thread to fall only a couple of inches from the bobbin case.
For both top and bottom loading bobbin machines, you’ll adjust the tension by using a screwdriver to turn the tension screw approximately a quarter of a rotation at a time. Turn the screw to the right to increase the tension and to the left to decrease the tension.
So, you’ve got a new sewing machine and are looking to start that first project. Wondering where to begin? Starting with a sewing pattern is an awesome way to complete all types of projects, from handmade garments to accessories and more.
There’s an abundance of sources for sewing patterns out there, mainly including craft or sewing stores and online resources. Most patterns must be purchased, but there are some free patterns available on websites like AllCrafts.
Stores like Joann and Michaels have sewing patterns available for sale, both online and in-store. Sewing patterns from these retailers are very affordable, ranging in price from around $7 to $15.
Craft stores also offer a large variety of patterns; you’ll be able to find options for adults’ and children’s clothing, costumes, and accessories.
Etsy is also an incredible source for sewing patterns, with new products getting posted all the time. Etsy offers a huge assortment of patterns from an enormous collection of sellers, so you’ll be able to find more variety than you would in retail stores.
In addition to many types of garments, you can purchase patterns for stuffed toys, slippers, bags, home accessories, and more.
Look around at the many sewing, crafting, and DIY blogs on the Internet today for awesome project ideas and printable patterns. You’ll always be able to find a fun new project to work on.
Machine sewing may not be self-explanatory, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn the skill quickly! In addition to all the tips and tricks listed above, be sure to read over your machine’s manual--every machine is built differently and will need varying adjustments. With all of this information to guide you, you’ll be sewing away on a project in no time.