Sewing Terms for Beginners: Sewing Machine Parts and Stitches

One of the hardest things about learning to sew, in my humble opinion, is understanding the terminology!  It is very helpful to understand sewing terms for beginners, when getting started.

Sewing patterns and tutorials use sewing terms in their instructions, to help guide you through a project.  It is difficult to describe a sewing project without doing so...I've tried!  Once you know these terms and use them often, it becomes second nature.  But until you know them, it can be quite confusing!

Join me to review some common sewing machine based sewing terms for beginners, to get you started on the right foot...pun intended ; )

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Sewing Machine Parts:

Every sewing machine is unique and has different features located in different areas of the machine.  However, most machines have universal symbols and placement of common features and tools.  Thank goodness!

As always, check your machine's instruction manual for specifics about your particular make and model.  Luckily, there is a fair amount of standard terminology used for equipment.

The machine pictured in this post is my beloved Brother cs6000i.  I love this machine!  See my post Sewing Machine Basics: Choosing a Machine for Beginners if you want to learn more about her and her features.

Sewing machine bobbins
Bobbins, wound with thread
  • Bobbin- a short, round plastic or metal spool, which gets wound with thread and feeds bottom thread up thru the machine.  There are different sized bobbins, check what your machine uses.
  • Bobbin case- a compartment found in the area below the presser foot and feed dogs, that holds the bobbin in place.  Bobbins are either drop-in or front-feed by machine type.  My machine has a drop-in bobbin, and I highly recommend this version!
  • Feed dogs- serrated metal bars on the bed of a sewing machine, that feed fabric through the machine under the presser foot. Controls the length of the stitch.
  • Food pedal- a pedal which is attached to sewing machine, controlled with your foot. The needle moves when the pedal is pressed.
Feed Dogs
Feed dogs, under presser foot, on throat plate of sewing machine
Free arm of sewing machine
Free arm of sewing machine
  • Free arm- a feature offered on some machines.  Created by removing a plastic section on the machine base to reveal a smaller arm, or peninsula, which is used to navigate tight areas like pant leg openings.
  • Hand wheel- round wheel found to the right of the machine, which controls the vertical movement of the sewing machine needle.  Used to raise and lower needle.
Hand wheel of sewing machine
Hand wheel
Presser foot lever
Presser foot lever
  • Presser foot- a foot which uses pressure to hold the fabric in place, as it feeds through the machine and feed dogs.  Different presser feet are sometimes used for different stitches and functions on a machine.  Refer to machine instruction manual.
  • Presser foot lever- a lever found to the right of, or behind the presser foot.   Used to raise and lower the presser foot.
  • Spool pin- a small rod or pin found on the top of a sewing machine, that holds the spool of thread keeping it in place.
  • Bobbin winder- another pin found on top of machine near spool pin, used to wind bobbins with thread.  Refer to machine instruction manual for specific instructions.
Spool pin of sewing machine
Spool pin holding spool of thread behind bobbin winder apparatus
Tension control of sewing machine
Tension control wheel
  • Stitch length- the length of a stitch, determined by machine setting and feed dogs.  Measured by the number of stitches per inch and varies by machine.
  • Tension- the amount of tension, or pinch, applied to the thread as it flows through the sewing machine.  Adjustable for thread and fabric variations.  Refer to machine instruction manual.
  • Tension control- adjustable dial controlling the amount of pressure applied to the thread in the machine. The method by which level of tension is adjusted.
  • Thread cutter- cutting device found to the left of the sewing machine needle, used to cut thread after seam is sewn.  Not found on all machines.
Thread cutter of sewing machine
Thread cutter on side of machine
Throat plate
Throat plate of machine
  • Thread guides- mechanisms used to guide thread from spool to the needle.  Slightly different on every machine.
  • Throat plate- plastic or metal part of machine located under the presser foot that holds/protects the bobbin case.

Sewing Machine Stitches:

Below, you will find the most commonly used stitches that I have used in my sewing journey.  Are there more?  Absolutely!

But you don't need to know most of them as you are getting started.  I would say, that even after MANY projects and years of sewing, 90% of the time I use a straight stitch.

Back Stitch

Several reverse machine stitches.  Often used at the beginning and the end of a seam, to secure the stitch from unraveling.  In general, this should be done with straight stitch and zig-zag stitches.

Blind Hem Stitch

A sewing stitch, often used in hems, that is not meant to be seen on the right side of the fabric.  This stitch is offered on some machines and may require a specialty presser foot attachment.  I love using this stich for drapery, bed skirts and slipcovers.  It creates a really clean, professional looking hem.

Blind Hem Stitch
Blind Hem Stitch, wrong side of fabric
Blind Hem Stitch
Blind Hem Stitch, finished side of fabric

Zig-zag Stitch

A common "Z" shaped sewing machine stitch. This is often used to sew a stretch seam in certain fabrics and to finish raw edges or attach applique.  It can also be used as a decorative stitch or topstitch.

Satin Stitch

A tight zig-zag stitch offered on most machines.  If not offered on your machine, this stitch can be made by converting a regular zig-zag stitch.  This is done by setting the zig-zag stitch length to near zero, resulting in a very tight zig-zag or satin stitch.

Straight Stitch

The most basic sewing machine stitch, creating a row of single stitches in a straight row.  The length can be adjusted by machine settings.

Basting Stitch

Temporary stitches that hold a seam in place before permanent stitches are placed.  Most often sewn with a long stitch length and no back stitching, so that the stitches are easily removed once permanent stitchs are in place.

Basic sewing stiches

Serger or Overlock Machine

As a beginner, one sewing term you may not be familiar with is "serger" or a "serged seam".

A serger is a specialty sewing machine used to trim, seam and case loop threads over the raw edge of fabric.  This finishes the edge to prevent fraying and unraveling, creating what is called a serged seam.  I also have a Brother serger and use it WAY more often than I thought I would, when I was gifted it by my awesome mom several years ago.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post on Sergers, what they are used for, and why they are great.

Specialty Presser Feet (just a few):

Specialty presser feet are not usually mentioned when reviewing sewing terms for beginners.  However, some of these feet are referenced frequently in sewing posts, patterns and tutorials.  I think it is helpful to have a general idea of what these feet are used for and what they look like.

It is also important to know that different machines and brands have their "own" presser feet.  I have had good luck ordering "universal" feet for my Brother machine.  I recommend you check your machine's instruction manual to see what the options are for your machine.

Walking/Feed Foot

Walking foot Presser Foot
Walking/ Even feed foot

A specialty sewing machine presser foot that steps or “walks” across the fabric surface, instead of sliding.  This helps produce an even feed and is also known as a feed foot.

Zipper Foot

A specialty sewing machine presser foot used for inserting zippers.  This foot allows the needle to sew on either side of the foot and very closely to the zipper teeth.  I also use this foot for attaching decorative piping to projects, with very good results.

Zipper foot
Zipper foot

Free Motion Quilting/ Darning Foot

Darning/Free motion quilting foot
Free Motion Quilting/Darning Foot

A specialty presser foot which is used for free motion quilting.  This foot allows the fabric to move freely, by the quilters hands, while pedaling through stitches.  This is an advanced skill, requiring a fair amount of practice for good results.

I have NOT mastered this skill and obviously need more practice.

I hope this has helped provide a foundation for the sewing machine terms you need to know.  I found a helpful, comprehensive post titled Glossary of Sewing Terms on the National Sewing Circle Blog, if you are looking to learn more right now!

Obviously, there is plenty more to learn in the months and years ahead!  Don't let perfect be the enemy of good.  Get started and learn as you go...that's what I did and it turned out ok.

If you found this helpful, also check out my post Sewing Terms & Techniques: A Helpful Reference For Beginners, for an A to Z review of common sewing terms & techniques.

Be safe & stay well,

Jen J