Sewing Machine Work Process

Whether you have a little experience using a sewing machine, or it’s your first time sitting down to sew, the chances are good that you’ve wondered about how a sewing machine works to create such even stitching. 

A hunger for understanding is an admirable trait useful for anyone aiming to master their craft. Luckily, you’ve found a comprehensive guide to the inner workings of the sewing machine.

Let’s face it – we tend to take things for granted, not least of all the clothes off our back. It might not always be at the forefront of our minds when we’re browsing the colorful rows of shirts and dresses at our local shopping mall. Still, it goes without saying our options would be much more limited without the development of the sewing machine. 

The sewing machine is one of the most important inventions in history. We wouldn’t exactly be ambling around naked without it, but there is no question that if it never came into being, making clothing (or blankets, curtains, etc.) would be as time tedious and time-intensive as it used to be in “ye olden” days. With the help of the sewing machine and the machines it inspired, we can make clothes at speeds of which we never before dreamed.

Old Sewing Machine

The art of sewing has come a long way over the years. Far gone are the days where we rely on hand stitching for the bulk of our sewing, although the ability to do a running stitch will always come in handy. That being said, we have since developed several different adaptations of the sewing machines that continue to improve over time. 

The invention of the sewing machine is an enigmatic one, insofar as we haven’t pinned down an exact inventor. Historians have estimated that the earliest sewing machines began cropping up in the middle of the 18th century by a German immigrant working in London by the name of Charles Weisenthal

Versions of the sewing machine continued to appear through the 19th century, although none had any real success until the middle of the century. There is plenty of dispute among historians around who invented the sewing machine that contained all the components of the modern device, but most Americans will tell you that it was Elias Howe in 1844. 

Today, we’re able to breeze through sewing projects completely hands-and-feet-free with the most modern versions of sewing machines available (although you can always still purchase machines with these features for a more ‘manual’ experience). 

Most modern sewing machines come equipped with what’s called speed control. Speed control is a user-friendly feature that allows a sewer to adjust the speed and set it to their desired sewing pace. (Think “cruise control on a car, but for your sewing machine! Neat, right?) We’ll come back to this later.

Considering all we’ve learned so far and what we might know so far about sewing, we’ve now come to the question: how does the sewing machine work? To get some answers, let’s first do some disassembling and look at each piece individually. Then, we’ll put them back together to see how they function. 

A sewing machine may seem like it’s a complicated device to understand, but its process of stitching is actually a lot simpler than it appears. While it does rely on an elaborate assembly of gears, pulleys, and levers to operate, the heart of the automated stitching device is relatively straightforward. 

Let’s break down each of the three main parts (plus a must-mention feature) individually, and then we’ll talk about how they work together as a dream-stitching team.

Needle Mechanism

The needle is the most recognizable part of the sewing machine, and influences how the stitch forms. It’s also the most changeable feature, which makes it easy to adjust depending on the width of the fabric. The needle controls one of the two threads needed to create a stitch, this one coming from the top of the machine.

Pro tip: It is recommended that you change your needle once you’ve gone through three bobbins.


The bobbin is the secret sidekick of the sewing machine. The bobbin is a round and flat spool of thread underneath where the needle enters the fabric. It is where you can find the second thread needed to form a stitch.

Pro tip: You can never have too many bobbins.

Bonus pro tip: Be sure you buy the bobbins specific to your machine.

Feed Dog

This part of the sewing machine is not only adorably-named (for its “teeth”), but it’s also essential to the functioning of the entire machine! It moves the fabric forward and up through the machine to ensure even stitching. If you notice that your stitching is a little unevenly spaced, there’s a chance there’s something up with your feed dog.

So, how do these individually mighty parts come together, Justice League-style, to work to create a stitch? I’ll break it down, step by step.

As we know, each of these three parts is pretty impressive all on their own, but when they’re brought together, the real magic of sewing starts to unfold! 

It all starts with the needle mechanism. A system of cranks and wheels connects the needle to the motor (the beating heart of the sewing machine). As the motor turns, the crank drives the needle and thread up and down into the fabric. All the while, the feed dog works to “feed” the material to the machine.

The hook catches the thread from the upper needle on the rotating bobbin. It then continues its journey and threads through the loop made by the lower spool and voila: it creates one continuous stitch. 

You can control the speed with which your fabric is moved through and stitched manually if your machine features a foot pedal. If your machine comes with a built-in speed controller, you can set it to the ideal pace. Let’s learn a little bit more about how speed control works on a sewing machine.

How Sewing Machine Works

Speed control, like sewing machines themselves, has made some improvements over time. A simple hand-crank powered the first version of speed control. The hand crank has since become all but obsolete unless you’re aiming for an antique aesthetic (which is a notably cool aesthetic), and it led to the invention of the foot pedal, progressing sewing speeds even further.

To use a foot pedal, in the olden days called a treadle sewing machine, you apply pressure with your foot (shock!) to a pedal (awe!) connected to the machine that controls the speed with which the machine operates. Some sewing machines still are or can be operated by foot pedal, although not many. Since, you’ll remember, many modern sewing machines come with a speed control device built-in.

Most machines (but not all) have a speed control built-in which allows the sewer to choose the right speed for them and their project. The adjustable speed controller is super user-friendly and generally can be found on the machine as a slide or a dial. The ability to set your speed is a very cool feature that allows users to focus on the project and is very useful in general, especially for new sewers.

Now that you have a better understanding about where sewing machines have come from and how they work, you might be interested in purchasing one. Whether it’s your first sewing machine or a replacement, there are a few discerning factors you should consider when sewing machine shopping.

What you’ve learned so far should arm you with some questions to have answered about a potential machine, such as: what kind of speed control does it have? Some other questions that you might want to be answered could be:

  • What sort of accessories are featured with this sewing machine? 
  • What styles of stitching can it produce? (Hint: do some quick research to find out which you might want to try.)
  • What is it made out of?

All are important questions to consider when selecting a sewing machine. 

We’ve learned a lot of amazing things about sewing machines today. We answered more questions than: what does a sewing machine do? We learned that nobody knows for sure who invented them, but that it happened in the 1800s. We learned how some of its intricate parts work together to create that perfect satisfying stitch. We even learned a little bit about speed control and what sorts of things to think about if you’re shopping for a sewing machine.

Above all, I hope you’ve gained an even more in-depth understanding of sewing as more than just a way to pass the time. The invention and development of the sewing machine changed the way the world can dress, decorate their house, stay warm.

Stephanie Green

Stephanie Green

I fell in love with sewing eight years ago after stumbling on Etsy and being fascinated by seeing all the creative projects hobbyists were able to make in their spare time. I think part of my interest is that sewing seemed like such an old-fashioned activity, and yet so many young people enjoyed it.

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