How Sewing Machines Work (hint: it’s not magical gnomes)


For years, I just assumed that sewing machines were magical little boxes that worked because of the influence of tiny fantasy creatures (I called them “sewing gnomes”) running about inside. You know, like microwaves.

Then, one day (don’t ask how recently), I grew up and decided to find out how sewing machines work. So, there may not be any sewing gnomes involved, but I think the real way these babies churn out stitches is just as magical as what I imagined.

It can be a bit confusing to wrap your mind around the way they actually work… so I’m determined in this post to give you this information the fun way. As in, an easy-to-understand, pleasurable-to-read explanation of how sewing machines work. Sound too ambitious? Stick with me.

How Sewing Machines Work: The Stitch​

On my way to figure out how sewing machines work, I found out how they used to work, which is… not as well. Older machines used to use the “chain stitch,” which, if you know anything about it, you know that it’s pretty weak, and pulls out very easily. So easily, in fact, that the chain stitch is now employed by pet food bags so you can pull the stitch out easily to open the bag (Similar to seeing washed up actors doing insurance commercials. It's time to retire, chain stitch. You’re over the hill.)

Now, modern sewing machines are working with the “lock stitch” which is way stronger, and made using two separate threads interlocking with one another through a layer of fabric. This is why you need thread through the top needle of the machine, and thread down below the surface in the bobbin. More on that in a minute.

A Quick Sewing Machine History

Back to the past for a minute – sewing machine production really ramped up in the United States in the 1850s, when our country entered into the very tense and contentious “Sewing Machine War.” This war began when every company around made their own slightly different sewing machine, and then sued each other for copycatting.

Eventually, everyone chilled out a bit (and by everyone I mean Singer, Howe, Wheeler, Wilson, Grover, and everyone who was anyone back in the days of early machine sewing) and decided to work together to build the ultimate sewing machine experience. There is no “I” in sewing, right guys?

… But there is an “eye.” And a shank, shaft, point, groove, and scarf. And that’s just the needle. Which brings us to…

How Sewing Machines Work: The Anatomy

How Do Sewing Machines Work? Basic Sewing Machine Anatomy | Suzy Quilts

To get the specifics on your particular, beloved sewing machine, you may want to take a look at your handy dandy user’s manual. It may not be as fun and adorable as I am, but it will be complete and accurate (which, I know, is kind of important.)

All sewing machine have five main parts that work together to make the magic happen:​

  1. The Motor - The powerhouse behind all those moving parts, giving them the power to, you know, move​.
  2. The Belts - More than just accessories. All sewing machines have two, synchronized belts, powered by the motor. One belt moves both the rotary hook and the feed dogs, the other moves the needle. Now we’re really getting somewhere.
  3. The Rotary Hook - A rotating hook dwelling underneath the surface of your machine, whose purpose is to grab the needle’s thread loop, and carry it around until it catches the bobbin thread. It’s a pretty big deal.
  4. The Feed Dogs - Not as cute as real dogs, but just as life-essential. The feed dogs move forward and grab your fabric, pulling it through the sewing machine. Read more about feed dogs in my Free Motion Quilting tutorial.
  5. The Needle - Y’all know the needle. It’s the shiny, pointy thing that brings your thread down under the fabric, and carries it back up to pull the lock stitch tight. Most machines can use Universal Needles.

These five parts are the essential team that work together to get that thread locked-in. Modern, fancy sewing machines have a lot of extra features, giving you fun stitches, lights, computerized screens, and automatic button holes, but those things all go beyond the bare-bones of sewing. We may feel like we couldn’t live without them… but we probably could. Like, probably....I'm 50% sure. I automatic foot hover is basically essential....OK back on track!

P.S. If you have questions about buying a sewing machine, check out any of these great posts:

How Sewing Machines Work: Like Actually Work

Here it comes, everyone! This is how the five essential parts of the sewing machine actually work together to enhance our lives for the better. Spoiler Alert: it’s pretty mind-blowing.

As the motor moves the two belts, the needle carries a loop of thread down beneath the surface of your machine. This loop is picked up by the rotary hook, which carries it around the bobbin, capturing the thread on the bobbin reel (pause....absorb...ok keep going). As the needle rises into it’s highest position once again, the two threads hook up and lock around the layers of fabric, binding them together. And that’s it. Total genius right? 

How Do Sewing Machines Work? Basic Sewing Machine Anatomy | Suzy Quilts

(Gif cred: The Atlantic)

But, if you're like me, and the only way to truly understand is through the eyes of a gnome:

The needle gnome brings a loop of thread down into the underworld, where it passes it off to a spinning rotary hook gnome, who wraps it lovingly around the bobbin and its baby thread gnome. “Come with me into the light” says the needle gnome’s thread, and carries it up, giving it just a peek of the light through the fabric above.

Oh, this only makes sense to me? Okay, thanks for your honesty. Instead, check out these two visual explanations:

Amazingly Fun Video on How Sewing Machines Work!​

If you didn’t find this post quite fun enough, check out this great video and GIF that really make sewing machine operation come alive! One of them, I found on PBS Kids, so you know it’s good.​

Knowing how sewing machines work isn’t just useful in making you feel like a really cool, smart person, but it also gives you insight into why your sewing machine may stop working… which, let’s face it, happens to all of us sometimes. Hopefully, this post will help you become a pretty decent trouble-shooter, and help you work out some of the simple snags sewing can bring your way. Hope you had fun!

16 thoughts on “How Sewing Machines Work (hint: it’s not magical gnomes)

  1. Kathy says:

    Makes perfect sense, it’s magic! I will continue to believe that gnomes are doing the work, I’ll talk a little nicer to them next time. 🙂 How about irons, do you have a post that recommends a GOOD iron, one that actually works, doesn’t spit at me or create a lake on my ironing board…one that won’t shut off after 30 seconds, and of course…doesn’t cost a month’s mortgage? I’ve spent hundreds on the dang things and haven’t found a good reliable and HOT one yet. It’s soooooo frustrating! I would like gnomes to crawl into an iron and make it work right.

  2. Katie says:

    Soooo much fun to see the inner workings of the machine! Cool graphics!!!
    Wish my Bernina could see this so it would know how it is supposed to work!!!

  3. Lindsay Verwys says:

    Thank you! The video was 👌🏼
    Great post! Turning something boring into interesting is hard to do. Nailed it!

  4. Mary says:

    Wow, Suzy! NOW I get it. And I promise to be more patient with my BFF sewing machine the next time it doesn’t work so good. I can also show this to my little granddaughters. They like to sit on my lap and sew quilt pieces together and they want to know where the thread goes under that silver plate.

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