How do you start sewing if you never have? Excellent question, and though I learned to sew from my mother, I did let it lapse for several years at a time and would have to pick it up again. So I haven't started completely from zero, but I have pulled a dusty old machine out of the closet and started back up again, so I think I can use pieces of that experience to help.
If you have an old sewing machine...
If you have a local dealer of a sewing store available, ask them to look it over before you spend a lot of time and frustration figuring out if it works or need repair. Of course, that assumes you have a place to take it. If you don't, assess the very basic. Does it have power? Does the motor run? Does the foot controller seem to control the speed of the machine? If it passes these basic tests and hasn't smoked or caught fire, see if you have the manual. The manual is invaluable for making sure you thread the machine correctly and that the bobbin is wound and inserted correctly. If you don't, check the website of the manufacturer to see if they have one available online or if you can order a replacement. You will also find a number of websites that will provide or sell you old sewing machine manuals for your model.
You will also want a new needle for the machine. (Depending on where you got the machine, I would probably just order new to ensure that they really are new needles- you never know if that pack of needles with the machine has been used or not). You also want good sewing thread. The thread that comes in that hotel sewing kit is not going to cut it, but thread that a sewing store carries is fine. Just make sure you buy just regular sewing thread, usually called all purpose thread. You don't want embroidery thread, upholstery thread or heavy duty thread.
It never hurts to use a can of compressed air and blow out the bobbin area, especially. There can be a lot of lint built up down there. New bobbins are probably a good investment as well. The old ones could be bent or nicked.
If you are buying a new machine...
I am not partial to a particular brand of machine. To be honest, I'm suspicious many machines are manufactured by the same factories in Asia and branded after manufacture- thus why your owner's manual may not have any brand specific information printed on it. I do think it is important to buy one from a local dealer. Then if you have questions or problems, you have someone to ask. I know Target, Sears and other department stores carry sewing machines. My only hesitation is if you have a sewing question, I doubt anyone there will be able to help you. If that is your only choice, I don't think it is an inherently bad one. But it would be very helpful if you had a friend that could start you in the right direction.
What to select on a sewing machine? Well, it's easy to be tempted by all the bells and whistles offered on machines (which, of course, raises the price), but honestly, I only use a straight stitch, a zig zag stitch and a buttonhole stitch. I did once buy a really inexpensive machine that didn't let you adjust the stitch width on the zig zag stitch, but even that wasn't the end of the world. If you are a fan of embroidery, then all by means, look at the machines with embroidery features. But you may find that you embroider things like crazy for a week and then never use it again. Or even worse, never spend the time to learn the embroidery features at all. Sewing machine manufactures love to upgrade you to a more expensive machine by adding more stitches, more LED screens, more feet, more of everything. But again, if you are a "straight sewer" (as opposed to a decorative stitcher), you won't use most of those features. So, if you are going to be sewing apparel and fashion or home accessories, just make sure that the machine allows you to adjust your stitch length, that it has a zig zag stitch and adjustable stitch width, a buttonhole stitch, and a zipper foot.
Prepare the machine...
Perform the following steps, using your sewing machine manual as a guide:
1. Insert a new needle. Home sewing machine needles have a flat edge on the top third, which the manual will tell you where to position that so the needle is inserted properly.
2. Wind a new bobbin. Winding the bobbin is pretty straight forward, just don't overfill it so it is larger than the bobbin case.
3. Insert the bobbin correctly. When inserting the bobbin, the direction the thread comes off the bobbin is very important and the manual will tell you which way it should go. The bobbin thread might also have a "hook" that the thread goes through before being pulled up through the thread plate. (You might just drop the bobbin into the machine, or you may have a metal case that you put the bobbin into and then you click the bobbin case into place in the machine.)
4. Re-thread the machine. Follow the manual and make sure the thread actually goes through all the holes and slots it needs to. For example, you want to make sure the thread passes through the tension knob and through the eye on the thread takeup lever.
5. Find the tension adjustment knob and set it to halfway between its maximum and minimum. You can fine tune it later, but if the machine has not been used for awhile, it is likely that the tension got bumped to a crazy loose or tight tension.
6. Holding the upper thread in your left hand, use your right hand to roll the balance wheel (the knob on the right side of the machine) towards you. As the needle descends into the throat plate and then comes back out, the bobbin thread should come up with it. (If not, your bobbin may not be in correctly or you didn't leave enough length of thread extending from the bobbin.)
Now to the sewing...
A sewing machine is like any other machine-- it takes practice to learn to use it. Controlling the speed with your foot, feeding the fabric straight, keeping the threads under control, all get easier the more you do it.
Practice sewing on some scrap pieces of woven fabric. Don't pick a stretchy fabric or a particularly thick or thin fabric. Use two pieces of fabric because it is difficult to get the tension correct with just one. (You want to imitate actual sewing conditions as much as possible.)
To start stitching, hold the ends of the threads as you start sewing, or if the sewing machine has a thread cutter, use it to hold the thread as you start. Start slowly, but consistently. Remember that the sewing machine is just looping threads together under tension, so if your threads aren't held by anything or your speed is crazy fast or slow, it is hard for it to create the tension for the first stitch and it just goes downhill from there. The problem you can run into at the beginning are the stitches not forming at all or the stitches form, but you have a little bird's nest on the bottom of your fabric.
As a beginner, don't attempt to backstitch (using the reverse feature on your machine) until you have gotten starting your stitching under control. When you become more comfortable, you will stitch a little forward, then a little backward, at the beginning and end of your seam to secure your stitching.
Use your hands as a guide for the fabric. The fabric should feed through the machine on its own, so you don't want to push it. Just use your hands to ensure the fabric feeds through the machine straight.
Problems (or Geez, this isn't working at all)...
If you have followed the procedures above and are having trouble, don't panic, it might be the machine. Especially if you were starting with an old machine, there is nothing that says it worked when it was put away. This is where a friend that sews or a local sewing machine dealer can come in very handy.
The problems I have most often include:
- I didn't load my bobbin correctly.
- The thread is breaking as I sew because it keeps getting caught on the nick on the thread spool. Turn the spool around or use a the larger plastic "thingy" (a technical term) that holds the spool on.
- I've got cut threads or other detritus in the bobbin.
- I'm really bad about changing my needle. Don't be that person. A dull or bent needle can cause all sorts of unpredictable behavior.
I found some websites that have information for the beginning sewer.
Quamut.com has a great diagram and basic information about sewing machines here. Other pages on their site cover winding a bobbin and threading a machine.
About.com has a good "Sewing 101" page with links to specific sewing techniques here.
A good book for the beginning sewer looking for easy but cool projects is Amy Karol's Bend the Rules Sewing.
A good book about selecting a sewing machine is The Sewing Machine Guide, Tips on Choosing, Buying and Refurbishing by John Giordano. It is still available on Random House's website or you can buy it used at Amazon.com