Sewing Machine Jargon Buster - A to Z

We could have produced a Nobel Prize winning novel about this, but thought it best to try and keep things as concise as possible.

The jargon buster has been compiled with an emphasis on frequently asked questions but also on the assumption that the reader has zero knowledge about sewing machines.

The presser feet detailed are generally supplied as standard with most sewing machines, but this will vary depending on each individual make and model of machine.

See also: Sewing Machine Buyer's Guide


Machines with an alphabet will sew lettering stitches on to craft projects, and are often used for sewing your name onto quilts or labelling clothes.

The size of the lettering and choice of font will vary depending on the make and model machine.

Auto Lock Stitch (auto tie off)

Most digital (computerised) machines have this facility. At the touch of a button, a tiny knot is sewn at the start and end of the seam.

Auto Thread Trimmer

Feature that's generally found on middle range to high end machines. By touching a button, the thread tails are neatly trimmed and tied off at the end of sewing a seam.

Auto Tension – Universal Tension

A term generally used to describe the machine's upper thread tension being trouble free. 

Ideally, the tension should only require altering for special effects such as gathering or to produce loose basting / tacking stitches, or where unusual threads are being used. 

For normal sewing, using a quality thread and correct needle type and size, a good machine will sew most delicate fabrics up to heavyweight without having to change the tension.


Using the reverse stitch facility to make a few stitches to secure the seam at the beginning and end. All sewing machines have this feature. 

Most digital (computerised) machines can also perform this function automatically.

Balance Wheel

The hand wheel that’s located on the side of the machine. Rotating the wheel manually will move the needle up and down. Always rotate the wheel towards you when the machine is threaded, otherwise thread tangling will occur.


Bar-tacks are found at the ends of a buttonhole. They are also used to attach belt loops to garments and for securing the corners of pockets and other parts of garments. Most machines can make bar-tacks by using a basic zigzag stitch. 

Some digital (computerised) machines have a special automatic bar-tack function.

Basting Stitch

In sewing terms, basting is a type of tacking stitch that’s used to temporarily hold the garment together allowing it to be tried on for fitting, prior to final sewing. The basting stitch should be quite loose, allowing easy removal. Some high end sewing machines feature an automatic basting stitch. However, basting can be achieved on almost all sewing machines by setting the stitch length to maximum and gradually reducing the upper thread tension until the stitches become suitably loose to allow easy removal.

Blind Hem Stitch (invisible hemming)

Blind hemming (or invisible hemming) is normally found on the bottom of skirts, trousers and quality made curtains. The hem is sewn from the inside without the stitching showing through on the outside. Most machines in our range from basic models upwards have this facility. 

Blind Hem Foot

Specially designed presser foot for use with the above. Supplied as standard with many machines but may be an optional accessory with more basic models.


Holds the lower thread that forms part of the stitch

Bobbin Case

Holds the bobbin in place within the lower part of the sewing machine – see also CB Bobbin and drop-in / top load bobbin

Bobbin Tension

Term used to describe the tensioning of the bobbin thread. This is normally a factory setting but can be adjusted by the small adjusting screw on the bobbin case.

Bobbin Winder

Component part of the machine that winds thread onto the bobbin. On nearly all machines, the winder automatically stops when the bobbin is full. The sewing mechanism should be disengaged when bobbin winding; on most machines, this will happen when the winder is engaged.

Buttonhole 1 – Step – auto sizing

Automatically produces a buttonhole to match the size of the button being used on the garment.

The size is gauged by placing a button (from the garment) into a receptacle in the buttonhole presser foot. Buttonhole is then sewn out in one, non-stop operation and can easily be repeated throughout the garment.

The main benefits with this system are: very easy to use, perfectly neat, every buttonhole is the same size.

Digital (computerised) machines feature several buttonhole styles, the main ones are: standard (used for blouses, dresses, skirts) keyhole (for jackets, coats, denims) and stretch (for garments made in jersey fabric) 

Buttonhole 4 – step

This system is generally found on basic machines. The process is far more complicated than the 1 – step system because the buttonhole is produced in four stages with the size of each buttonhole being individually marked out.

Beginning with the buttonhole dial set at stage one: the first side of the buttonhole is sewn until the length is reached and sewing is then paused.

The dial must then be set to stage two and a few bar-tack stitches are sewn and then paused.

The dial is then turned to stage three and the second side of the buttonhole is sewn and then paused.

Finally the dial is set to stage four to sew the second bar-tack. 

Button Sew on Foot

Specially designed presser foot that allows you to use the machine to sew buttons onto a garment – great time saver if you have a lot of buttons to sew.

CB Bobbin (front load bobbin)

The term given to machines where the bobbin is located at the front of the machine and accessed by opening a drop down cover.

CB Shuttle (hook)

Part of the sewing mechanism associated with the above. Connects the upper and lower threads to form the stitch.

Clip-on presser foot (snap on presser feet)

This term describes the way that the presser foot is attached to the machine. Most modern machines take clip on feet. However, it’s very important when purchasing additional presser feet that they’re suitable for your particular make and model. For example: a clip on foot for a Brother won’t work on a Janome.

Concealed zip foot

Essential presser foot that’s used for inserting concealed (invisible) zips into dresses, skirts, etc.
When correctly fitted, the zip is completely hidden. 

Computerised Sewing Machines

In comparison to mechanical machines, computerised or digital sewing machines are designed and engineered for easy operation. Stitches are selected simply by touching a button. Important stitch settings such as stitch length and width are automatically chosen for you, but can be varied if required.

Whereas with a mechanical machine, you’ll have a lot more to contend with whenever you want to change a stitch – i.e. lots of levers knobs and dials!

Computerised Sewing & Embroidery Machines

These are sewing machines like the computerised ones mentioned above but can also produce large, multi-coloured embroidery and large lettering. Designs can be selected from the machine's built in library, downloaded from the web or created on your computer using digitising embroidery software.

Computerised Embroidery Machines

These machines will only produce embroidery (as mentioned above) they can’t be used for sewing. 

DC Motor

This type of motor can now be found on many sewing machines. The main benefit is a more easily managed sewing speed that can be varied from incredibly slow to fast. At slow speed however, there’s no loss of force behind the needle. This allows you to sew slowly over thick seams or heavyweight fabric without stalling.

Decorative Stitches

Small stitch patterns that are used to decorate garments, craft projects, table linens, soft furnishings, etc. Not normally found on basic machines, but are a feature on middle range models upwards. The choice varies depending on make and model of machine.

Drop Feed

Allows the machines teeth (feed dogs) to be lowered for free motion sewing (see further down) It’s also used for machine darning and lets you use the machine to sew on buttons when used with the special presser foot.

Drop-in Bobbin (top load bobbin)

This was introduced for easier bobbin insertion. The bobbin just drops into the bed of the machine where it’s more accessible; as opposed to having a separate bobbin case (CB bobbin) which can be a bit of a fiddle. Most modern machines that use this system won't require oiling. In addition, the system is less prone to thread jamming.

The plate that covers the bobbin is usually transparent allowing you to check on the available amount of bobbin thread prior to sewing. 

Dual Feed (even feed, walking foot)

Prevents fabric layers from creeping or shifting. Usually this is an additional presser foot that works in place of the standard foot. Slippery fabrics such as satin will pucker the seam when sewn using the standard foot. This happens because the lower layer of fabric feeds through a little more quickly than upper layer. It is a big problem when sewing quilt layers or when keeping striped or patterned fabrics matched up whilst being sewn. The dual feed has its own built in feed teeth which work in unison with the teeth on the machine, so that both fabric layers are fed along equally. Some high end machines have built in dual feed.

Extension Table

Large, slide-on table that greatly increases the size of the sewing bed. Usually an optional extra, but supplied as standard on some machines.

Even Feed

See Dual Feed

Feed Dogs

These are the teeth on the bed of the machine that push the fabric along as the stitch is being formed.

Foot Control (foot pedal)

Supplied with all sewing machines. Works in the same way as your car's accelerator pedal: the further down you press - the faster you go!

Foot Pressure

This is the amount of weight that the presser foot applies to the fabric as the stitch is being formed. On many machines this can be varied to accommodate different types of fabric.

Freehand or Free-motion sewing.

This is where you move the fabric as the machine sews. Basically a design is drawn or stencilled onto the fabric which is then placed under the machine’s presser foot. As the machine sews you then move the fabric around, side to side and back and forth so as to fill in the design with stitching. It’s worth pointing out that this technique is an art form that covers a very broad spectrum. For best results, you’ll need a machine with a drop feed and use a freehand foot.

Freehand Foot

(Also referred to as Darning Foot, Quilting Foot, Embroidery Foot)
Used for free-motion work as mentioned above. Makes it easier to move the fabric, provides better visibility, prevents stitches from skipping and snagging. 

Free-arm (sleeve-arm)

This facility is found on almost all sewing machines. Part of the machine’s work surface can be removed, allowing the sewing bed to convert to a narrower shape. 

This allows sleeves, trouser bottoms and awkward shapes to be positioned over and around the free-arm to enable easier access for sewing.

Front Load Bobbin

Exactly the same as CB Bobbin (see above)

Gathering (by machine)

Most machines are capable of producing gathers in lightweight woven fabrics. There are several techniques, but the most common method is to set the stitch length to maximum and gradually increase the upper tension until the desired effect is achieved. You can also try sewing with a loose upper tension, then after fastening the threads at one end you can draw up the lower thread to gather the fabric as required.

Gathering Foot

Specially designed presser foot for gathering. Some versions have a slot that will allow you to gather one layer of fabric whilst simultaneously stitching it onto a flat layer. 

Knee Lifter (knee operated presser foot)

Found on some higher end machines but originally developed for industrial machines. The knee lifter is a specially designed metal rod that pushes into the front of the machine. The rod is shaped so that it bends down to rest against your knee. Moving your knee onto the rod will lift or lower the presser foot. This may at first sound like a rather weird set up, but it will keep both hands free to manipulate the fabric – ideal when you've several small pieces of fabric to line up under the foot. The knee lifter is easily pulled out from the machine when not required.

LCD Screen

Found on digital (computerised) machines. The screen displays your chosen stitch and various settings such as stitch length and width. It will also advise on which presser foot to use for the given task. 

Narrow Hemmer Foot

Specially designed presser foot that produces narrow hems (usually 2mm/3mm) on lightweight woven fabrics. Ideally suitable for scarves, table napkins, handkerchiefs, etc. 

Needle Plate

Metal plate (sometimes called throat plate) that’s located below the presser foot.

Needle Position

The position of needle in relation to the presser foot. On many machines, this can be varied from left, centre, right. The right position makes it easier to sew piping, as well as making it easier to sew closer to edge of the fabric. The centre position is most commonly used for regular sewing. Selecting the left position can help in eliminating problems encountered with delicate fabrics.

Needle Stop – Up/Down

Machine will stop sewing with the needle always in its uppermost position ready to remove the work. This is also the best position for avoiding errors when threading.

Machine will stop sewing with the needle always in its lowest position so that the work can be pivoted. Cuts out the fuss when working on small pieces of fabric that require lots of corners to be sewn. 

Needle Threader

Built in feature found on many sewing machines. It will eliminate the frustration from what should normally be a very simple task.

Overlock Foot (overcast foot)

Used with the machine’s overlock stitch (see below) it has a guide which helps keep the stitching in line along the fabric edge. In addition, It will prevent the fabric edge from curling.

Overlock Stitch (overcast stitch)

Used for neatening the frayed edge of fabric. Can be used to simultaneously sew and neaten two or more fabric layers. Better results are achieved when using an overlock foot.

The end result is reasonably adequate in comparison to the superior results achieved on an overlocking machine.

Presser Foot

Holds the fabric in place as the stitch is being formed.

Presser Foot Lifter (lever)

Lever located at rear of the machine that raises or lowers the presser foot.

Presser Foot Dial

See foot pressure

Reverse Sewing

See Back-tack

Rotary Hook

Part of the sewing mechanism. Connects the upper and lower threads to form the stitch. Machines with a drop-in bobbin have a rotary hook. They are less prone to thread jamming and run more smoothly than machines with a CB Shuttle Hook.

Satin Stitch

Zigzag where the stitches are formed very close together (no gaps between the zigs and the zags).

Satin stitch has many uses, and is a particular favourite for sewing applique designs.

Achieved with the machine set for regular zigzag (width of your choosing) but with the stitch length set to around 0.5. 

All of the machines in our range from basic models upwards are capable of producing a satin stitch. 

Satin Stitch Foot

Used in connection with the above. Designed to give better visibility and produce neater, more uniform stitching.

Speed Limiter

 Sliding control located at the front of the machine that’s used for limiting the sewing speed.  

Stitch Length

Refers to the size of stitch. Most machines have a stitch length ranging from 0 to 5mm.

Stitch Width

Refers to the width of the zigzag and other stitches. Basic machines have a stitch width ranging from 0 to 5mm. Machines higher up the range have a width setting from 0 to 7mm. Some top-of-the-range models will go up to 9mm.

Stop / Start button

Found on most digital (computerised machines) gives the option to run the machine with the foot pedal disconnected. Sewing speed can then be easily controlled with the slider on the front of the machine. You can of course, use the variable speed foot pedal in the traditional way should you prefer.

Straight Stitch

Normal stitch found on all sewing machines and is mainly used for sewing seams.

Stretch Stitch

Specially designed to sew stretchy, jersey fabrics. There are generally two types. Regular: used on light to medium weight stretch fabric. Triple: used for medium to heavier weight stretch fabrics.

Most mechanical machines only have the triple stretch stitch.

When sewing synthetic stretch, always use the special stretch needle to avoid skipped stitches.

Take-up lever

Part of the sewing mechanism that's located on the top left of the machine.

Its purpose is to draw the top thread up from the fabric after the needle has formed the stitch with the bobbin thread.

On nearly all modern machines, the take-up lever is either partially or totally hidden. Care must be taken to ensure this is correctly threaded (read the instruction book) otherwise thread jamming will definitely occur.

Tension Dial

Used for tightening or loosening the stitching – see Auto Tension 

Three step zigzag

Found on all machines in our range from basic models upwards. Sometimes referred to as: multi zigzag, triple zigzag, trico stitch.
Used for neatening seams, repairing tears in fabric and attaching elastic.

Threading Errors  - poor stitching - machine jams

The most common cause of problems with sewing machines is incorrect threading. And it's the poor little machine that gets the blame, when in actual fact it's often the user that's at fault. Even the most experienced of sewists will sometimes make mistakes.

If you follow the basic rules detailed below, you can eliminate miss-threading and avoid the urge to throw your machine through the window! 

  1. Before threading, make sure the needle is at its uppermost position and the take-up lever is visible at its uppermost position.

  2. Make sure the presser foot is raised.

  3. Begin to thread the machine as per the manual but make sure you hold the thread tight between both hands as you pass it through the various thread guides etc, paying particular attention to threading the take-up lever: make sure the thread is pulled fully along the take-up lever slot until you you reach the end. You can now carry on threading until you reach the needle.

  4. Lower the presser foot if you find it's in the way, and you can now thread the needle.

  5. Assuming that you have inserted the bobbin and threaded the bobbin case as per the manual; you'll now need to bring the bobbin thread up through the needle plate hole.

    On most machines this is done by holding on to the needle thread with your left hand, whilst turning the hand wheel TOWARDS YOU with your right hand until the needle and take-up lever are back at their top position.

  6. You can now raise the presser foot and take hold of both needle and bobbin thread, (draw off a few inches) and place them to the rear of the presser foot (through the slot on the foot) in preparation to begin sewing.

  7. Place fabric under the foot and lower the presser foot lever. Make sure the take-up lever is still at the top position and keep hold of the the two threads at the rear of foot. Now lightly press down on foot foot pedal to start sewing and let go of the two threads after a few stitches.

  8. At the end of the seam, turn the hand wheel towards you to bring up the needle, making sure that the take-up lever is back at its top position. You can now raise the presser foot to remove the work from the machine. 

Top Load Bobbin

See drop-in bobbin.

Twin Needle

Special needle that will work on most modern sewing machines. It produces two parallel rows of stitching. They are available in a range of different widths: 1.6mm, 2mm, 3mm, 4mm and there's even a 6mm available for machines with a maximum stitch width of 7mm. 

Universal Thread Tension

See Auto Tension

Walking Foot

See Dual Feed

Zigzag stitch

Basic stitch found on all machines used for neatening seams and producing satin stitch.

Zigzag Foot

General purpose foot that's supplied as standard with all sewing machines. Used mainly for straight or zigzag stitching.

Zip Foot

Specially designed presser foot that's used for inserting zips (not the concealed variety) The needle sews on the outside edge of the foot enabling the stitching to get closer to the zip teeth.

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