Sewing tips

How Many Bobbins

I’ve been thinking about sewing machine bobbins. You may have the same questions that I do. How many do I have? Do I need more? Is there an ideal number to have? Will those cheaper generic bobbins work in my sewing machine? Can I use a metal (or plastic) bobbin if my machine came with plastic (or metal) ones? Does it matter which way I insert the bobbin? Should I take the old thread off before filling a bobbin? Are prefilled-bobbins worthwhile? This post will answer the question “how many bobbins do I need?” and address some other bobbin-related concerns.

What Does A Bobbin Do

A commonly used hand sewing stitch is the running stitch. Sewing machines can’t change the orientation of the sewing needle the way a human’s hand does so they use a lock stitch. The thread from a spool goes through the needle and is moved up and down threw the fabric as the drive shaft turns. If your bobbin has ever run out of thread in the middle of a seam, you may have noticed how easy it is to pull this needle thread out of your project. The bobbin thread is what “locks” the needle thread in place.

The bobbin sits inside a shuttle (a rotating case with a hook extending from it). The needle plunges through the fabric, taking the needle thread with it. The needle thread catches on the shuttle hook, is dragged around the shuttle and locked around the bobbin thread. As the needle moves back up, the needle thread is tightened, forming the lock stitch. The feeddogs move the fabric and everything begins again.

Sewing machines work the same regardless of whether your bobbins load from the top or from the front. Threads Sewing has a great video illustration of the how a sewing machine with a front loaded bobbin sews: How A Stitch Is Made

Top loading bobbin case
Top loading bobbin case (top view)
Front loadding bobbin case
Front loading bobbin case (front view)
How Many Bobbins Do I Need

It’s common for new sewing machines to include 3 bobbins in the package. Your’s may have more or less and second hand machines may have any number. My Mom has had her current sewing machine for over 30 years and has 3 bobbins. I’ve had my sewing machine for over 15 years and have 53 bobbins. I am considering purchasing more.

Consider the following when attempting to determine how many bobbins you need. How often do you sew and what do you sew? If your sewing machine is only used for light mending or the occasional small project, then ~3 bobbins is probably a good number. Frequent sewers with access to a variety of thread types and/colors, may wish to have a bobbin for each thread color and separate bobbins for cotton, polyester and nylon threads. If you’re sewing large projects or multiples of a project using the same thread, you may wish to fill multiple bobbins at once.

Which Bobbins Do I Need

There are over 60 types of bobbins and those that look similar may be different diameters or different heights. I recall using a 1960s Singer sewing machine when I volunteered in a theatre group’s costume department. The machine sewed great for the first costume. The second costume needed a different thread color and I was given a spool and pre-wound bobbin. Visually the new bobbin looked the same as the previous one, but the machine wouldn’t sew properly. The tension was all wrong and re-threading the sewing machine didn’t help. When I compared the bobbins, I noticed that the new one and old one were the same diameter and differed in height by ~1mm.

Bobbins may be made of steel, aluminum or plastic. A sewing machine is specifically designed to maintain it’s tension with bobbins of a specific size and weight. Swapping out metal for plastic (or vice versa) or slight changes to the size will affect the tension. Always refer to your user’s manual to determine exactly which bobbins are appropriate for your sewing machine.

Plastic, aluminum & steel bobbins
Plastic, aluminum & steel bobbins
Tension Is Key

Having the correct tension for both your needle thread and bobbin thread is required for sewing even stitches. Modern sewing machines include a bobbin winding feature to quickly wind bobbins with the appropriate tension. Hand winding bobbin thread and winding thread on a partially filled filled bobbin can cause variations in the bobbin’s tension and lead to uneven stitches. Placing your bobbin in the bobbin case so that it spins the wrong way can also cause tension problems. Refer to your user manual if you’re not sure how to insert your bobbin.

Running out of bobbin thread partway though a task and having to wind a bobbin and re-thread your machine is annoying. If your bobbin case is top loading and has a window in it, you’ll be able to see how much thread is on your bobbin. This is impossible with front loading bobbin cases. With practice you may be able to estimate whether or not there is enough thread on your bobbin. Pre-winding an extra bobbin or two helps speed up the rethreading process. You may also wish to consider a bobbin winder. These little machines do one thing and do it well: wind bobbins. Buying pre-wound bobbins are another option. Keep in mind that purchased pre-wound bobbins must be compatible with your sewing machine and that the pre-wound bobbins may not be designed for reuse.

Thread Type & Color

You can use different threads on your spool and bobbin. Doing so may be desirable if you are sewing fabrics with different colors together and want to match the thread colors to the fabrics. Alternatively, you may be doing decorative sewing and intentionally mis-match the thread types. For example, top-stitching thread on the spool and regular polyester or cotton on the bobbin. Decorative and novelty threads can also be used on the bobbin and regular thread on the spool. Test your sewing on scraps from your project in case you need to adjust your stitch length or sewing machine tension.

Bobbin Storage

The more bobbins you have, the more storage can become an issue. Loose bobbins thrown in a drawer can easily become lost or broken and their threads can become tangled. A small number of bobbins will easily fit inside your sewing machine’s storage compartment. There are clips for attaching individual bobbins to individual spools, circular bobbin storage containers for holding the bobbins vertically, and a variety of bobbin boxes featuring bobbin posts or individual compartments for each bobbin.

You can also improvise your own bobbin storage. I use a 4 drawer, mini storage unit that’s 5.5” tall, 3.5” wide and 4.5” deep. Each drawer is ~1” tall and easily holds 24 bobbins horizontally. Pill boxes and thread spool boxes with spindles  work too. For more ideas, check out the Sew-So-Easy post on bobbin storage  and The Scrappe Shop Blog post on thread and bobbin storage.

Threaded plastic bobbins in a small drawer
My bobbins in a mini-drawer

The number of bobbins any given sewer needs is determined by how often he/she is sewing and the types of threads and projects being sewn. You may wish to have different bobbins for different thread colors and different thread types. Winding multiple bobbins when sewing large projects or large numbers of similar projects saves time. Machine winding an empty bobbin results in consistent tension and better stitching. Bobbin storage may be functional and/or decorative.

How may bobbins do you have? How do you store them? Comment below and/Pin Me for later. Subscribe so you don’t miss a post.


"Sewn By Tanya Sewing Tips: How Many Bobbins Do i Need" plastic bobbins with assorted thread

"Sewn By Tanya Sewing Tip: Questions About Bobbins" plastic bobbins with assorted threads

"Sewn By Tanya Sewing Tip: Your Bobbin Questions Answered" plastic bobbins with assorted thread





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