Sewing Machine Troubleshooting Guide

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If you've never used sewing machines before, I highly recommend you have a friend or relative show you how. If you're buying from a dealer, ask them to give you a quick lesson in threading the machine.
I can't help you learn to use your machine, so please don't email me asking me how to use the machine you just got for your birthday. That's what Grandma's are for. :)

All machines are bound to be a little different, so even if you have used one before, take a look at the manual if you are using a new machine. I was threading a new machine wrong for 2 weeks before I actually looked up a manual online, and realized I had been skipping a step! Luckily, I wasn't doing anything so wrong that it could do damage, but it is possible to do something so wrong that you'll break the machine before you even get to use it. So you might as well get friendly with the manual.

My biggest tip is: DO NOT FORCE THE HANDWHEEL!
If you put the bobbin in, and it won't turn, something's wrong.
Forcing it is likely to break something.

If you don't have a manual, I suggest you find one. You will need it. Some websites have the manuals for free online, other sites sell them. I suggest you read it pretty much cover to cover while sitting at your machine so you know what part does what.
You might want to check you particular sewing machine brand's website. They sometimes offer downloadable version for free.
Here are some sites that have manuals available:

http://www.fixya.com/support/ - lots of free manuals, newer machines
http://www.sewusa.com/ - lots of manual excepts and repair guides, especially for older machines
http://www.sewingonline.co.uk/instructions.html - manuals for purchase in the UK
Singer Manuals -manuals for Singer machines, most of them are around $15

General Maitenance
Keep one of those cans of pressurized air around so you can give your machine a blast every now and then. The air cans are very handy for cleaning lint out of the bobbin area. You should also oil your machine regularly. The manual should show where to oil it (See? You really do need it).
My manual recommends a de-linting and oiling once a month, or once a week if you use it often.

PROBLEM #1 - My bobbin thread won't come out!
Once you've got the needle threaded, grab on to the end of the needle thread, and slowly lower the needle manually. When you raise the needle back up, the bobbin thread will be looped around the needle thread, and you just need to grab it and pull it out.

PROBLEM #2 - I can't get the bobbin case IN!
When you're inserting the bobbin, make sure the needle is in the up position.  If the needle is all the way down, you won't be able to get the bobbin in at all.

PROBLEM #3, 4, 5.... infinity!
Whether your thread is jamming, the machine is skipping stitches, etc... if you're having major problems with your machine, try some of the following tricks:

Trick #1: Needles
There are specific needles for different fabrics. For woven fabric (usually non-stretchy) you want a universal needle, which is pretty much the standard.
For knits (think t-shirt fabric or other stretchy stuff), you want a ballpoint needle. It will usually say right on the package "for knits".
If you try to use the wrong needle for the wrong fabric (i.e. a woven needle while sewing knit fabric), you can encounter problems. Some machines aren't finicky enough to care, some are. Sometimes it's just that time of the month for your machine.

Trick #2: Bobbins
Sometimes a bobbin gets wound just a little bit wonky. It might only be a small portion of it, but it can cause problems all the same. To rule out a crappily wound bobbin, try a new one. If your machine works alright with the new bobbin, unwind some of the thread on the bad bobbin, and try it again.

Trick #3: Needles again!
When you have trouble with your machine, try a new needle. Needles are fairly easily bent. Sometimes you wouldn't be able to tell by looking at it that it's bent, but as soon as you change the needle, everything works again. Throw bent needles away, they'll only come back to haunt you if you don't.

Trick #4: Tension
The tension controls how "tight" the stitches are. 
When you're looking at the top of your fabric, you shouldn't be able to see the bobbin thread in the stitching, and vice versa. Both side of the stitching should only have one thread visible. If you can see two separate threads, you probably have a tension problem.

Top thread, good tension. You can't see the black (bobbin) thread from the top.

Bobbin thread, good tension. You can't see the red (needle) thread from the top.

If you pull gently on the seam with your fingers, you shouldn't be able to see much of the threads.

Generally, if your machine was working fine the last time you used it, you'll only have to adjust the needle tension.

If you can see bobbin thread on the top (needle side) of your fabric, lower the needle tension.

If your needle thread (see photo below) is being pulled to the bobbin side of the fabric, increase the needle tension.


In the photo to the right, the bobbin thread is so tight, it's pulling the needle thread underneath the fabric. If you open the seam, you'll probably see a bit more thread showing (see below).



Why is this bad? If the tension is off, your seams are more likely to break.

If one or both tensions are too tight, you'll get puckering, like this:

Occassionally you might have to fiddle with the bobbin tension. There should be a tiny screw on the side of the bobbin that controls the tension.

The tighter the screw, the tighter the tension, and the looser the screw... you get the idea? You don't have to adjust it much to make a difference.

bobbin screw - controls tension

TRICK #5: Throw in the towel
Well, not really. But sometimes, for some unknown reason, it helps to shut off the machine, and let it rest.
Sometimes your machine is just having a bad day and wants to left alone. You'll come back the next day, and without changing a thing, she'll work good as new.
I don't know why this is: maybe the motor's too hot.... Either way, it's true.

TRICK #6: The last resort
If you're having serious machine issues, and none of the above tricks helped, it might be time to see your local repairman. It's always good to get a basic tune-up on your machine now and again, anyway!

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