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Sewing 101: Sewing Machine Troubleshooting Guide

Unfortunately, I can’t really help you learn to use your machine through the internets. That’s what Grandma’s are for.

 

Saxby Says: Troubleshoot this!
Saxby Says: Troubleshoot this!

 

If you’ve never used a sewing machine before, I highly recommend you either take a class or have someone who knows what they’re doing help you out. If you’re buying from a dealer, ask them to give you a quick lesson on at least threading the machine.

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 the manual online, and realized I had been skipping a step! Luckily, I wasn’t doing anything so wrong that it could do damage. 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.

General Maintenance

Big Tip #1: 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.

Big Tip #2: READ THE MANUAL. 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’d read it pretty much cover to cover while sitting at your machine so you know who does what.

You might want to check you particular sewing machine brand’s website. They sometimes offer a downloadable version for free.

Here are some sites that have manuals available:

  • FixYa – lots of free manuals, newer machines
  • SewUSA – manual excerpts and repair guides, especially for older machines
  • SewingOnline – manuals for purchase in the UK
  • Singer Manuals -manuals for Singer machines, most of them are around $15

Big tip #3: Oil your machine often and keep it as lint free as possible. 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.

On to the specific troubleshooting…

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. Slowly lower the needle manually with the handwheel while keeping a loose grip on the needle thread. When you raise the needle back up, the bobbin thread will be looped around the needle thread. Pull the needle thread forward gently and grab the bobbin thread.

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 not stretchy) you want a universal needle, which is pretty much the standard. There are different shanks and machines that maybe require special needles, so again… check your manual.

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. Trust me on this one… I hate throwing away what looks like a perfectly good needle. When my machine starts acting up, I’ll do everything BUT change the needle. Nothing works, so I’ll swear a lot, grumble to myself… and then finally change the needle, only to find that it was indeed the needle. Good as new.

And don’t forget to throw those 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.
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.
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.
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.

Why is tension important? Improperly balanced tension means stitches that are more likely to break.

 

The bobbin thread is so tight, it's pulling the needle thread underneath the fabric.
The bobbin thread is so tight, it's pulling the needle thread underneath the fabric.

 

 

If you can see this much thread on the outside of your seam, one or both thread tensions are too loose.
If you can see this much thread on the outside of your seam, one or both thread tensions are too loose.

 

 

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

 

Occasionally 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
bobbin screw - controls tension

 

Some machines don’t have bobbins. Some machines without bobbins don’t let you adjust the lower tension. I’d consult your manual if you’re having tension troubles in either of those cases.

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!

4 thoughts on “Sewing 101: Sewing Machine Troubleshooting Guide

  1. im just new in sewing bought used commericial singer modelono ono one w one five five.i wase doing good i notice stiching starded loading under material i play with it but no luck.can you help me.thank you.

  2. My sewing machine is a mess the foot wont move at all… its not like the little lever is stuck or anything its like its not even attached to the foot. Is there a way to fix this with out sending it in?

    1. Is the foot stuck in the up position or the down position?
      It’s hard to say what the problem is, but I would suggest trying to detach the foot from the machine. There should be a thumb screw or a little button that releases the foot. Perhaps reattaching it or trying a new foot would help you figure out what the problem is.

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