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The purpose of this guide is to provide some practical and effective things to do when your sewing machine stopped working.

You will be AMAZED at how often sewing machines arrives at the sewing shop when basic things were not done properly! Wrong or blunt needle, incorrect threading or lack of oil to name a few. By following the next 5 steps, your machine should work properly or really needs a visit to the sewing shop.

So, where do you start?

First, lets check some basic guidelines.  No matter what type and make of machine, basic principles remains the same.

STEP 1: CLEANING AND OILING. Remove the upper thread, bottom bobbin or shuttle and needle. With the presser foot up, try to run the machine at full speed for one minute. If you hear a noticeable variation of the speed, your machine may need some oil. If you still have the manual then follow it. If not, proceed like this: try to remove the top cover if your machine has one. If not, you should be able to find holes on top of it. Apply only a drop of SEWING MACHINE OIL (not 3 in 1 oil or any other kind of oil or rust inhibitor).  Next, reach the bottom of your machine. If it is equipped with a base cover, try to remove it to gain access to the mechanism.  After removing any dust, lint, broken needles debris and straight pins, apply a drop of oil to each moving part. By turning the hand wheel slowly (always towards you for 98% of them), you will see all the moving parts joints that needs to be oiled.  Many parts already have a small hole especially for oiling. Remember one small drop of oil in each joint is enough!  Please note: If your machine's handwheel turns towards the back like the old White-Rotary, always turn it the same way!

STEP 2: THE FEED DOGS. With a flat screwdriver, remove the needle plate retained by 2 screws. On some Elna, Pfaff and Bernina models, you will have to remove the bed’s top plate on which the needle plate is fixed. Some of them are snapped in place and no screws are holding them. When removed, clean the feed dogs. Try to pass a rag under them and with an old needle or narrow tool, remove the lint inside the feed channels. Put back the needle plate. If your machine is equipped with a FEED DROP, be sure the feeds are set at UP position. By turning the hand wheel (towards you), check to see if the feeds make their movement. While doing this, you may check also the reverse mechanism to see if the feed dogs moves backward. If the feeds does not move at all, a major problem occurred, do not go further!

STEP 3: THE UPPER TENSION. Most sewing machine problems are related to the thread tension. Learn this basic principle right now: the upper tension determines your UNDER stitch. And the bobbin (bottom) tension determines your UPPER stitch. Unless you are experimented to dismantle the upper tension unit or if it’s explained in your manual, follow this simple technique. Dust, lint and pieces of broken thread often stick between the tension discs. This cause a gap between the tension discs and no pressure is applied to the thread resulting of thread loops underneath. Take an 8" length of thread and make 3 to 4 knots in it (as pictured below). Thread your tension system with this piece of thread a few times in all directions. This will remove any lint residue between the tension discs. Try it for the first time with the presser foot UP and then with the presser foot DOWN. When the presser foot is down and the tension dial set at number 4, you should be able to feel a tension when pulling the thread. If so, the upper tension system is working properly.

STEP 4: THE BOTTOM BOBBIN. Your machine can be equipped with a removable bobbin case, a drop-in bobbin or a shuttle. First, try to wind a bobbin with the bobbin winder. If you see a small hole close to the bobbin spindle, apply only a small drop of oil and wipe any excess. Check also for the condition of the bobbin winder rubber tire. If you can see cracks and worn flat surfaces, replace it.  This very popular item is available at any sewing shop for a dollar or so. When winding a bobbin, check to see of the thread winds evenly from each side of the bobbin. Then check the bottom of your bobbin case. Remove any lint pancake. Install your bobbin in it. By pulling the thread, you should feel a very soft tension on the thread. If not, some clogged lint may be laying between the small tension spring and the bobbin case itself.


STEP 5: THE SEWING TEST. As simple as it looks, you have made all the basic steps any repairmen will do on a sewing machine! It’s time now to try it by doing a professional sample. First, install a BRAND NEW NEEDLE (size 14 if possible). So many troubles are related to the needle, even if it looks like new, don’t take any chance! Insert the needle the right way. The flat side has to face left, back or right. Refer to your manual. Just in case you have no manual, here are some tips. The first system is a FRONT LOAD machine (front load means you put the bobbin/bobbin case IN FRONT of the machine. It can be a front drop in bobbin or a bobbin case placed under the machine in front of you. On such models, you always insert the needle so the flat side will face rear of machine. You will thread the needle from FRONT TO REAR. The other system is the LEFT LOAD machine. On any make (except many Singer machines), the flat side of the needle shank should face the right side of machine. You will need to thread the needle from LEFT TO RIGHT. This apply also to the old shuttle Singer 27, 128 and 128 machines and models 99, 185, 192, 217, 237 and 239.


LEFT LOAD                       FRONT LOAD

The last system, which includes many Singer models, is also a left load bobbin case but, the flat side of the needle is facing left. You will need to thread the needle from RIGHT TO LEFT. This apply to the following Singer models: All Featherweights 221 and 222, all the 15 series and the 201.

Once the needle is inserted correctly, up into the needle clamp as far as it will go, tighten the needle clamp thumb screw firmly but NEVER with a screwdriver!

You are now ready for a professional test sample. Thread the machine properly with the presser foot up, leaving a 6 inches length of thread under the foot. Catch the bottom thread by turning the hand wheel towards you so the needle goes down and up. Be sure both threads are under the foot and the upper tension dial set at number 4. Place the stitch length lever/knob at the longest stitch. Put 2 or 3 layers of regular cotton under the foot. The presser foot down, turn the hand wheel so the needle goes inside the fabric (completely down). Then run the machine at medium speed for the first stitch row. Check underneath: the stitch should be identical to the top one. No loops, only a tight stitch. If any loops are found underneath, raise the upper tension slightly and make a second stitch row. Try also the reverse stitch a few times while sewing (do not stop to engage the reverse). The thread should not break. Check also for loops underneath on the stitches made with the reverse. If everything is good so far, run the machine at full speed making a few stitch rows. If your machine is equipped with the zigzag, try it. The zigzag stitch should be the same on top and bottom.

Remember this: If your upper thread break instantly, many chances are the needle was inserted in the wrong position. Or your spool of thread is too old! Here is another tip about old spools of thread that break often: Put them all in a tight plastic bag for one night outside your house. The very next morning, this thread will be as fresh as a new spool and will be more resistant to breakage.

By sewing often with any sewing machine, the oil will always be equilibrated in the upper and bottom mechanism. Any rubber belts will rejuvenate by moving. The motor carbon accumulation will stabilize and all the electrical system contacts will have less chance to oxidize. So many machines needs service for the only reason they were not in operation since many months if not years. Well like anything else, sewing machines has to run to keep them in great condition.

This guide is intended to be helpful to millions of sewing machines manufactured over the years.  However, many small manufacturers started to produce hundreds of models and brandnames on a short period of time.  It could be possible that some specific informations (threading, needle position) in this guide does not apply to a specific machine.  The best reference then would be in the original manual. 

Of course, there are other considerations about servicing sewing machines, but these basics can get you started. Thank you for your time and please do not hesitate to e-mail me for any particular question.  I will gladly put over 30 years of sewing machine experience at your service! 

If you’ve enjoyed this guide your vote would be appreciated :-)

Happy Sewing !!

Andre (alcnational)

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