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When you are sewing on your machine do you have trouble with thread bunching and looping underneath the fabric? Fortunately, with a few maintenance steps, you can often solve this problem yourself. This guide offers a few general steps to help remedy this problem.

"Birdnesting", or thread bunching and looping underneath the fabric

When a sewing machine has trouble with thread bunching underneath the fabric, also known as Birdnesting, loops of thread tangle together to form a knot, and sometimes even make a hole in the fabric where you were trying to make a seam. Although some troubleshooting resources often suggests removing the spool and rethreading from the beginning, if you are having a recurring problem with birdnesting, it would be a good idea to start with cleaning the tension discs, the tension spring, the take up lever, and all the points in the threading path.

Check Your Tension Settings

Looping underneath the fabric usually occurs when there is not enough tension in the needle thread to pull the bobbin thread. Sometimes thread buching can be caused by something as simple as the tension dial being inadvertently turned. Perhaps there is a small child in the house who was fascinated with this interesting dial? To begin balancing the thread tension, reset the dial to a medium number, on most machines this is in the 3, 4, 5 numbers range. Also, check to see if there are any tiny knots in the thread that have become caught in the thread path and stopped the thread from advancing.

Vintage sewing machines or sewing machines that have not been used in a long time usually need the tension discs cleaned. This can be done with a cloth dampened with cleaning fluid or rubbing alcohol. Pull a single layer of the cleaning cloth back and fourth between the individual tension discs, until they are very clean and smooth.

If you have a sewing machine with built-in tension control, that does not have tension discs, and are having trouble with thread looping, then you need to consult the manual to adjust the built-in settings and stitch balance. Stitch balance, meaning the upper and lower threads are set to make a well formed stitch that is evenly balanced on the top and the bottom (on the front and back of the fabric). Finely adjusted tension settings will produce even stitches where the upper and lower threads lock in the center of the fabric to form a stitch. One advantage of the built-in tension designs is that the tension mechanism is enclosed within the housing of the machine which protects it from dust.

Dust and Lint

Dust and lint that have accumulated is a common cause of sewing machine problems, and yet it can be so easily remedied. Sewing machine repair resources sometimes suggest using aerosol cans of compressed air to help remove dust and debris that may be clogging areas of the machine. The other School of Thought on cans of air spray, is that this method is really better suited for other types of machinery, and not the smaller finer gears and mechanisms that are inside a sewing machine. The blasts of air from compressed cans can be difficult to control on a small scale. There is the risk that if dust is sprayed by air to remove it from one area, it can easily be blown into other parts of the machine. It is better to remove the dust, rather than spray it all around.

One of the finest and simplest tools for removing clumps of dust from sewing machines are clean small bristle paintbrushes, measuring about 1 inch across, or even a clean small make-up brush. An inexpensive tool, it is good to have one, preferably a brush that is new and has never been used, for cleaning a sewing machine and wiping away balls of lint. Small brushes can be very useful for Serger sewing machines also, and good for cleaning around the tension dials and wiping away from the machine the large amounts of fabric lint that accumulate when working with Serger sewing machines.

If you are cleaning a Vintage sewing machine, or one that has not been used for a long time, at first the amount of lint clumps that have accumulated under the machine and around the tension dial can be daunting. It is surprising when using a brush, how quickly these clumps of fuzz can be wiped away, and good also for quickly lifting out balls of lint that collect under the throat plate or needle plate.

If you will not be using your sewing machine for a little while it is a good idea to cover it to help prevent dust from settling on it. If your machine does not have a cover, or vinyl dust jacket, a pillow case, or towel could be used, or you could make a cover for it out of remnant pieces of fabric.

Cut Thread Close to the Spool

When changing a spool of thread, remember to cut the thread strand close to the spool and pull it out in a forward direction through the threading channels. Do not pull it backwards through the tension discs, because overtime, this can damage the fine alignment of the tension disc settings. We have all done this; trying to save 8 or 10 inches of thread by pulling it backwards through the threading channels and tension discs. But it is not good for the machine, and it is better to cut the thread close to the spool and pull the remaining strand outward in a forward direction (not backward).

Quality Thread Matters

A long time sewing machine repair person once told me that people often believe their sewing machine has a serious problem with the tension settings, when really the trouble they are having is the result of very inexpensive low quality thread. Remember also, to choose thread designed for machine sewing, and not hand sewing. Thread made for hand sewing sometimes can have a small layer of wax along the thread twist. Although this helps make the thread strong for hand sewing, it is not good for a machine.

Good quality Polyester thread generally gives smooth performance and generates little or no lint. For sewing with Cotton thread, better quality Mercerized Cotton Long Staple thread, made from long cotton fiber strands, is highly preferable because it is smoother and generates less lint than inexpensive brands. Low grade thread is made of Short Staple fuzzier cotton fibers. These microscopic fibers are not as smoothly encapsulated in the thread twist and break off from the strand during sewing and create excessive lint. Not only can inexpensive thread cause difficulties with your machine, but stitch formation quality will be disappointing also. Higher quality thread will result in improved stitch formation, which is especially desirable for sewing decorative patterns, top stitching and machine embroidery.

We all want to get the most out of our sewing notions and supplies, but bargain price thread is not a good place to save on your budget if it causes difficulties in the performance of your machine and keeps you from being able to sew and move through a project in an efficient amount of time. There are many sellers on eBay offering good quality sewing thread, and they will either have information about the thread listed in the item description, or you could ask them. Some of the more traditional brands of sewing thread like Lily, Star, Coats & Clark, Gutermann and Belding Corticelli, offer consistent and reliable performance quality.

  • A Few Suggestions for Stitching Quality ( a Check List)

  • Make sure the bobbin thread and needle thread are the same weight

  • Have the tension discs and key points in the threading path very clean and lint free

  • Use good quality thread for machine sewing: Polyester and Mercerized Cotton are preferable

  • When changing thread, cut the strand close to the spool and draw it forward out of the machine (not backwards)

  • Make sure the thread is being grasped by the tension discs and all the key points in the threading path, and has not simply slipped out of place

  • Keep the area underneath the throat plate free from clumps of lint.

  • If birdnesting loops occur, rethread the entire threading path and reset the tension dial to a medium number

  • Have the bobbin thread and needle thread drawn back underneath the presser foot when you begin to sew

  • Make sure the sewing machine needle is in good condition and is compatible with the fabric currently being worked with.

  • Make sure the feed dogs are raised, and have not been mistakenly lowered, so that your fabric will move forward.


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