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Sewing machine maintenance

When was the last time you cleaned and oiled your sewing machine? If that answer is "I don't remember" or "never" here's your sign: IT'S TIME!

If you've never done machine maintenance before and it's still a bit intimidating, this guide is for you. I promise; it's really not as complicated as it might seem.

I'll also run through some simple troubleshooting that can help you fix most common issues. Let's get started!


Frequent maintenance

By frequent, I mean maintenance that should be done multiple times a year by you; no need to take it into a shop or pay for service. This consists of basic cleaning and oiling and only takes about 5-10 minutes.

How frequent is frequent? Well, that depends on how much you sew and what you're sewing. If you're almost exclusively quilting with linty cotton threads and fabrics, a good rule of thumb is at the beginning of every quilt project. If you like to work on multiple projects at a time and you're sewing less than 8 hours a week, every 3 months is about right. If you sew more frequently than that, you want to be doing basic maintenance about once per month.

If your bobbin area looks like a cotton candy machine exploded in it, it's been too long! Ideally, we would be cleaning them frequently enough to never let them get to that state, but no shame (or judgment) here; been there done that!

The tools - what you'll need
  1. A clean cloth - for dusting the outside of things.

  2. Screwdriver - preferably the one that came with your machine, but any that fit will work

  3. A lint brush - this can be the brush that came with your sewing machine or a clean nylon paintbrush.

  4. Tweezers - fine tip is best.

  5. Pipe-cleaners - for cleaning the tension disks.

  6. Mini vacuum - Here is the one I use. I've tried and returned a couple; this one has the best suction so far. Alternatively, if you have a detailed attachment for your full-sized vacuum, feel free to use that. This is a recommended, but optional tool.

  7. Q-tips - great for getting small lint particles

  8. Sewing machine oil - for cleaning and reoiling. Check your machine manual for what kind, but this kind will usually work for most machines. The bonus is easy, mess-free application. Way better than those janky, telescoping spout bottles that always drip.

Cleaning and Oiling

Cleaning a sewing machine basically amounts to getting the lint out. Since gravity is a thing, you always want to work from top to bottom.

Two rules before we get started:

  1. DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT use canned air! Aside from blasting all the lint further into the machine, you know, the exact opposite of what we're trying to do, it can also contain moisture which can damage the electronic parts inside of most home sewing machines. You also don't want to blow dust away with your mouth for the same reason.

  2. We're not going to open the sewing machine head. There is more variability on how to do this and what to oil inside the head so this maintenance is best left to a professional. It's also above your feed dogs so most of the lint isn't going to be found inside the head anyways.

To clean your machine:

1. Turn your machine off. While it's unlikely, that you'll accidentally bump the pedal while you're cleaning, it's best not to risk it. turning things off ensures that nothing can start moving while your fingers are in danger. If you have a lock-out button on your machine, like mine does, that's also an option. Once your machine is turned off, go ahead and unthread it.

2. Dust the exposed surfaces. This includes the top, sides, and bed of your machine to remove any accumulated dust before we open the bobbin area up.

3. Clean your upper tension disks. Gently feed a clean pipe cleaner into the thread guides. This will remove any chunks of lint that may have built up there.

4. Remove the needle and presser foot shank. Use the screwdrivers that came with your machine. These may look like a proper mini screwdriver or a really fat coin or washer that slots into the flat-head thumb screws on your machine. Once you have them taken off, give them a good dust with a Q-tip or lint bush AWAY from the bed of your machine so that any lint coming off doesn't fall into your bobbin area.

5. Dust the needle bar area to remove any lint. You can use your lint brush or a Q-tip wet with just a tiny bit of sewing machine oil.

6. Remove the needle plate and bobbin case. On a drop-in style bobbin machine, there will likely be screws holding your needle plate on. Loosen those and put them in a dish or container for safe keeping while you clean. My machine has a button that releases the needle plate rather than screws. Once the needle plate is removed, the bobbin case - the black plastic bit that surrounds your bobbin - can be lifted out.

If you have a side-loading or front-loading bobbin, you still want to remove your needle plate and bobbin case, but you'll also want to remove the housing around the bobbin area. Consult your manual for how to do this. Dust all these pieces AWAY from the bed of your machine, and set aside.

7. Clean your bobbin area. This is where the mini vacuum comes in handy, although you can still clean without one. First, suck out any loose lint you can get with your mini vacuum.

Next, grab any large chunks of lint that you can see leftover with your tweezers and pull them out and away from your machine.

Finally, use your lint brush, Q-tips, and or pipe cleaners to remove any lint left over. I particularly like the Q-tips for this because their little wispy bits seem really good at grabbing onto that lint and locking it away. I've found that lint clumps will sometimes fall off the bristles of the lint brush before I can get them away from my machine. They just fall back into the bobbin area which is more than a little counterproductive. Lightly wetting the Q-tip with a tiny bit of oil only enhances this ability.

All clean!

A couple of things worth noting:

a. Many drop-in bobbin machines have a wick (white or yellow felt pad) in the center of the bobbin housing. That needs to stay put. Do not make the mistake of thinking this is a bit of lint and pull it out with your tweezers (don't ask me how I know this!). In general, anything that isn't coming out via a lint brush is supposed to be there. Occasionally, you will also find felt pads on the bobbin case that also should not be removed.

b. Don't go fishing around in the depths of your bobbin case with anything hard in the pursuit of lint, i.e. your tweezers. There's some delicate things below the bobbin area in most computerized machines. Hard, metal objects can do more damage than good. If you want to clean that area, use a soft pipe cleaner or lint brush.

8. Oil your bobbin area. The message here is "less is more". You only need a single tiny drop of oil occasionally to keep your machine happy and running well. Overoiling, on the other hand, can be bad for it. Place a single drop in the center of your bobbin housing area, on the white wick if your machine has one, or in the groove in the center, if it doesn't, for top-loading bobbins.

For front- or side-loading, put a drop of oil on the outside ring of where your bobbin case sits (i.e. the part that will have moving pieces when you crank your machine. Once the oil is in, hand-crank your machine 1-2 revolutions to help distribute this oil then mop up any excess with a clean Q-tip.

9. Finally, reassemble everything. This means re-seating the bobbin housing and case. For drop-in bobbins, the black part just slides in under the retaining bars. Re-attach your needle plate, presser foot, and needle (fresh needle please! Almost no one replaces their needles at the recommended rate so you're almost always due for a new one). Re-thread your machine and now you're back in business! That's it.

Infrequent Maintenance

By infrequent, I mean maintenance that should be done by a professional. This needs to be done about once per year if you sew regularly. You can stretch it to a 2-3 year interval if you're only sewing 1-2 times per month, but please don't let it go too long. It can be expensive, but it's critical for the longevity of your machine because a professional is going to open the head and body of your machine to oil the moving parts you aren't oiling with your own maintenance. They're also going to check the wear on those parts to recommend replacement before they have a chance to cause damage to other parts and also check the timing of your machine (i.e. the synchronization of your needle and bobbin case) to help ensure everything is running smoothly.

More than likely, the location you bought your sewing machine from offers or can recommend someone who services sewing machines and can perform annual maintenance. Otherwise, do a google search for sewing and vacuum repair places. More than likely there's one in your area. Don't ask me why sewing and vacuum services are always paired, but they generally are.

If both of those options fail, see if you can find an alterations shop (i.e. wedding dress boutique or dry cleaner that also offers repair services) and ask them where they get their machines serviced. They will almost always be able to get you some good information because they use those services themselves.

Basic Troubleshooting

First of all, frequent cleaning and oiling can fix a lot of issues you might have with skipped stitches and thread breaks. Here's my hierarchy of things to try any time my machine has an issue aside from adjusting tension (such as thread shredding, thread breaks, or skipped stitches).

  1. Re-thread the machine - If I'm getting wonky stitches or thread breaks. The first thing I always try is rethreading both the top and bobbin threads. If you hit a thick seam, it's very easy for the thread to pop out of the tension guides without you realizing it and this will wreak havoc on things. When you re-thread, make sure your presser foot is up. This releases the tension disks and makes sure everything gets threaded properly. This is the same reason why you always want your presser foot down even when free motion quilting. With the presser foot in the up position, you basically have no tension control.

  2. Install a new needle - If rethreading didn't work, I'll drop in a fresh needle. Most of us, myself included, don't change our needles as frequently as recommended (at least at the beginning of each project but even more frequently if it's a big project). Dull needles result in increased resistance going through the fabric and this puts more wear on your machine and can result in skipped stitches. Even if you've recently replaced a needle, it's worth trying a fresh one again because occasionally you get a bad needle; i.e one that didn't quite get sharpened enough or has a bur in the needle eye that can shred your thread. You'd be surprised how often this happens.

  3. Try a smaller-sized needle - Still having trouble? try a needle with a smaller eye, particularly if the problem is skipped stitches. We like big eyes to keep the friction on the thread low, but too big and the thread can bump around within the eye resulting in a skipped stitch. Going down a size or changing to a needle type that has a smaller eye (like a universal rather than a top-stitch needle) can fix this especially if the first two things didn't help.

  4. Clean your machine - You'd be surprised how much lint build-up can affect the performance of your machine. If you're having issues that the first 3 things haven't addressed, give your machine a good clean and see if that helps. This is particularly true for free-motion quilting. If you've tried all the things and nothing is working, a good clean, even if you think you don't need it, will fix many evils. It's like magic!

  5. Timing - If none of these things have worked, this is when I would take it in for professional service. Likely, the timing of your machine is the problem and it's going to require a trained professional to fix it anyways.

Ta da! Now you know how to keep your machine running smoothly. Now repeat after me:

"I promise that I will remember to clean my sewing machine before it looks like a cotton candy machine exploded in it!"

Take care of your tools and they'll take care of you!


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