Sewing Machine Troubleshooting

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Nothing can take your attention away from your quilting faster than a recalcitrant and uncooperative machine. If all your attention is focused on getting the machine to behave properly, virtually none of your attention is going to your sewing.

So what are some of the problems you might encounter?

Let’s back up a bit and talk about your machine.

It should be a good one. (No surprise there.) It’s the fundamental tool of your trade and it needs to do what you want it to do, first time, every time, flawlessly. (If you mess up, well, that’s a discussion for another time.)

I once bought a cute little, inexpensive, no-name machine, thinking it would be a good one to take to classes. (Just because some machines are portable doesn’t mean you’d want to have to carry them around.) Big mistake. For one thing, it didn’t have the features I was used to working with but more importantly, it didn’t sew well.

Then I thought I could use it at the office to check out whether or not a sewing technique would work as described. But again, it stitched so poorly, I spent most of the time wrestling with it rather than paying attention to testing out the technique.

When I finally gave up on it and asked our friendly maintenance guy to Put It In The Dumpster, I made him PROMISE not to think it’d make a good gift to someone who wanted to learn to sew. Anyone who tried to learn on that machine would have thrown up their hands in defeat and never taken up the endeavor again. To ensure that the machine would stay in the dumpster, I kept the presser feet and threw away the power cord somewhere else.

If you grew up with a mother or grandmother sewing on a particular brand of machine that was The Machine of its time, it may not still have that stature. Don’t automatically go for what they had.

If you’re lucky, your machine came from a quilt shop or a vendor exclusively devoted to selling a particular machine. The machine should come with lessons, assistance, and servicing—something your local big box store won’t offer.

Take advantage of the lessons. My first machine, purchased lo so many decades ago from Sears, offered lessons and I remember thinking, “Why bother? I know how to sew.” That was true, but I took the lessons anyway and was forever grateful that I had. Not only did I learn my way around that machine right from the start, but I also picked up some valuable sewing tips in the process. Note that this was a time when the most complicated thing about that machine was flipping open a cover on the top and inserting a cam to get a decorative stitch. Today’s machines have far more complex features that you’ll want to understand.

So now you have your machine, with its instruction booklet always kept handy, and you’re ready to sew.

Two things can happen as you take that first stitch, both of them annoying.

One is that the needle will become unthreaded. The other is the appearance of a rat’s nest of thread underneath your fabric.

First the issue of unthreading:

There are two ways to prevent that from happening.

One way is to check the position of the needle before you start sewing. If it is such that it will go up before it starts to come down to take that first stitch, and if you haven’t left a long enough tail when you trimmed after stitching before, the movement of the needle can pull the thread out of the eye.

If you’re not sure if the needle will go up as you start stitching or start down, check by turning the flywheel toward you and see how the needle moves. (The flywheel is that knob on the right side of your machine that turns as it moves the needle.)

The other trick to prevent that particular annoyance is to make sure that top thread tail is long enough to stay through the eye regardless of how the needle moves when you start sewing

To lengthen the thread tail, you want to pull the top thread through the eye of the needle in the direction it was threaded. When the needle is threaded front-to-back, pull toward the back (away from you). In the case where the needle is threaded from left-to-right, pull to the right. (Make sure the presser foot is up when you do this. Lowering the presser foot is what engages the tension disks, and when they’re on duty, you can’t pull the thread freely.)

Now for that rat’s nest.

Just about every machine I’ve ever encountered is much happier if you hold down the top and bobbin threads as you start to stitch.

If you’re at the edge of the fabric, simply pull the top and bobbin threads to the back, put your finger on them to anchor them in place, and start sewing. Once that first stitch is taken, the threads are locked and you can let the thread tails hang loose

If you’re not at an edge (for example, while you’re doing machine appliqué or quilting), pull the bobbin thread to the surface of the work before you start stitching. You do this in the same way you brought the bobbin thread to the top after loading the bobbin—ONE down-and-up of the needle. (Down-and-up more than once and the bobbin thread is locked into a stitch and you won’t be able to pull it to the surface.) Move the work from beneath the needle.

Tug on the top thread and a loop of bobbin thread should appear. If it doesn’t, try again, making sure that the presser foot is down. I know my machine does a better job of catching the bobbin thread through fabric when the presser foot is down and yours may act the same way. Raise the presser foot and pull the bobbin thread up by inserting the point of your scissors (or seam ripper or stiletto) in the loop.

Once you’ve got that bobbin thread where you can see (and control) it, anchor it with the top thread using your finger, lower the presser foot, and take the first stitch. No messy clump of thread will appear under your work.

I do have one machine that features a small cutter on the door to the bobbin area. I can load the bobbin, cut the thread short, and start stitching without bringing the bobbin thread to the top. The machine manages to catch that short tail in the first stitch, so that’s the one instance when I don’t have to pull the bobbin thread up. But that’s only when I first load the bobbin. Every time after that I pull the tail up to the surface of my work before I start stitching.

Some other problems with a quick fix

Your thread is breaking.

Unthread the machine and rethread it.

Yes, I know you’ll think, “But I just threaded it! That can’t be the problem.” Well, the last time it happened to me, I thought the same thing. It turned out that somehow I’d pulled the top thread while moving a large quilt around and had wrapped it around the flywheel. Of course it broke.

Your thread is shredding.

Change the needle.

If the eye of the needle isn’t large enough to accommodate the thread, the thread will shred. Sometimes, even with a brand new needle, there can be a small burr in the eye. (Not every flaw gets caught during inspection.) In either case, the thread will shred.

The stitching is skipping or is uneven.

Change the needle.

It can get dull faster than you might imagine, especially if it’s stitching through fabric and batting, and that can affect its performance.

I once had a quilting instructor who reported that when she mentioned in class that you should change your machine needle after every eight hours of sewing (at the very least), one of her students said with surprise, “You can change it?”

Ever since someone described the sad situation of animals going through trash and biting down on something sharp or pointed, I keep a small tin labeled Sharps Disposal for bent pins, used needles, and dull rotary cutter blades. When it’s full, I duct tape the whole thing shut and then throw it away.

Your machine is noisier than usual and/or doesn’t seem to be running smoothly.

STOP. Clean and, if that manual you keep nearby tells you to, oil it. Make sure to use oil specifically designed for sewing machines.

Libby Lehman used to start her classes by having us all clean our machines. Some machines were quite well maintained and were already clean and ready to go. But some pulled out dust and lint that looked like felted wool. There always seemed to be at least one student who was cleaning her machine for the first time. Don’t be that one student.

Treat your machine well and it will treat you well in return.

by Linda Baxter Lasco

Linda’s past and present roles in the quilting world include teacher, lecturer, judge, and quilt shop staff member. She also completed stints as program chair for both the Artful Hands Quilt Guild and the Rhododendron Needlers Quilt Guild, in Mansfield and Walpole, Massachusetts, respectively.   

Additionally, while working as a senior editor at the American Quilter’s Society for nine years, Lasco edited many books and stand-alone patterns. She also wrote the quilting book, Red, White & Quilted, published in 2014.

If you have questions for Linda, please send email them to content@accuquilt.com

Comments (4)

  • Joyce Robinson said on August 2, 2016 at 12:10 pm

    While I have been a quilter for a long time, I still love reading these helpful hints. Yes, I know all of this, but sometimes, we all need these reminders of how to take care of our machine; and for beginners, this is a great blog. I appreciate you taking your time to post this for all of us.
    Thanks Linda

  • David Flynn said on May 11, 2017 at 1:28 am

    Thank you Linda for this enlightening piece of writing. Yes, strangely enough we all forget to give our machines a good clean especially when we are too busy quilting. I own four sewing machines, three are portable enough to carry to classes with me, the other is a longer-arm machine that I keep in the sewing room (and really quite heavy to carry about) and housed in my sewing table. People ask why so many sewing machines? Well your machines need serviced or indeed repaired once in a while, so when one is in, I have a replacement to use in the sewing room, one is used for classes and packed away in my trolley bag, and I alternate between the two in the sewing room, and one is a spare. The old Irish saying is to ‘have an heir and a spare’! I do keep one of the higher level machines for my weekly classes, as I am off the opinion, when you take a more basic model to class you can be sure that you will be looking for a particular stitch design that day that is not on the machine.

    My four sewing machines, serger (over-locker) and embroidery machine are all made by the same manufacturer, a few reasons for this, one I like what they manufacture, and secondly, the threading system, stitch patterns, presser feet, bobbins and foot controls are all compatible and interchangeable – thereby, reducing costs, and as the workings of the machines are all very similar, if not identical – saves trouble in learning new machines again.

    Looking forward Linda to more of your informative and very interesting posts. Best wishes.

  • Dee Joyce said on May 11, 2017 at 7:18 am

    A couple of these hints I learned the hard way. Some were new to me! While I used to say, “Oh, I don’t need to read that, it’s just a repeat of another’s ideas, I know read them with much tenacity! One new thing learned is such a pearl… I want to know everything there is to know, so I can stop making mistakes! Thank you for the new lessons and reminders!

  • Deb Singer said on May 11, 2017 at 7:49 am

    I’d like to add that when you’ve changed the needle, rethreaded the machine, rethreaded the bobbin, cleaned and oiled the machine, smacked it a few times, cussed at it, begged it to sew nice for you and it STILL isn’t sewing right, you take it to your trusted sewing machine repair person! Picking mine up today at lunch! LOL! My wonderful husband was helping me load the vehicle (once for a class, once for a retreat) and laid my sewing machine case on it’s side! Throws off the timing especially on a non-computerized machine that my repair guys sets with weights, magnets and gravity! He’s lucky all his body parts are still intact! However, he’s paying the repairman!!!

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