Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Simple Sewing Machine Troubleshooting

There's one thing that is guaranteed when working with sewing machines, they will sometimes do other than what's wanted!  Breaking threads, birds nests, uneven stitching or worse still, no stitches at all, these things happen on budget and upmarket machines alike.  Strangely, I rather like these little conundrums to solve, although I'd rather they didn't occur when I'm on a mission to get stitching finished!  It's very easy to get frustrated and throw in the towel and yet a few simple actions is often all it takes to get your stitching back on track.
The step that very often sorts out problematic stitching is a simple rethread of the machine - both top and bottom threads.  And if you are unsure or have forgotten, it's best not to guess.  Modern machines usually have markers to remind you through the threading sequence.  Where this isn't the case, it really is best to look up how in the instruction manual.  And even if it looks like everything is correctly threaded, a complete rethread still often does the trick - one of those stitching mysteries!
If rethreading doesn't sort out the problem, then next up comes checking the thread and needles - getting both right makes a HUGE difference.  I'll start with thread quality and a quick mention about those lovely old threads that I started my stitching life with.  The disappointing news is that rarely perform as well on modern machines as their modern counterparts.  My best advice is to keep to look at lovingly and if can't resist using, a sewing machine needle with a large eye is a must.
Modern threads are of mixed quality and you generally get what you pay for.  Those bargain threads from discount stores on little cardboard reels are poor value for money and best avoided for machine use.  Personally I'm a Gutermann girl and I'm lucky to have a great thread supply in my Somerset Stitchery.  Other makes I rate are Maderia and Metler and I find the little extra cost is well worth it.
Even with a good quality thread, the sewing machine needle must still be right.  I know, at first glance all look the same and yet the difference the right needle makes is HUGE.  It's really worth getting to grips with the various types and I have covered the basics in my sewing machine needles post.  The bottom line is that the type of needle you have really does need to match the thread and fabric.  Needle problems often occur when you switch thread types and then suddenly the thread starts to break.  You may be amazed to hear that a fast moving thread creates a ridge in the eye of the needle and when a different thread is used, the ridge does not match the new thread and breakages occur.  Getting yourself a good stock of machine needles is a seriously smart investment.
Next up is tension, no not what you're feeling because you have a machine stitching problem!  What I'm referring to is the tension that your machine applies to the threads while stitching.  Modern sewing machines are built to tension the top and bottom threads as you stitch and to fully understand for your machine, have a read about the tension options in your manual.  Generally most sewing machines generally have some kind of top tension that can be adjusted and when the thread is too tight or loose, this is how stitching might look.
Unless the machine is fully computerised, the top tension is usually adjusted through a dial at the top of the machine.  You will also likely see a red marker or some of the numbers are marked in red and this indicates the standard tension setting or range.  I usually only change from the standard setting when a rethread and check of the needle and thread hasn't solved the stitching problem.  To increase the tension and tighten the top thread you increase the number and to decrease you go for a smaller number.  Oh and remember when you've finished to put back to the standard setting!
Assuming the bobbin is threaded correctly, I find that problems with the bobbin tension happen much less frequently.  When it does happen, too tight will ruck the fabric from beneath and the bobbin thread will come through to the top when too loose.
On a machine has a traditional push in bobbin, you will see a small tension screw on one side which can be adjusted with a small screw driver.  To reduce the tension you turn to the left and to increase to the right.  The amount you need to adjust is usually tiny, so go slowly.  I always have a spare bobbin case that I can mess around with and I mark it so I know which one is which.
I must also highlight that many front loading bobbin machines require oiling and serious damage will occur if neglected.  To be sure, you MUST check your manual which will give clear instructions on when and how.  Some machines will have an oil warning light, but not all.  I can actually hear when the oil is running low on my machines as the stitching sound is much harder.  PLEASE - find a way to remember this vital step if it is required for your machine.
Drop in bobbins are self tensioning and as long as they're threaded correctly, they don't require adjustment.  The most important thing to look for is a single line of thread from the left of the bobbin holder to the underside of the needle plate.  Sometimes this comes adrift with fast stitching and this is when the bobbin thread will become very loose and pull through to the top.
And one last consideration for some machines, is presser foot pressure. Not all machines have this and you will need to check.  Adding or decreasing pressure with setting can be useful when stitching very thin or thick fabrics as it helps to keep the presser foot flat.
For all that the solutions stitching problems are often simple, there are sadly occasions when technical help is required.  When the same problem keeps occurring regardless of thread/needle/tension, I know it's time to consult my friendly sewing machine mechanic Clive at Somerset Sewing Machines in Bridgwater.  For those living further afield in need of help, ask around fellow stitchers in your area and a name or two will quickly come to light.
I am sure that many readers of this post will already be aware of all the points I've covered.  The trick is of course to remember to check them through when stitching goes awry - not always easy when frustration has kicked in.  Just think TNT - THREAD/NEEDLE/TENSION and you will be amazed at how easily many machine stitching problems are resolved.


  1. Really helpful blog, thanks Pam

    1. Many thanks Ann - what this space in 2017 for instructional stitch videos!