Keeping our sewing machines in tip top shape is keen to keep us sane and sewing, and it starts with the quilting and sewing notions we use! We asked Ralph, our sewing machine maintenance expert for some tips.

Don’t use cheap sewing thread! The needle has to form a loop to make a stitch and cheap thread is usually soft or loose, resulting in poorly formed loops and the dreaded skipped stitches.

All thread will leave behind dust and little bits in the machine. White thread tends to be cleaner; black thread is “hairy”. This is due to the dye in black and other coloured threads. So you can’t avoid all dust and bits but better quality thread is less hairy = less dust and bits = fewer machine problems.

Thank your grandma kindly for giving you all her old leftover thread….and then toss it out after she leaves! When thread gets old, it gets weak so seams won’t last. Even for a donation quilt, you don’t waste your time on a project that isn’t going to last.

When changing thread, we thrifty quilters and sewists often want to save thread and pull it out from the top to remove it. But by pulling up, we’re dragging dust and broken bits of thread up into the tension disks, which over time, will cause problems. It’s better to cut off the thread at the top of the machine and pull it down through the needle. Better to waste a bit of thread than have to pay for repairs.

When winding sewing machine bobbins, make sure the thread is fed properly around the tension disk. There needs to be some tension on the thread or the bobbin won’t wind evenly. A “pyramid wind” means the thread is looser which can throw off the thread tension and as a result, your stitches. It may also lead to the bobbin thread breaking as you sew. You’ll also have to change the bobbin more often because there won’t be as much thread on it.


Guess what Ralph’s next tip is??? Don’t buy cheap sewing machine needles! They are not well manufactured (that’s why they’re cheaper) and many come out of the box slightly bent. You may not be able to see the bend but your machine will notice. Brand name needles such as Schmetz and John James are a better bet with their superior quality. They’ll last longer and work better in your project. Poorly made needles can lead to skipped stitches. A bent needle will tend to hit the hook, leading to ….you guessed it, repairs!

If you look at the point of the needle, you shouldn’t be able to see any silver. If it has a silver shiny look, it’s lost its point and is dull. As a rule of thumb, change your needle every project or after 8 hours of use.

All manufacturing companies’ home sewing machine needles are the same length and have a flat side on the shank so any needle should work in any home sewing machine. What will be different is which direction the flat side needs to face. Check your sewing machine manual to see if the flat side goes to the back, the left, or the right when inserting the needle. The flat side will NEVER face forward in any machine.

Inserting the needle incorrectly is a very common issue. If you are having problems with your sewing, remove the needle, check the direction of the flat side, and make sure the needle is fully inserted in its slot.

Sewing over a pin can cause a host of problems, in addition to warping or even breaking the needle. The needle can fold the pin and push down the hole where it may get into the gears. Or hitting the pin may push the needle bar up and throwing off the timing. Better to take a few seconds, stop just before the pin, remove it and then continue to sew.

Diagnosing some Common Problems
If you are having challenges, do these checks before you take your machine in for repair:

Is the needle fully inserted?
Is the needle’s flat side facing the right direction for your machine?                                                        
Change the needle, it may be dull or slightly bent.

STITCH LENGTH VARIES                                           
Check if the feed dogs are stuffed with dust and lint. If they are, clean them out.

Check if the sewing machine feed dogs are stuffed with dust and lint. If they are, clean them out.

Although this sounds like it would be a bobbin issue, it’s actually a top thread issue. Most likely, you have missed a threading point so cut the thread, pull it down through the needle, and rethread. If the problem continues, check the tension.

Regular Maintenance
One simple maintenance step helps to keep our machines in good working order…dealing with dust and lint. Excess accumulation in your bobbin case causes a number of the problems we regularly experience. If you’ve been working with fleece or flannel, even more lint and bits will have accumulated.

How to do it? Remove the throat plate then the bobbin case, and use a little brush to clean the feed dogs, the bobbin case and any other spots where you see dust. Just don’t dig the brush in too deeply or you may affect some springs. You can also carefully use your vacuum hose to suck out the dust and lint.          

When to do it? Ideally, take a few minutes after each project to clean out the dust, change the needle, and maybe wind a few bobbins so you’re all set for your next sewing adventure.

Nervous about removing the throat plate and bobbin case and getting them back in correctly? A couple of hints: your manual should have diagrams of how they go in. Or take some photos with your cell phone before you remove them. 


Regular oiling is a good idea as well. In older machines, you will be able to reach the spots that need oil but they tended to be tucked out of reach in a newer machine so Ralph would have to oil those.

If you are able to oil your machine (check your machine manual):

Do it annually if you sew often/daily or at least every two years.

ONLY use sewing machine oil! It is vegetable based and easy to wipe off.  Other oils like “3 in 1 oil” will gum things up over time.

Be sparing with the oil and wipe off any surplus. You don’t want it to later drip on your fabric.

If your sewing machine oil is turning yellow, you’ve had it a long time and it needs to go!

AND DON’T FORGET: once you’ve done your maintenance, put in a fresh sharp needle!

Taking a Machine in for Maintenance
Why bother to have an expert like Ralph do maintenance on your machine if you’re doing regular maintenance yourself and aren’t having any problems? For the same reason you maintain your car (change the oil, get air in the tires)…to avoid more expensive problems in the future. He gets right down into the guts of the machine. For instance, the grease the manufacturer used when building the sewing machine will harden after several years and gum things up. A really dirty dusty machine interior can cause overheating and damage to the motor or motherboard. Sometimes when we buy a sewing machine, we’re told it will never need oiling. Wrong! The hook and the needle are moving very fast and heating up, just like a car motor, so just like a motor, there will need to be new oil at some point.     

Here’s how we see our machine…’s what Ralph sees!


What does Ralph (or any good sewing machine maintenance person) do?
√ opens full body then cleans and lubricates all mechanical elements thoroughly
√ makes sure bobbin winder working properly
√ checks the needle to hook clearance (can cause skipped stitches)
√ checks that zigzag stitch is working
√ makes sure the tension is still set to machine specifications
√ makes sure the needle is in centre of the throat plate (otherwise it may hit the plate and break or cause other damage)
√ adjusts upper and lower thread tensions
√ checks the hook timing (otherwise, missed stitches can occur)
√ checks that the feed dogs lifting up through the throat plate far enough
√ checks that the feed dogs are in time with the needle so fabric moves properly
√ checks the belt tension for motor and the timing belt (if there is one)
√ cleans the foot pedal assembly (yep, dust and lint can get in there too! can cause “runaway” sewing)
√ repairs the needle plate if needed (nicks in the plate can cut thread – this happens if you pull fabric through machine “to make things go faster” instead of letting it do the work!)
√ always puts in a fresh needle (since he doesn’t know how long the existing one has been in and whether it is a good quality needle)

Best of all, he does all that in the one day he’s in Cobwebs so unless you have a more major problem (and he’ll call you if you do before he proceeds), you’ll have your machine back the next day! If you’re not in the Shelburne, Ontario area, check for sewing machine service people in your area.

Here is a handy sewing notions to help you maintain your machine: Cleaning Brushes