Saturday, 13 August 2011

Zen and the Art of Sewing Machine Maintenance

(N.B. I am aware I am not the first person to use this title for a blog post, but it was too good to walk away from.) Now, I'm so far from being technically minded it's ridiculous but I'm a firm believer that knowledge is power, so I've been attempting to learn more about sewing machines, how they work and how to look after them. So when Richard, the sewing machine service and repair man, dropped by work yesterday, I took the opportunity to quiz him on a few things machine-related. (Sneaky Richard pap:)

I imagine I'm not alone in being less than technically minded, and who wants to spend a chunk of their window of sewing opportunity fannying around with a misbehaving sewing machine? So I thought I'd share the few bits I learnt in the hope that at some point it may save you some time and hassle.

Last week I got Richard to service my domestic sewing machine and overlocker and I received a verbal slap on the wrist for leaving it so long and allowing them to get so fuzzed up and dry. He suggests that you get your machine serviced once a year if you use it a lot, but I guess you could get away with longer if you remember to oil it regularly.

(the machine I use most at work)

Richard reckons that the most common problem, or root of problems he deals with is people using the wrong sized needle for the task they are undertaking. I know I'm guilty of this, it's sheer laziness, but I'm trying to be better at selecting the right needle every time I change fabric type. Not doing so often results in broken or bended needles, which can cause damage to the machine's inner workings, most often to the hook pick up point (literally a hook which catches the top thread and makes it over lap with the bobbin thread to create the chain of interlocked threads that is a row of stitches). A broken needle can easily burr the tip of this hook which in turn can catch the thread, create snags or loops of threads.

He also regularly gets contacted by people complaining about all manner of machine and stitch malfunctions which have actually been caused by either having their needle fitted in the wrong way, or the thread threaded through in the wrong direction. He went through a lengthy set of amusing annecdotes of people travelling miles to bring him their problematic machine, in horrendous weather conditions when facing impending deadlines, wasting hours in the process, simply for him to take one glance and have to break the news that their needle is in the wrong way round. Guess none of them will be making that mistake again!

Another common complaint is of course 'birds nesting': when your thread gets in a crazy mess at the beginning of, during, or at the end of a row of stitching that takes forever to unpick. Generally this is caused by top tension issues. Commonly the thread will be under an incorrect amount of tension because the machine hasn't been threaded up properly and the top thread isn't going through the tension disks correctly. This often happens when people thread their machine up whilst the sewing machine foot is down. If you are having birds nesting issues, re-thread your machine making sure the foot is up and that the thread runs inbetween the disks. Still problems? Then try adjusting the top tension.

Slipped stitches are something I recently experienced. That's when you notice that some stitches in a row haven't 'caught' correctly, so you get some random long ones in what would otherwise be an even row. This is usually caused by (once again) using a needle which isn't the right size for the thickness of fabric you are using, or (as was the case with me) your needle is a bit blunt and therefore sometimes bouncing off the fabric rather than piercing it.

But it's not just the needle that you may need to change when using a variety of thicknesses of fabric. Something I totally didn't realise is that you may need to increase the foot pressure when using thinner fabric. On my machine, this is a small screw on the top which needs twisting one way or another.

One more point he made (which I think I had actually figured out for myself over the years), is that you should only take your work out from the machine when the take-up is at it's highest position. The take-up is the loop that your thread runs through at the front of the machine (see pic above). Now on my domestic sewing machine at home, the take-up is hidden behind the plastic facade so you can't see when it is at the top or whatever, but I have kind of got used to sensing when it is in this position. This is the right stage of a stitch to extract your work.

My favourite tip that Richard imparted to me yesterday was regarding when you want to sew a row of stitching that involves making an angle at a corner, like if you are hemming a tablecloth, or top stitching a collar or patch pocket. This is done by taking your foot off the peddle mid row of stitching, and lifting the foot up when the needle is still down (piercing the fabric), then pivoting the fabric so you are re-starting sewing in a new direction, lowering the foot and carrying on with your stitching. I remember my mum teaching me this and encourageing me to practice sewing triangles from a continuous row of stitching when I was about nine or ten. Sometimes when I try and do that, I get a stitch at the corner that doesn't seem to 'catch', and is diagonal, spoiling my neat angle I'm trying to create. Richard explained that my mistake here that I'm pivoting my fabric and restarting my row of stitching at the wrong point of a stitch. Before I raise the the foot and pivot my fabric etc., I should turn the wheel by hand so that the needle is in a position when it has gone all the way down to it's lowest point and started to come up again to the point that it is almost out of the fabric again. At this point the stitch has definately 'caught' and so can't 'pop' out like I'd been experiencing.

Finally, not that this will probably apply to most of the sewing readers of my blog, but if your machine is going to be unused for a period of time, do not store it anywhere too cold (like a garage) or too hot (like a loft). Machines are happiest at normal room temperature, where they are less likely to dry out.

I'm sure most of this is common sense and telling y'all is like teaching you to suck eggs, but I thought it worth while to pass it on anyhow. Happy successful stitching lovelies!

15 comments:

Suzie said...

Wow - this is SUCH a useful post...you have answered a lot of questions I was actually wondering about today!!! Thanks Zoe :)
P.S. I just unscrewed my needle plate for the first time yesterday and was horrifies by the amount of fluff I found - I gave myself a huge slap on the wrist for not doing it sooner!!!!

didyoumakethat said...

Agreed with Suzie! Such a useful and practical post. You can't pay for this type of information. In particular, I love the top tip about where to leave your needle when pivoting on a corner. Thank you so much for taking the time to quiz him and then to pass that information on. Eek - wouldn't even know how to oil my machine.

Claire (aka Seemane) said...

Great post Zoe, I think |I'm going to print it out and file it as hardcopy (as well as bookmark it). Cheers to you + Richard :)

Melizza said...

Awesome post! I am totally bookmarking this post for future troubleshooting. Thanks!

Isidore said...

I could have really used this post when starting out! I think I've figured all of these out on my own by now... the hard way. I learned to sew on an old machine that probably hadn't been serviced in several decades; it had so many problems. Now I've got a new machine that was a gift and probably the cheapest thing you can buy. Even though everyone says these machines are the worst, I don't have many problems with it. I guess I've just learned how to coddle a machine.

Ruth said...

Great post! Another thing I learned recently is to buy more feet! My cheap machine never did its stretch stitches properly but just created nests underneath and yanked the bobbin out of place until I bought an even feed foot. Now it's performing like a machine that costs five times as much.

katherine h said...

A most useful post. Thanks for recording all that info for us.

MrsC said...

Very useful information! A story my machine guy told once was about the customer who wanted to buy a new felt pad for under their foot plate - they had so much lint squidged into it they actually thought it was a part of how the machine worked! He also told us never to blow into the mechanics to get rid of lint etc as the moisture from breath is bad for the machine, and to not use that cheap overlocking thread that comes on cones as it is not good for machines (I use it all the time and always have but then I killed my last machine after 20 years so maybe he is right!)

Shelly said...

Great post. Useful and practical information everyone can benefit from.

Christina said...

Thank you for that post! I wish I had known the trick for pivoting a corner two weeks ago when I was trying my hand at machine embroidering my jeans pockets. Well next time I'm wiser.

Law said...

Great post Zoe,

My cardinal sin is harldy ever changing needles. I didn't think it was such a big deal, how wrong I was!!!

threadsquare said...

You have no idea how funny this is to me right now! Fantastic tips :) I guess I now know the reason my electronic machine always ends with the needle in the highest position, though it drives me crazy when hand cranking.

Alessa said...

Thanks for those tips, they sound incredibly useful! I'm also guilty of not frequently changing needles, and I never really think about the little numbers that I seem to faintly remember have something to do with recommended fabric weight... :D

carlycrafts said...

Thank you for such a useful post!

Bob Jossward said...

Thank you for such a wonderful post. I strongly believe that some of your maintenance tips would also work for other machines. http://rushengineering.com.au/

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