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Sewing Machine Maintenance 101

There is nothing quite so frustrating as sitting down to sew and instead of hearing the smooth purr of your machine, its language changes to kkkalunk, grrrrrowl, and bird nests grow where a uniform stitch should be. This behavior can mean many things, but the most likely cause is an unhappy machine crying for some light maintenance. Ninety percent of the time a little oil, tension adjustment or a new sewing machine needle will take care of the issue.

Dusting and oiling work wonders, in that order. Dust particles make your machine work harder, as they reduce the already small spaces between moving parts. Dust also absorbs oil, so clearing the dust out will make your oiling efforts last longer. Nothing replaces a good quality sewing machine lint brush. Run it under the stitch plate and around the bobbin shuttle at least once a month, and more often if you sew for hours every day. A small drop of oil on the brushes help grab dust in hard to reach places. Don’t be tempted to use canned compressed air, as this just compacts dust into the machinery where it’s nearly impossible to remove.

Why oil? Think of the forces your machine tolerates when you sew. Metal parts in contact can only hold up for so long without oil. The tell-tale signs of too little oil are small piles of metal shavings inside the machine, which can be the beginning of the end for your trusty steed. The type of oil you use is important too. Please, please don’t use your husband’s 3-in-1 oil. This stuff has alcohol in it, and is not good for those delicate machine parts. Buy sewing machine oil, because it is designed specifically for sewing machines.

Train yourself to listen to your machine, and learn how it sounds when just tuned and oiled. Machines get progressively noisier with use, and it’s amazing how much a bit of oil quiets them down. Notice I said “a bit.” Too much oil is just as damaging as too little. This is the main reason your sewing shop recommends annual maintenance, because most of us are too lazy to learn how to care for our machines. Or we’re too fearful we’ll screw them up.

I helped a friend tune up her machine a few weeks ago, and when I asked her how often she oiled, her reply was “Never! I don’t want to get oil stains on my projects!” While this practice keeps your fabrics clean, it isn’t the best way to care for the machine. One remedy for cleaning up after machine maintenance is to sew on some fabric scraps which will absorb excess oil.

It’s a good idea to write down when you oil your machine and establish a maintenance routine if you don’t have one set up. The rule of thumb is to oil every 40 hours of machine use, but if you sew sporadically that’s hard to determine. For the average sewist, once a month is adequate. That works out to about 8 hours of sewing a week.

Don’t be afraid to solve a sewing machine mystery yourself. Worst case scenario is if you can’t fix it, you take it in for a tune up or repair. Usually it won’t cost any more if you make it worse. For those of you who don’t want to get your hands dirty, and have the $75 to $120 fee, your repair person will love you. Show your machine some love, and you will reap the rewards of a long and happy time together.

16 thoughts on “Sewing Machine Maintenance 101”

  1. Gentlemen:

    I own a Brother Quattro 2 / Innov-is 6700D. The problem that I’m facing every time that I try to do some embroidery the thread breaks (it get separated). I re-threaded and still happens again. After so many years, now I’m experiencing this kind of situation. The store where I bought the sewing/embroidery machine just closed and the repair tech is no longer in Puerto Rico either. I don’t know where to bring it to fix this situation. I will appreciate some advise.
    Laura Bekin

  2. Hi I just got a new sewing machine Singer tradition 2250 but I only sew with palm/coconut leaf, what we in the Bahamas, straw work or straw craft. I am having issues with tension & upper thread breaking .please help

    1. Hi, Gail! You would have to refer to your machines service manual for that information. I will see if I can find one for you and get back to you. Thank you for your patience!

    2. Hi, Gail! Unfortunately, we are unable to track down a service manual for your machine. The only thing I can suggest is giving our technician, Dennis, a call. He offers free repair advice. Give us a call at 888-824-1192 and ask for Dennis. Thank you!

  3. I saw your video on repairing the gears on my Singler 538 model. I brought and replace the 4 gears I got fro your shop. Now, I need to know what grease I need to use for these gears? I read some where on the internet that the plastic gears(which these are ) do not really need lubricant? I think they need them but not whole buch as sown on the video. (ha overkill?)

    1. Hi, Bill! There is a rumor going around saying plastic gears don’t need to be greased. I double checked with our lead technician, and he confirmed that even plastic gears need to be greased for your machine to run at its best. We swear by Tri Flow Synthetic Grease. It’s wonderful. You can find it here:

  4. Hi Sarah, love this sight so many great tips. I have a Janome Memory Craft 6600P and a Imagine Baby Lock Overlocker. Both of these machine manuals say not to oil them, but I live in a very remote part of Australia so am not able to get a good tune up. Can I do this myself.
    Thank you for any help you can give

    1. Hi! I had the same question about one of my machines awhile back and I asked our repair tech. The manuals say not to oil them…but really you have to touch up the oil every once and a while. Just make sure you are using sewing machine oil. If you have any questions on how to tune up your machine yourself, you can call and leave a message with Dennis or get the service manual for your machine. Good luck!

  5. I have a Singer Signature 9340 with top loading bobbin. Even tension is at 0, upper thread tension is still too tight. Is there any tension adjustment for bobbin? How could I fix this?

    1. Hi Zaw! Yes, you can definitely adjust the bobbin tension. There is a tiny screw on the bobbin case that can be adjusted to loosen or tighten the bobbin tension. However, it’s strange that the tension is still too tight on the loosest setting. What kind of thread are you using?

    1. Thank you for the information. Is there a diagram where I can see which parts to oil my baby lock machine.

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