If you’ve dug out your sewing machine for some quarantine crafting, now is a terrible time to have to lug it to a repair shop if something goes wrong. Fortunately, a lot of the common sewing machine glitches are things you can fix yourself in just a few minutes.
I love this checklist from the blog She’s a Sewing Machine Mechanic; as a veteran crafter I can attest that I’ve run into several of these problems, and these suggestions often do work. Read through that list for more info, but here are the top takeaways:
Adjust the thread and bobbin tension
If the thread keeps bunching up or if the stitching just looks wrong, chances are something’s too tight. A standard sewing machine uses two threads: one that unwinds from a spool on top of the machine and goes through the needle, and one that comes from a tiny spool underneath. When the machine is adjusted correctly, these two threads wrap around each other to create each stitch.
If one of these threads is tighter than the other, it can pull the resulting stitch out of whack. For example, if the bottom of your fabric looks like one tight thread with a bunch of loose little loops running around it, either your bobbin thread is too tight or your top thread is too loose.
So check both threads. Did you run the top thread through all the places it’s supposed to go when you were threading the machine? Did you load the bobbin correctly? If those both seem ok, check the tension settings for both threads. The top thread will have a tension selector—often a knob on the front of the machine. The bobbin thread’s tension is usually adjusted with a screw on the bobbin case (righty-tighty, lefty-loosey).
Check your needle
The needle has to be straight, sharp (usually) and installed correctly if you want it to do its job. Check that it’s not bent and replace it if you can’t remember when you last changed it. One side of the needle is flat where you attach it to the machine; usually that side should be toward the back, but it depends on your machine. When in doubt, check the manual.
Different fabrics require different needles, so make sure you’re using the correct one. Machine needles come in different sizes, and some are sharp while others are ballpoint. It’s hard to tell just from looking if you’re not familiar, so check the package. If the machine keeps skipping stitches, there’s a good chance you’re using the wrong needle. Here’s a guide to choosing the right one.
Make sure the settings will allow you to sew
If the machine won’t sew at all, you probably forgot to flip a switch somewhere. First, check the obvious things: is it turned on? Is the pedal connected? Is the presser foot down?
If the machine hums and whirs but the needle doesn’t move, you may have your bobbin winder turned on. This is a feature that lets the machine’s motor wind a bobbin for you, and it deactivates the whole sewing apparatus while you do that. Look for a switch. On an older machine turn the wheel that’s inside of the hand wheel on the side of the machine.
If the needle moves but the fabric doesn’t, check the feed dogs. These are the spiky bars underneath the needle that move to slide the fabric along as you sew it. There’s a switch that turns them off; you may have hit it accidentally, so just turn it back on.
Actually clean the darn thing
There are a few more things to check in the guide, but we’ve been through the big ones. One final thing to consider: If the machine is working more or less ok, but just acts a little weird sometimes, clean it! Open up the bobbin case and any other area that’s reasonably accessible, brush out the lint and apply a few drops of machine oil as the manual instructs. This is mineral oil; it’s not WD-40.
If all else fails, you may eventually need to call up a repair shop or get really in-depth with YouTube sewing machine repair videos. But in most cases, a misbehaving machine will do its job just fine once you check that everything is set up correctly.