Just like a car, a sewing machine requires occasional maintenance to keep it running smoothly. In between tune-ups, there are a few things you can do to keep your machine happy.
Check your Manual First
Although I will be covering some maintenance tips here, you should always check your user manual first. Every machine is slightly different, and yours may have specific instructions. If the specific instructions from your machine contradict the advice in this post, follow the manual instructions. This is the case with new sewing machines especially, as most manufacturers recommend against customer oiling. This is to prevent the boards from coming into contact with the oil on accident.
Your machine manual will tell you what to take apart and clean for maintenance, as well as illustrate any areas that should be oiled. In this post, I will not recommend taking anything apart, as each machine has different assembly instructions. Not following these instructions can cause issues with the machine and even break parts. For more detailed instructions on maintenance of your machine, I highly recommend coming in for a workshop or a one-on-one lesson.
Use Your Machine!
This is the most important, and most overlooked, piece of maintenance. Every sewing machine uses grease and/or oil. Over time, this grease and oil can actually harden or get sticky – causing your machine to slow or even seize.
If you do not frequently use your machine, run it for a few minutes once a month. I recommend using scrap fabric to check that the machine is still stitching properly, but it is not necessary. All you need to do is make sure that all the parts in the machine move a little bit. Move the dials, use the reverse button, and change stitches. Again, this only has to be done once a month or so, and only for a few minutes. If the machine seems to be running slowly, the oil and grease may be a little stiff – it should free up with about a minute of use. If the machine is making loud noises or smoking, do not continue to run it. If the machine does not speed up after a minute of use, it needs to be cleaned and oiled by a technician.
Lack of use is probably the most common issue we see in the shop. Even six months of no use is enough to cause the machine to seize! If you have to, mark a day on the calendar every month to remind you to use it. Contrary to popular belief, a machine that is used regularly will last longer than one that is used very rarely.
This is where my warning starts to come into play: follow your machine manual for regular maintenance before you follow my (very broad) instructions. Again, if you would like more detailed instructions, or prefer to learn hands-on, we invite you to come to a workshop or set up an appointment for a one-on-one. All maintenance should be done with the machine unplugged.
I recommend following these steps every 1-3 months. The more you use the machine, the more frequently you should clean it.
Step One: Cleaning
Before you oil your sewing machine, you must make sure it is free of lint and thread. Remove the thread and bobbin from your machine before starting. If you have a removable bobbin case, take that out too. Remove the presser foot and the needle. With a soft-bristle brush (we use shaving brushes!), gently brush any of the lint or thread that you can see. To gain more access, slowly turn the handwheel in the operating direction while you clean. If you are comfortable removing the needle plate or inset bobbin case, do so. With the needle you removed from the machine (or an older one that is not broken), gently scrape in between the teeth of the feed dogs. Use your soft brush to remove the particles that are released.
Do not use compressed air to clean your machine. Compressed air will actually push lint and dust further into your machine. Over time, this debris can get stuck in gears and other components.
Step Two: Oiling
As a general rule, when metal rubs on metal, you should oil it. Check your user manual for indicated oil holes – some machines will actually have little markers directly on the machine. These are typically red. Do not over-oil your machine. One – two drops is really all you need. Wipe away excess oil with a paper towel or soft rag.
If you get your sewing machine tuned up every year, there really is only one or two places you have to oil – we oil everything else for you. These two places are the raceway and the needlebar.
The raceway is the part of the machine that rotates around the bobbin case. This should always be oiled with the bobbin case in the machine. To find exactly where you need to oil, turn the handwheel in the operating direction and watch the bobbin case area. Place a drop of oil between the bobbin case and the part that rotates around it. Turn the handwheel a few times in the operating direction after oiling to ensure equal distribution, and wipe up the excess.
The needlebar, as its name implies, is the bar that holds your needle. To oil, turn the handwheel in the operating direction until the needlebar is at or near its lowest position. If you tilt the machine back (or even get lower than it), you should see the housing that holds the needlebar in place. Place a drop of oil on the needlebar as close to the housing as possible, and turn the handwheel in the operating direction to raise the needlebar again. Again, wipe up any excess oil.
After oiling your machine, I strongly recommend sewing a few lines of stitches on scrap fabric. Sometimes residual oil can soak into the thread you are using – dirty thread is not very pretty, and it can stain your fabric.
Step Three: Re-assembly
The final step is putting your machine back together. Every machine is put together differently, which is why I did not explain taking them apart. However, if you choose to do so, there are a few notes I would like to make.
Sewing machine parts should never be tight or challenging to install. Do not force parts back into place. This is especially true with needle plates and plastic bobbin cases. If you are having trouble putting a part in, please contact us!
Make a diagram or lay out the pieces in the order they were removed. Sewing machine screws and parts are very specialized, and fit together in a particular way. Keep the screws for your needle plate with your needle plate, for example. This will make reassembly much more simple and quick.
Step Four: Final Clean and Test
Now that your machine is back together, you may want to clean the outer surfaces. There are a few ways to do this.
First! If you have sticky tape marks on your machine, WD-40 is great for removing them! Put just enough on the sticky area to saturate it, and leave it for at least 60 seconds. We place an old rag next to the spot we’re removing to prevent the WD-40 from spreading to other parts of the machine.
Next! The safest cleaning method is using a mild soap diluted in water. Dampen a soft rag with the mixture and wipe down the machine. Do not directly spray your sewing machine. If you have a metal-constructed machine with filigree or paint, this is the only safe method. If you have a green, black or tan Singer or Kenmore, use this method. Machines with filigree or painted on names and logos (Pfaff, Kenmore, Singer, Bernina, etc) should also be cleaned in this method. If you find that there are some really grungy spots, dampen a toothbrush with the soapy water and gently scrub. When using a new type of soap, always spot test your machine.
On sewing machines with a plastic body, we find that 409 cleaner works very well to remove stains and marks. Keep in mind this will cause stickers and marker spots to bleed or wash away. Again, this should only be used on plastic bodied machines. 409 is a very aggressive cleaner, so please take precaution around labels, logos and other decorative surfaces!
Finally! If you have a metal bodied machine that has lost its shine, put a drop of your sewing machine oil on a soft cloth and wipe the machine down with it. The oil will shine your machine without damaging the delicate paint. Be sure not to use too much, though, or your machine will be very hard to hold on to!
Testing! So, you’re almost done with machine maintenance. The final step is to test your machine. Grab yourself some scrap fabric and light colored thread. Go through your machine and at the very least, test a short and long straight stitch, as well as large and small zigzag or decorative stitches (if your machine has these). Check your tensions and make sure there are no fuzzies or oil coming through on your fabric or thread (if there is, keep running the machine until it goes away). That’s it!
Don’t be afraid to vacuum out your sewing machine! Obviously, make sure there are no small parts that are loose or separate from your machine that may get sucked up. You can either use a soft brush and a vacuum together, or purchase a micro-vacuum kit (we keep these in stock) to get into all the nooks and crannies.
If you are not comfortable doing maintenance on your sewing machine, that’s okay! For most people, a yearly tune-up is plenty. If you would like to become comfortable with it, set up a Machine Setup Lesson and request maintenance instructions.
If you bring your machine in yearly for a tune-up, don’t worry about following these steps before you come in! A full cleanout and oil is always included.
Next Friday, I’ll be covering common sewing blunders and how to fix them.
Have you noticed our new “book appointment” feature? If you’d like to set up a Machine Setup Lesson, or sign up for a class/workshop, you can do so directly from our Sewing Services page. As always, you can also call or email us for this.