Zen and the Art of Sewing Machine Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Sewing Machine Maintenance

When I was 19, I read Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I took the book, very literally, to be about motorcycle maintenance. As soon as I'd finished reading, I bought my first tool kit and soon after that, a yellow motorcycle. 

It was the first time it had a occurred to me that a girl could maintain, diagnose, and repair something rather than replace it or hire someone else to fix it. I sold the motorcycle a few years later, when my frontal lobe came online, but I held onto that empowering idea. When I discovered vintage sewing machines, I was hooked. 

Two of my favorite ideas from Zen and the Art:

1. Fixing is good but preventative maintenance is better. Deep, right? We're, obviously, not just talking about machines. 

2. Everything works best when you are paying attention. It applies to motorcycles, sewing machines, driving a car, marriage, parenting, gardening, good health, and baking bread.

Sewing machines, like motorcycles (and children and spouses), sound a certain way when all is well and sound different when they are not well. It's important to become attuned to the sound of a well running machine so that those clunks, clinks, d-d-d-d-d-d's, pops, whirs, and cuh-clunks send a signal to your brain to take your foot off the pedal and figure out the problem. I teach all of my students to pay attention to the sounds of their machines and show them how to use basic tools for maintenance and repair.

Occasionally, I come across machines with a tag from the repair shop that says, "Not Worth Fixing," or I find someone giving a machine away with the description, "Does not run, for parts only." Those are my favorite machines to fix. 99% of the time they just need attention, followed by preventative maintenance. 

Most of those "not worth fixing" machines were fixed with:

1. Oil - All machines need oil. If you are paying attention, the sound of a machine that needs oil is the sound of metal on metal, sort of a dry, whispering, or scraping sound. But if you wait until you hear that sound, damage has already been done. Preventative maintenance is key. I am not going to suggest you should disassemble your expensive computerized machine for oiling if the machine shop has told you not to - but - I oil all of my machines. Even the ones that supposedly do not require oil because they are fitted with "oil impregnated bearings." When you take your machine for maintenance, most of what is happening is oil. If you do not feel comfortable oiling your machine, make sure you have it on a regular schedule for maintenance. (When you are working on a vintage machine - one without plastic parts - heat may be the first step, before oil. I'm talking about trunk-of-the-car-in-Texas heat. Heat is a super fix for stuck machines but I'll save that for another post).

2. Cleaning - Dirty machines will skip stitches and jam. Good preventative maintenance means cleaning the area under the needle plate after every big project, especially when using material that sheds. Most machines come with a screwdriver made just for unscrewing the needle plate and you'll often find a little brush in your tool kit too. That's for picking out and brushing lint away from the bobbin case and feed dogs . I prefer to use a piper cleaner to get in the hard to reach spots. 


3. A New Needle and Correct Needle Placement - A bent needle sometimes makes a scraping sound and a blunt needle can make a pop-pop-popping sound in your fabric. Sometimes needles that need replacing don't make a sound but will cause skipped stiches, pulls or snags in your fabric. New needles are cheap and are meant to be replaced regularly. When you replace the needle, pay attention to placement. Most modern machines require needles to be placed with the FLAT side pointing to the back of the machine and must be seated as high and snug as they will go into the needle clamp. A poorly seated or incorrectly placed needle will not sew correctly and may break. 

4. The Correct Bobbin and the Correct Bobbin Placement - Not all bobbins are made the same and using the wrong bobbin in your machine will usually cause poor stitches at best and a cuh-clunk, cuh-clunk at worst. Consult your manual (or the internet) and find the exact bobbin for your machine. Buying bobbins in bulk from Amazon is tempting but I have bought packages of 50 after-market bobbins only to find that 20 of them were total duds, misshapen to the point that they were unusable. Sometimes it's worth it to buy a name brand when it comes to bobbins. Bobbins must be placed correctly and must unspool in the correct direction or they will not sew a perfect stitch. Consult your manual or watch a YouTube video to check how your bobbin should be placed in your particular machine. It also matters how the thread is wound on the bobbin. A loosely wound, loopy, overly full, or otherwise wonkily wound bobbin is not likely to sew well and may cause a jam. 

5. Proper Threading - An incorrectly threaded computerized machine will jam and sometimes make a very scary d-d-d-d-d-d sound or start beeping. That's how a modern sewing machine says the word you use when you stub your toe. Vintage machines don't talk that way. Instead, they will often try to keep chugging away when they are jammed but you will notice that your fabric is not moving and next, that your needle is not moving. Thread jams are the most common reason I see people scrapping good machines and they are the easiest problems to fix. To remove a jam you may need to gently jiggle the fabric and crank the handwheel slowly to move the needle out of the fabric. If you can get a seam ripper between the foot and the fabric you can usually cut the threads and remove the fabric. Depending on the severity of the jam, you may also need to remove the needle plate to remove thread tangles in the bobbin case. This next part is the most important part - it's the one everyone tries to skip - and must be done after every thread jam. You have to rethread your machine top to bobbin. Yes! Completely. Because, most of the time, a jam was caused because the machine was not properly threaded. An improperly threaded machine will jam again, and again, and again, until it's rethreaded correctly. Every machine has it's own threading quirks. Consult your manual or search YouTube for a threading video for your make and model. 

6. Correct Settings - Is the bobbin winder clutch engaged or disengaged? Is the machine still set for bobbin winding when you are trying to sew? Did you accidentally bump a button on your control pad to sew buttonholes when you are trying to sew a straight stitch (I hate how easy this is to do on computerized machines)?  Are the feed dogs dropped? Has a four-year-old been turning your tension dial when you were out of the room? My four year old loves to do that. Each of these settings can cause your machine to seem broken when it's not.

I LOVE vintage sewing machines. They were built during a time when replacing was not a click away. They were made to be maintained and repaired at home by the people who used them. That's right, sewing machine shops even taught WOMEN to maintain and repair their own machines. They are endlessly repairable. I have never met a cast iron machine that couldn't be fixed. Modern machines can be repaired too. In fact, I've only come across two that I couldn't fix with some very basic sleuthing.

When you are struggling with your machine, run through this checklist. If all else fails, give me a call. I love saving sewing machines from the landfill. Sewing machine troubleshooting is my Sudoku. And if you decide you want a deeper dive into using and caring for your machine, I teach a class for that. 

 I left my work as a psychotherapist in 2019 to begin laying the foundations for Sew My Goodness. I live and sew in Austin, Texas with my husband, three kids, a hamster (he doesn't sew), and a few dozen sewing machines. I come from a long line of seamstresses, embroiderers, quilters, darners, hemmers, scrap savers, upcyclers, artists, improvisors, and connection makers. For me, sewing is utilitarian, it is art, it is healing, and it is connection. In addition to private sewing camps and classes, Sew My Goodness offers "Sewcial" Clubs, camps, and enrichment classes throughout Round Rock ISD. 

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