Troubleshooting Your Sewing Machine

In this post we’ll share a few troubleshooting steps intended to address machine-stitched thread breakage, shredding, skipping, loops, eyelashes, and more.
THE BASICS
Before we discuss more advanced troubleshooting steps let’s run through these basics:
Regroup
Pause, take a deep breath and know you can get to the bottom of this! Perseverance pays.

Check Your Presser Foot
It must be in the down position to engage your tension discs. Without top tension you’ll see a mess of thread on the bottom of your sandwich.

Without bobbin tension you’ll likely have railroad tracks or flat stitches on the top of your sandwich.

Rethread the Top Thread
Take care to catch all the tension discs and guides. Refer to your machine guide for details. Be sure your pressure foot is raised when you thread the machine allowing the thread to properly enter and exit the discs.

Rethread the Bobbin Thread
Be sure the bobbin is drawing correctly and that the thread passes through the tension springs of the drop-in or bobbin-case areas. Refer to your machine guide for details.
Janome 7700 —

Featherweight 221 —

Bernina 240 —

Reset Your Needle
Ensure it is inserted properly (flat side facing to the back or to the left depending on your machine brand and model) and thoroughly tightened.
Spool Cap
Use the smallest cap available for your machine. Ideally the cap size should be the same diameter as the opening of your thread spool.
So… use this cap:
Not this cap:

Thread Breakage
If you’re using a large spool of Aurifil thread gently twist and loosen the bottom flange to ensure the thread is not pinched and is allowed to draw easily from the spool.

INTERMEDIATE STEPS

Replace Your Needle
Be sure to use the right size and type needle for your project and thread weight.

Even if you’ve heard this a thousand times, it’s worth repeating: A new needle is the best $1.25 investment you can make in your sewing project.

Old, bent, damaged, or dull needles are trouble. Sometimes a new needle can be trouble too – so don’t give up if you continue to see issues after inserting a new needle. Get a package (or two) of your favorite needles and let each new project begin with a new needle.

Because people love quilting with all weights of thread, we suggest you keep a variety of needle sizes handy so you can switch needle size to play well with the chosen thread weight.

For piecing with Aurifil 50wt a Microtex Sharp needle 80/12 or 75/11 is just right.

When using heavier threads like 12wt & 28wt, we suggest you utilize a Topstitch needle.  The Topstitch needle has an elongated eye and a groove down the entire shaft – the perfect place for a heavyweight thread to ride as it’s penetrating layers of fabric, applique and batting. You can buy Topstitch needles in both the Assortment pack and 90/14 pack. Give them a try – you’ll be happy you did.

Recommendations:
80wt – Microtex Sharp 70/10 or 75/11 || 80wt or 50wt bobbin
50wt – Microtex Sharp 75/11 or 80/12 || 50wt bobbin
40wt – Topstitch 80/12 or 90/14 || 50wt bobbin
28wt – Topstitch 90/14 || 50wt bobbin
12wt – Topstitch 100/16 || 40wt or 28wt bobbin
Monofilament – Microtex Sharp 70/11 or larger || 50wt bobbin || Lower top tension
Give Your Machine a Spa Day
Has your machine been to the spa lately?
Yes, our machines need spa days too… or maybe just a good cleaning! Are you using quality 100% cotton fabric, 100% cotton or wool batting, and 100% Egyptian cotton Aurifil thread in the top and bobbin? All these natural fibers can lead to lint bunnies in your machine. Protect your machine investment and set yourself up for success by keeping your machine in tip-top condition.

Every other bobbin: Remove lint and dust bunnies from your bobbin area and needle shaft.
Every project: Thoroughly clean and oil your machine per manufacturers guidelines.
Every 6-12 months: Have your machine serviced by a qualified technician.  The techs can uncover and solve issues we may not recognize – protect your investment.
Tension
In the factory, machine tension is set to stitch through 2 layers of fabric using a 50wt, 3ply thread. With today’s advanced threads and wide variety of available weights and ply, the “default” or factory setting isn’t always the best number. If your thread is breaking or shredding, consider troubleshooting this setting by loosening your top tension. This is accomplished by selecting a lower number on your dial or digital setting.
Lowering the tension by a whole number or 2 will allow you to examine the impact on a fabric sample (use a sample that closely represents the project materials you’re using).
Once you’ve lowered the top tension run through a sample. If the thread no longer breaks or shreds but the bobbin thread is now showing on top, reduce the top tension another whole number. If the top thread is showing on the bottom side, you’ll need to step up or increase the top tension to bring it back to the top.
Tension — it’s a tug of war between the top and bottom thread. Look at the simplicity of this Tension diagram from a 1947 Singer Featherweight 221.
Playing with and conquering tension issues is one of the scariest yet most rewarding lessons of all time. Once you’ve tackled this challenge you’ll rest easier knowing you can do it anytime. Be sure to jot down what you started with, especially if your machine has analog settings. This way you’ll know how to set it back to “default”.
Thread Delivery
How is your machine setup? Look at this slide from the Aurifilosophy program that shows how Cross Wound spools prefer to be drawn from the top, not the side, of the spool.
If you’re experiencing shredding, breaking, or skipped stitches, consider how your machine is setup to draw thread from the spool. If a vertical post is your only choice, these alternatives may help to achieve the “preferred” thread delivery setup.

Utilize an external thread stand. They are inexpensive and work great with spools and cones!

Drop your spool or cone in a heavy mug or drinking glass that is positioned behind your machine.

Batting
If you’ve tried all of the steps above and can’t seem to get past the challenge, it may have something to do with your batting. Over the years I’ve learned that my machine, needle, and thread are not always happy with my batting choices. It’s true, I can stitch to my heart’s content with 100% cotton batting, a cotton/poly blend, or 100% wool batting. But honestly, when I try to quilt with 100% poly batting it’s a total disaster. I scratch my head about it but wanted to share this particular trouble spot in case you experience the same challenge with your project. Try replacing a small section of the project with a non-polyester batting and see if it helps.
FINALLY
If you’ve run through the troubleshooting steps outlined above and have yet to find an answer to your challenge be sure to reach out to us at the Sewing Machine Shop!
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