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Maintaining Your Machine

Date Posted:14 April 2021 

Sewing and embroidery machines are some of the more expensive appliances to be found in any household and for good reason. They are quite literally miracles of technology and far more complex mechanically than virtually any other home appliance. Thankfully the introduction of computerized machines has both simplified the operation and made them more reliable. But there is still a lot of mechanisms needed to make them perform all the amazing tasks they do.

With that, comes the need for preventative maintenance. Just like a car, sewing machines have a myriad of moving parts, be that metal or plastic, that run at speed and they will eventually wear out. How long they last depends on how you maintain them.  Let’s take an in-depth look at what is needed to keep your machine in tip top condition and what you can do to help in the process. Regardless of how advanced or how good the quality is, all machinery needs preventative maintenance at some stage. So let’s start with the obvious questions.

How often should it be serviced?

This is always a topic of debate and there is no absolute or correct answer. But generally, it would be wise to have your machine serviced every 12 months under normal usage conditions. Many manufacturers recommend this and some even make it conditional upon maintaining warranty terms. In some cases, particularly for embroidery machines where the stitch count or actual stitching time can be very high, service intervals can also be determined by actual use. For example every 10 million stitches is a typical maximum interval between servicing.  By contrast, a machine left unused for months can suffer badly due to lack of use as the existing lubricants can actually dry out resulting in a tight or even seized machine. This can often lead to motor damage.

Who should you trust to service it?

This is also a hard one to answer because now in Australia, there is no legal requirement for a Sewing Machine Technician to be qualified at all. However, at the very least, you should ask to see if the technician has had some form of industry training. Almost all sewing machine companies will issue a training certificate when a technician completes training on various machines.

What can you do to keep it in good shape?

The environment

  • A solid worktable is the best investment - the arch enemy of anything mechanical is vibration. Make sure your machine is not bouncing or vibrating too much. If it is, get a better more stable work surface.

  • Too high or too low humidity can mean your machine needs more regular servicing. Excess humidity will cause moisture build up on internal parts which can lead to corrosion. A dry climate will speed up the natural tendency for lubricants to dry up and dissipate.

  • Avoid direct sunlight and heat. It can discolour and even warp the plastic housings. Excessive heat on LCD screens can and will damage the screen. Excessive heat will also contribute to drying out the lubricants prematurely. 

  • Cover your machine to prevent dust and other contaminants. If you have pets that shed hair, it is important to prevent hair settling in or around the machine. We have seen machines become very tight because of an accumulation of pet hair

  • Insects! Sometimes it is hard to avoid but insects, particularly cockroaches are like poison to sewing machines. They leave corrosive droppings and cause damage to circuit boards. They will even eat away some non-metal components.  Best plan is to keep them away with simple measures like baits and repellents.

  • Geckoes. These guys are even harder to control but generally if there are no insects, the geckos will leave. Geckos are notoriously bad for shorting out electronics.

The ingredients...

If you have a high-quality expensive machine, you would not use low quality supplies. All the good maintenance in the world won’t prevent some of the problems that are created by low quality thread, very cheap and nasty needles, poor-quality backings or badly digitized embroidery designs.  This is easily fixed - use quality ingredients.

What maintenance should you do?

These days there is less maintenance required by you the operator. Most machines now don’t even allow you to oil the machine and with good reason. Oiling in the wrong spot or too much oil can cause lots of problems. I’ve even seen people oil machines with vegetable oil - DON’T DO THAT!

However, there are some regular things you should do. Keep the bobbin race area clean and lint free. This is probably the most important area for you and the easiest part of your preventative maintenance plan. 

At least every 3 or 4 times you use your machine take the bobbin cover off and with a soft quality long bristle brush and tweezers gently remove all the lint and fluff that has accumulated. Mini vacuum cleaners are also useful but never use the “air in a can” directly on the machine as it tends to blow much of the lint and fluff back into the machine where builds up in gears and belts, thus causing other more significant problems.  The exception is the PR or multi-needle style machines.

Once every month take the actual needle plate off the machine and particularly on combination machines with feed teeth, clean out the slots between the feed teeth. The lint compresses in this area and can even damage the needle plate if left unchecked.

Inspect the needle hole for burs and dags. If you have a needle breakage, it can often damage the needle hole which in turn can contribute to thread breakage and poor-quality stitching. Sometimes it will need to be taken to a technician or even new needle plate is required but with a little care and a fine piece of wet and dry sand-paper, small burs can be easily removed by you. 

Check and clean in between the bobbin case tension spring. Lint and fluff and even a wax like residue can build up in this area preventing tension being applied to the bobbin thread. This results in your bobbin thread showing on top of the stitching.

Never pull thread back through the machine. When changing spools always cut your thread at the spool and pull the waste thread forward through the machine. There are two reasons for this.

  1. Winding thread back on the spools generally takes the twist out of the thread and often when you use this thread next, it may not form a correct thread loop and can result in the thread breaking or simply coming out of the needle.
  2. All machines have what is called a thread check spring. It’s a very important part of the stitching mechanism but it is quite a delicate little spring. By forcibly pulling thread backwards through the machine, you can easily damage or dislodge this spring, particularly if there is a knot or a frayed end on the thread. Unfortunately, replacing a check spring will mean a trip to the mechanic.

Removing thread that has broken up near the take up lever

This can be a frustrating problem. When thread shreds (which can happen for any number of reasons) there is often no tail of thread left to grab and pull back down to the needle. The end has seemingly disappeared or worse, has somehow gotten caught up in or around the thread take up lever mechanism. As we mentioned in the previous point, you should never forcibly pull the thread backwards through the machine for fear of damaging the check spring. It can also cause a knot of thread to jam in the tension assembly which will also cause stitching problems.

The best option is to un-thread the machine backwards - in other words, remove the thread by gently un-threading in the same way that you thread it normally. Most times this will release any jammed thread and you’ll be good to go.

What about power protection?

If you have ever frantically rushed around unplugging your expensive appliances when a severe thunderstorm is approaching, you understand that power surges and spikes can destroy electronic devices. But it’s not only during storms as your home is constantly experiencing power surges which don’t only damage electronics, but they can also simply cause random stitching malfunctions. It’s important to protect all expensive machines with quality surge protection devices.

What does a service cost?

There is no one fixed service fee that covers every make or model as there are so many variables. Some technicians or stores try to establish a standard fee but when you consider the following variables you’ll understand why “Standard Service Rates” can vary.

  • How old is the machine and has it been maintained well?
  • Is the machine presenting with a specific problem or is it running well and just needing regular maintenance?
  • How many stitches has it done? There are parts that simply will need replacing due to natural wear and tear.
  • Is it a sewing and embroidery machine or one or the other? A combo machine takes longer to service.
  • The more advanced the machine is, the more mandatory tests have to be done in service mode to ensure all settings are correct.
  • All machines should be thoroughly test sewn before going back to their owner. Obviously, this takes longer on combination machines.

The cost of a service will vary widely and may vary depending on location, just like wages do. But expect to pay based on the time it takes to do the job. For example, a simple $500 sewing machine can usually be serviced easily and in much less time than a high end combination sewing and embroidery machine. A full service on a very well used high end machine can take several hours without shortcuts and we don’t believe there should be shortcuts.

The best thing to do is ask for a quote and request that if additional expense is required, you are contacted to approve it. Most importantly, remember that a cheap quote is not always a good quote.

If your machine is failing outside of its normal servicing schedule, remember that modern machines are generally very reliable, with many problems resulting from incorrect or inferior ingredients or a user error. Threads, needles, backings, designs, the sewing environment and even you, the operator can be the root cause of the problem, so check all of these before rushing off to the repairman and you may just save yourself some money.