Care and Feeding of Your Sewing Machine

Care & Feeding of Your Sewing Machine

Sewing has been my passion since I started sewing almost constantly from age fourteen. Since then, I earned my B.S. in Home Economics, and did custom dressmaking many years while the kids were young. It wasn’t until I opened a fabric shop and machine dealership at age thirty-eight that I really learned and came to understand some of the basic mechanics about sewing machines that could have made all those years far less tearful. Read on…and, just maybe, what I have to share can even save you a repair bill. Though most certainly, what I’ve learned and share here can make YOUR precious sewing hours more frustration-free!


Always buy more that you think you’ll need! If you’re a serious sewer, you’ll use it eventually. Time is too treasured to run out and be delayed having to stop until you can get more. Personally, I swear by Swiss Metrosene thread. My ‘default’ thread is 50/3 wt cotton (blue printing on the spool). This is a basic top quality thread that sewing machines were invented to sew with. It is the perfect choice for cottons, wools, etc. You may find it hard to find the full color selection available though. Try your local quilt shop. If sewing a knit, or anywhere stretch is needed, be sure to use 100% polyester (Metrosene’s red or black printing on the spool). For lightweight fabrics, 60/2 fine wt 100% cotton (green printing on spool) is my choice. I also love Tire Silk Thread for lightweight fabric and handwork. I keep this in basic – and my core wardrobe – colors. I steer completely away from cotton-wrapped polyester – what was invented to be a great hybrid of cotton and polyester; but it comes nowhere close in my opinion. Never buy the 5 for $1 thread at a discount store! Examine thread: if it is furry – just imagine all that fluff compacting in your sewing machine! In general, select a thread whose diameter is a close as possible to the threads your fabric is constructed of. Don’t use a thread stronger than your fabric! Why? If there is undue stress on a seam, you WANT the thread to give and break – rather than have the fabric tear and pull away from the stressed seam! Regrettably, there is no consumer-available numbering system for thread weight that covers all thread manufacturers. However, within the Metrosene line it is quite valuable. Remember this: The higher the number, the finer the thread. When the weight is given like 50/3: this means that this is 50 wt thread, and 3 ply (3 yarns twisted together to give you the thread you see.)

I am happy to order ANY thread for you in full boxes of the same color. Email me at with the info and I'll get you a price - saving you 20%!

Machine Needles

Schmetz needles work in all machines. Use Singer needles ONLY in Singer machines. For sergers – be sure to consult your manual and use exactly the needle designated! CHANGE YOUR NEEDLE WITH EVERY PROJECT if you want to be nice to your sewing machine! It’s like taking your car in to have the oil changed, or checking the air in your tires…even filling the gas tank! Using a dull needle is putting undue stress on your machine. Every time a stitch is made, MUCH has to happen in a certain sequence, and none of that CAN happen properly and in the right timing if your needle has trouble penetrating the fabric and making a loop below that the hook grabs and interacts with to make a stitch. Keep an old film canister or baby jar handy for safe old needle disposal. To make a believer of you, find Sew News, October 2001, an article named “Point Well-Taken” by Clarissa Vierrether to see microscopic photos of used needles. Thread breakage will also become a problem with an old needle as not only the tip can become dull or bent, but the eye can even get a groove worn in it! Sew…change needles frequently to prevent skipped stitches, fabric pulls, and frayed threads.

Schmetz Needles come in a variety of types and different sizes within each type. For machine needles, remember this: The higher the number, the larger the needle (and eye). (By the way – it goes opposite for this for hand sewing needles. I’m SURE a man decided that!) In general, always select the smallest needle that will accommodate your (properly chosen) thread and form a good stitch.

I recommend the “Denim/Sharp” needles for all firmly woven fabrics (in addition to the mis-leading “Denim” name). These needles have a bue stripe on them. These needles have a sharp point that pierces the fibers of densely woven fabrics easily and quickly. So – if I’m sewing a cotton gabardine or broadcloth, I’ll use a Denim Sharp Needle. If it is a lightweight firmly woven fabric, I’ll use a size 70 Denim/ Sharp needle.

If sewing a knit, select the Stretch Needle. These have a slightly rounded tip that separates the yarns of knit fabric rather than piercing them. A stretch needle is most commonly used – and has a yellow stripe for easy ID. These needles are designed to prevent skipped stitches – a frequent problem with knits. There is a hump above the eye to force a larger loop, they have a shaved shank to position the needle closer to the hook and make the loop easier to pick up by the hook, thereby reducing skipped stitches. An SUK or “Ball Point” Needle is only necessary if sewing very heavy knit, Spandex or girdle-like material. I don’t generally even have these in my vast needle collection, nor do I carry them other than on a special order basis.

Universal Needles (or H) are not sharp or rounded tip. They are an all-purpose needle for most knits and wovens, but in my estimation, not as good of a selection as a denim/Sharp or a Stretch needle. These are probably the most commonly used needle. As you become more of a connoisseur of sewing, you’ll use them less often: opting for the other, more specific use needles instead.

For microfibers and very, very lightweight silky fabrics, the MicroTex Needle has been developed. This needle is extremely slender, and has a slimmer point. They have a violet stripe.

Quilting needles are designed to penetrate multiple payers of fabric and have a green stripe.

Embroidery Needles (red stripe) are designed to be used with embroidery threads that are heavier or thick-thin in their make-up. They have a larger eye, deeper groove, and a very light ballpoint to reduce skipped stitches, frayed threads and damaged fabrics.

Topstitching Needles or N needles are designed to accommodate larger threads, and the eye is larger than the regular needles. I use these for topstitching with heavier threads, and with Cotty Thread to create hand tatted looks with my Pfaff as per Cindy Loosekamp books.

Leather Needles have a wedge shaped point to cut instead of tear leathers.

Threading your Machine

I have 3 important clues (in addition to first following your manual) for successful and proper threading:

1. Thread a machine with the presser foot UP. When up, the tension discs are open, and the thread can easily slip back in between the tension discs where it belongs. When the presser foot is lowered, the tension discs close and apply tension to the thread. So many times, when a frustrated customer walked in with their sewing machine they would inevitably say “Something is wrong with my bobbin tension…it is all loopy!” I immediately knew – and had to patiently explain(and prove) that it was the TOP thread, NOT the bobbin thread that was looping on the bottom (proven by using different colors on top and bottom). Reason? No tension on top thread. Why? Because the thread wasn’t IN the tension discs to get ‘squeezed’! Now…How did it happen? By threading with the presser foot down (meaning tension discs were closed). Do yourself a favor, and go back and re-read this paragraph and understand it. J

If your sewing machine has a needle threader (worth their weight in gold, and if you have it, learn to use it!!!), when you get to that point in threading, tension on the thread makes it work better, so just before threading the needle, lower the presser foot. You should feel a BIG difference in the ‘pull’ on the thread depending on if the presser foot lifter is up or down. If you don’t, the thread is NOT being squeezed by the tension disc!

2. Don’t miss the take-up lever! That part is akin to your arm pulling the thread tight with each stitch…missing the take-up lever will cause your machine to cough – screech – yell; and for sure, not sew! My ears can always tell when this is the problem in a class. The ‘clear’ smoke or clear monofilament nylon threads are especially notorious for humping out of this all-important guide.

3. Bobbins…there is no such thing as a generic bobbin!!!!! Use only the EXACT bobbin your machine has been designed to work with!!! For proper winding, be sure you have a tightly, firmly wound bobbin. If you can easily stick your fingernail into the thread on a bobbin, you have what I called a “mushy bobbin”, and you should place it on the spool and rewind to a new bobbin. Make sure you don’t miss the little tension button for the bobbin winding system. Again, consult that sewing machine manual. Also – wind a bobbin slowly – especially if you are using a stretchy, polyester thread. Winding fast stretches the thread which will then relax when stitched into a seam causing puckers! For proper threading of the bobbin: verify this with your sewing machine manual; but in most drop-in bobbin machines, when pulling the thread, the bobbin should rotate counter clockwise. For sewing machines with a removable auxillary bobbin case, if looking directly at the bobbin in the case in your hand, pulling the thread causes the bobbin to rotate clockwise. Consult your manual!

“Operator Error” – 2 words I meekly spoke many times! It seems it is EZ to fall into bad habits, or do something so often that you may think you’re doing it right, only to discover you just fell into a bad habit. Enough said! J

If you think thread feeds off the spool and travels straight through the thread path and needle eye into fabric, think again! I’ll always remember sitting on an airplane reading in a book by Gale Grigg Hazen after a class at fabric market that “the thread travels back and forth through the eye of the needle…even into and out of the fabric numerous times (like 15 to 20) before it finally is stitched into a seam”!!!! I couldn’t wait to get home and see if this was REALLY true! Prove this phenomenon to yourself as I always did first thing with students in our class of the same name as this column…Care & Feeding of your sewing Machine. Thread up with white thread. With a magic marker, color a big blotch of black on the thread somewhere close to the tape up lever. Set machine to slow speed, long stitch length, and sew… keeping your eye on the black spot. After this experiment, you’ll most surely have a new appreciation for compatible size of machine needle and thread! Needle eye size increases with the size of the needle. Too small of a needle eye will cause undue abrasion and thread breakage. Too large of a needle eye for size thread is also not good because the thread wallows around in the eye and yields skipped stitches.

Tension Headaches

People always came in wanting a sewing machine with “auto adjusting tension”. It still makes me chuckle. My common response: “Well.. tension mechanisms are far better than in the days you were threatened within an inch of your life if you ‘touched the knob’…but I haven’t seen a machine yet with eyes and feelers. No machine is any better than its’ operator.” I am fully aware that top-of-the-line sewing machines’ tension has become quite sophisticated; but I still maintain that no machine knows needle, thread, fabric, stabilizer (or lack of), and my stitch preferences…and all of these factors affect tension. At what number should the dial be??? Depends on all of the above Actually, a good sewing machine mechanic can make the tension be a perfect stitch at any number you tell them. Just remember this: Low is Loose and High is Tight. In other words, a low number means Loose tension -0 the discs are further apart ant there is less ‘squeeze’ on the thread. A Hi number means higher tension and there is more squeeze on the thread. (All of this applies to serger tension as well!). Size of thread, then, makes a difference. If you are using a fat topstitching thread – even without changing the tension dial – you have now increased the upper tension. For a good topstitch, you may well have to lower the upper tension by dialing to a lesser number. Consider the opposite scenario: Suppose you are using a monofilament nylon thread (very skinny, and fine and slippery). Might you then not have to perhaps increase the squeeze (tension) on the thread by dialing to a higher number? Makes sense; doesn’t it? For regular sewing; upper and lower (bobbin) threads should interlock in the center of the fabric; thereby looking identical on both sides. This assumes you are using the same thread in both locations! If thread lies straight and tight, it means it is too tight; so loosen it (lower number). If thread is ‘loosy goosey and loopy, it is too loose: so tighten it (higher number).

To ‘sew off’ a machine as a dealer, we would always use 50 wt cotton thread in 2 different colors; top and bobbin. ‘Fabric’ was that infamous “Demo Cloth” – which sits around like a roll at dealers’ shops. It is quite convenient for this because it is stiff, thereby ‘stabilized” providing an EZ ‘standardized” cloth for testing tension. (But, always take a sampling of fabrics YOU commonly sew on and ask to sit alone with a machine to test drive before making a machine decision!) I found it easiest to test for balanced tension by using a long, wide zig zag (zz) stitch. If balanced, you should only see a speck of the other sides’ color at each tip of the zz. Adjust on this stitch – using upper tension knob – then go to straight stitch and it should be perfect tension.

In creative sewing, there will be many times you are doing decorative stitching, or using odd threads. To do so successfully, you absolutely MUST understand tension and TOUCH that dial!!! Example: on the sweatshirts I transform into jackets for sale at galleries (I’ll be offering an online class in February), I often used smoke or clear monofilament from YLI (the only one I’ll use) in the needle to invisibly tack down a decorative fabric or couch a decorative yarn. The bobbin thread remained the same – Metrosene polyester. If I left the tension the same as regular sewing, the bottom thread would have pulled to the top. So – I had to drastically lower (lower number) the upper tension. Doing so, in essence, increased the bobbin tension and that then pulled the looser top monofilament thread to the bottom so that all that was seen on the top was the invisible monofilament. When doing decorative stitches – the filled-in, satiny ones on your machine, even plain old zz as appliqué, you almost Always will need to lower the upper tension. Why? So that the top is soft, fills in, and so that there is enough ‘play’ in the top thread to be pulled to the bottom where it locks with the bobbin thread. If you would try to do appliqué with balanced tension, you would have to wind a matching colored bobbin for every color of top thread you use, as you would surely see a speck of the bobbin thread at each point of the zz. In appliqué and decorative satiny stitching, you actually want unbalanced tension! Some computerized machines actually automatically adjust tension to this when you select these types of stitches, of on zz, when you decrease the length to a certain level that the machine ‘knows’ you will be doing appliqué. I suppose this is an OK feature (though I’d never pay more for it), BUT, there are still variables that the machine can’t ‘see’ or ‘feel’ – thus: not machine is any better than its’ operator. YOU need to adjust the tension to get the desired stitch. Most tension adjustments can be made with using just the upper tension, but I feel serious sewers should also ask their dealers for instruction on adjusting of the bobbin tension as well. This is especially needed when doing ‘upside-down bobbin work’ where a fat, decorative thread or ribbon is place din the bobbin and the right side of the fabric is placed down against the bed of the sewing machine.

Handling Technique

The final crucial element of successful sewing is an awareness of the effect of grain and fabric handling techniques as you actually stitch a seam. The keyword is TAUT. Not stretched, but TAUT. Your left hand always belongs behind the presser foot and your right hand in front of the presser foot, creating a taut surface for stitching in order to have a nice seam. This is emphatically true especially on straight grain seams. Without taut technique, a seam that is straight grain will inevitably pucker – even with the best thread, proper needle, and the most expensive sewing machine! Why? Because straight grain, vertical, lengthwise warp yarns in a fabric are stronger and have no ‘give’. Prove this to yourself: take a piece of firmly woven muslin, broadcloth, etc. and without any taut technique, just stitch with a balanced tension, stitch length of normal 2.5 (10 to 12 stitches per inch). Then pivot 90 degrees and stitch. The lengthwise grain (warp) will be the stitching that is puckering the fabric. The crosswise grain (weft) will be the nicer0looking stitching line. This is because the cross grain (weft) threads have some ‘give’ that stretches ever-so-slightly and creates a better looking seam.

For a great video on the importance of taking your machine 'buddy' in for service, watch this video:

I do hope this information will prove helpful to sewers of all levels. I know that I never stop learning! Experts (who I’m proud to call friends) along the way to whom I owe the most for the above understanding and techniques include: April Dunn, Carol Ahles, and Gale Grigg Hazen. Always read anything by them you can get your hands on! To them and many others for teaching and sharing, I am ‘sew’ thankful. If I can become one of those teachers for you, I would be honored. Now – let your sewing machine know who is the Boss, and go forth and sew!

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