In this guide, we’ll walk you through all the basics of cleaning and maintaining your sewing machine. We’ll talk about how to clean all the key components to improve performance, and when and when not to oil. We’ll also help you figure out when to change your needles! There’s a lot here, so let’s get started!
One quick note before you start following along: these are general tips that apply to most (but not all) makes and models of sewing machine. Always consult your own manual, and stick to that rather than our tips if there’s a difference between the two!
Cleaning your sewing machine
When you start cleaning, it’s important to take precautions and keep yourself safe. Unplug your machine first. It’s a sensible safety precaution, since it’s easy to bump into the power button or pedal while you work. You can also go ahead and remove the needle now, or wait until you’re cleaning that area.
You’ll want a good lint brush, as well as a pipe cleaner and pair of tweezers. That’s all you need for cleaning out lint and debris from your machine. Wire lint brushes are excellent, with nylon bristles for added stiffness. Having wire lets you bend it into whatever shape you need.
Stay away from compressed air, since it ends up sending more dust and lint into the machine than off it!
This is a good set of tools if you’re in need of a kit:
Start from the top of the machine, and work downward. Dust off the casing, cracks and crevices with your lint brush. Open up the cover, if it’s an enclosed machine. Make sure you get in all the thread guides, knobs, spools, and so forth on the top of the machine. Sweep methodically so that you’re chasing lint and thread off the machine, rather than back and forth.
After you’ve covered all the components on the top, you want to work down to the face of the machine. That’s where you’ll usually find the thread guide crevice, tensioning arm, and tension discs. The discs are the most important thing to clean, though you should be thorough and empty all the nooks and crannies on your machine.
A lot of issues with tension come from dirty discs with fuzz and thread jammed in there.You can do a lot to prevent this by remembering to thread and unthread with the presser foot in the up position. That way, the discs are always open when you unthread, so you end up cleaning it fairly well each time you remove the thread (though you’ll need to do some regular cleanings too).
The best way to clean inside the discs (and the thread guides) is to take a pipe cleaner and shape it to the curvature of the crevices. You can run it back and forth through the crevices–again, make sure the presser foot is up, leaving the tension discs open.
Different machines have either internal or external tensioning systems. Make sure you know where the discs are, and then clean them thoroughly. Be careful not to be too rough while you clean these areas! There’s a component called a check spring that’s fairly delicate. Be gentle, but thorough.
Next, you’ll move down to the needle assembly area. The needle assembly is a big collection point for lint and fuzzballs! You can probably see a bunch just looking at it. Clean it with the brush, from the presser foot up to the threader (if you have a machine with one built in).
Then, it’s time to clean below the needle plate. So, remove the presser foot. You’ll also want to use your screwdriver to remove the presser foot holder and needle, if you haven’t done so already(be sure to tighten the presser foot holder screw and the needle screw thoroughly when you put things back together).
Go ahead and unscrew the needle plate. There are usually several short screws holding it in place. Use a dime if your screwdriver isn’t working well. Coins are often easier to maneuver on the beveled screw heads.
The goal here is to open up the innards so you can dust and clean under the needle assembly!
Once the plate is off, brush out the feed dogs thoroughly, since they tend to accumulate lots of fuzz.This is often a good solution for feeding issues!
Next, you can lift your drop-in bobbin case out, if you have one. The bowl cavity underneath will usually be packed with lint and fuzz. Be gentle, but make sure you get it all out.
One other thing to be aware of: some machines have an oiling wick down here, so if you see one, don’t try and pull it out.
Clean everything under the needle plate, and before you put the bobbin components back in, give them a thorough brushing. They may or may not have felt pieces attached: if so, leave them!
Ok, you’re done cleaning! If you don’t have a drop-in bobbin compartment, keep reading. We’ll address side-loading setups in a moment.
Oiling your sewing machine
Once you’re done the cleaning part, get ready for oiling.
Start by making sure you have actual oil, not lubricant! Only very old machines use gummy lubricant that’s often white or colored in appearance. You want oil, not this gummy lubricant! Clear oil is the best. You’ll need actual sewing machine oil, not an all-purpose product, too.
Here’s our favorite:
At this point, it’s also a good idea to stop and make sure you should actually be oiling your machines in the first place! Many are not supposed to be oiled by the user.
Whether or not yours is, you should be still doing regular checkups at a dealership, as long as there’s one within a reasonable distance. They can thoroughly oil all the gears, bushings, and internal “guts” of the machine that you can’t get to.
Still, some machines are designed to be oiled by the user, and this part of our guide explains how to do it.
Some machines have ports on the outside which you can fill, and then let the machine self-lubricate. These are super easy to take care of. Just put a drop or two in each hole, and you’re good to go.
On machines with drop-in bobbins, all you need to do is place a drop of oil on the bobbin case shelf/bowl, before you put the bobbin case back into the machine. If your machine has a wick in that area, you can feel free to lubricate that as well, being sure not to use more than a drop or two. In most cases, these machines don’t have additional oil ports.
Many side-loading bobbin machines and straight stitch models have more components you can oil yourself. If you have one of those, put a drop of oil in the hook area where the bobbin sits. Next, look in your manual for a diagram. There will likely be holes marked out, which are ports for oil.You should consult your manual, but the usual procedure is to add a drop or two of oil into each port. There are typically wicks inside, so they’ll self-dispense the oil.
Never go overboard with oiling! Only do the bobbin mechanism and any specifically-marked oil ports Extra oil or oil in the wrong places can be a real pain in the ass to deal with later! Especially on computerized models, that’s begging for trouble with electronics and inner components you can’t see.
Likewise, never take things apart beyond the area under the needle mechanism. The casing should stay on your machine at all times.
Changing the needle on your sewing machine
Last but not least, change your needle regularly as part of your maintenance routine. A needle really only lasts a few hours of sewing: 8-10 in most cases. Needle longevity depends on the fabric you work with and a number of other factors, but you should never go more than 20 hours of sewing time without changing yours.
Needles dull faster when you work with thick materials like leather and canvas. Synthetic materials are especially good at dulling needles, so if you work with nylons and polyester, you should change yours frequently.
You will eventually develop a good intuition as to whether your needle needs to be replaced. You can hear it in the way your sewing machine sounds when it pierces fabric. For now, get in the habit of starting each project with a fresh needle. If you sew daily, changing your needles weekly is also good SOP.
Why change needles?
If your needle bends, as they do when they wear out, they can go beyond the tight tolerances in the bobbin case. When the needle hits the bobbin case even slightly, it can break dangerously, or cause burrs on the metal bobbin case. Burrs will snap your threads, and the result is you having to replace the whole bobbin case.
Bent and worn needles will tear and damage fabric, too. There’s nothing worse than spending hours on a project only to have it ruined by your needle!
But most of all, worn-out needles are just plain frustrating to work with. Do yourself a favor and change yours regularly to make sewing more pleasant.
Well, that’s it! You’ve mastered all the essentials of maintaining your sewing machine. We’ll do some more of these tutorials in the future, so stay tuned!
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