The Broken Sewing Machine Checklist

We have all been there: elbow deep in a project you’re planning on gifting tomorrow when…clunk…clunk…clunk…  everything comes to a standstill. The dread sinks in: you have a broken sewing machine. Maybe the needle sticks in the down position. Maybe a bird’s nest of thread knots up. Or maybe gnarly loops pull out of the bobbin thread. Whatever the problem, it all beckons the same worry: now what am I going to do?

You grab your phone but stare at google. How do you spell that noise your machine is making? What do you name the tangled mess of threads that have pulled out all over the place? Well, I’m here to tell you that you can stop trying to figure out the problem. None of that matters. That’s right–it doesn’t matter what’s broken in your sewing machine. For any problem you can easily fix yourself (which are most problems), there are a few quick tricks you can run through to get back to sewing in no time.

  • Make sure you’re presser foot is down. Yeah, the fix can be that simple. So, check this first before wasting your precious quilting time to run through the rest of this list.
  • Re-thread your bobbin and top thread. This may not be the resurrection stone of sewing, but it is a good enough trick to bring your broken sewing machine back to life that it should be one of the first things you try every time there is a problem. Every time. Just make sure that when you re-thread the top thread the presser foot is in the up position and that you are inserting the bobbin into your machine the correct way.
  • Change or rewind your bobbin. If re-threading doesn’t do the trick, change out your bobbin. You can use the same type of thread, but sometimes a bobbin can be wound too loose or uneven and the machine doesn’t like it–I swear they have their own minds! When you wind your bobbin go at a medium speed and watch that the thread is winding on evenly.
  • Change your needle. Before changing your needle, make sure you are using the right size needle for your project. Yes, there are different sizes. The needle could also be bent and it’s more than likely a little dull, especially if you’re like me and only change needles when they break (for shame, for shame!). But they’re pretty cheap, and it can’t hurt to change one out.
  • Clean the lint out of your bobbin holder. Really get into all the nooks and crannies with a little brush. My precious seam ripper came with a nice brush on the end and, if it’s been a while, I will get in there with tweezers. (Is that where they all disappear to?) You should clean out your bobbin area after every quilt, more often if you’re using fuzzy fabrics like fleece or minky.
  • Check that your bobbin winder is in the off position. If your needle goes down, but won’t go back up again, check this. It’s not like this has ever happened to me mere days before I’m supposed to gift a quilt. There was no panic attack. I didn’t run off to borrow a neighbor’s sewing machine. Nothing of the sort…
  • Try holding the top and bobbin threads to the rear of the machine for the first few stitches. This is for tension problems. I have never done this, but it seems to help a lot of people. You can also use a leader cloth which is a small scrap of fabric you start sewing on, and then, without stopping/lifting the presser foot/cutting the threads, you keep sewing onto your pieces. Just snip the leader cloth off when you’re done.
  • Switch to a different type of thread. This magically fixed my tensions problems when I started free motion quilting on my Singer Talent. As a poor college kid, I used the cheapest cotton thread I could find at Jo-Ann, but I developed the worst tension problems that I couldn’t solve with any amount of tinkering. However, I did notice that when I tried sewing with the normal walking foot and piece of scrap fabric the tensions problems disappeared. With a nice little coupon, I switched over to a higher quality polyester thread, and my free motion quilting went a lot better. All machines are different, so you have have to play around with what works best for your quilts and the machine. Another lesson here is: do not buy cheap thread. Cheap thread breaks easier and will not hold up as long. Find yourself a coupon, wait for the sale, and treat your machine. You will never go back. Tension problems can also be caused if your bobbin and top threads are different weights. If you still have problems, make sure you are using the same type of thread in the top and bobbin.
  • Use a walking foot. This can help a ton with tension problems, especially if you are sewing a large/heavy project that is pulling a lot. I use my walking foot almost all the time now, even when piecing (mostly because I’m too lazy to keep changing out the foot). I’ve heard through the quilting grapevine that these have a tendency to get warn out regardless of the brand/quality you buy. If yours isn’t working as well anymore, it might be worth it to try a new one.
  • Sew slower. This is particularly true if you are having problems while free motion quilting, but also if you’re tugging a heavy project through the feed dogs. Sewing slower will help the needle catch the bobbin thread.

Alas, you have gotten to the end of the list… I hoped no one would make it this far, but it may be time to throw your machine in the closet for a few days to see if it starts to behave again. Or it might be time to seek the help of a professional. Tough choice.

If you have other simple ways you have fixed your broken sewing machine please, please, please share them below. I want to make one big comprehensive list the frustrated can unite behind.

Sew on!

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