Simple sewing machine maintenance

You know that sound your sewing machine makes when it’s running perfectly? No surprise that it coincides with pretty stitches on your sewing project, too. Taking the time to give your machine a little TLC now and then can help ensure that it will continue to perform well — and purr nicely! Don’t be intimidated; basic sewing machine maintenance is an easy DIY task.

To be honest, this isn’t something I’ve always done. In fact, in my first 20 or so years of sewing I’d sew—with the same needle until it broke, and without so much as a brushing away of lint—until something went wrong. (Oh, if there was a dust bunny on the plate I’d blow it off. Yikes, more about that bad idea later.) The results: stitches gathering in protest on the back of the projects, loud clunks and unproductive whirs from the machine, needle snags on beautiful fabrics. When that happened, I’d haul the machine in for repair and delight in how it worked when I retrieved it. Well, for a short while anyway.

I’ve since learned that simple sewing machine maintenance is easy and rewarding—and goes a long way towards making pretty sounds and pretty stitches. Besides, I enjoy taking care of it. My machine works so hard for me. I imagine having to make all those stitches by hand and am beyond grateful to have this lovely workhorse!

Machines need regular, professional tune-ups, but in the meantime, here’s how to do your part to keep your machine running smoothly and lasting longer:

How often should I do this?

Some people give their machine a quick once-over before or after each project. Others do it when they see lint building up around the throat plate, and others designate a timeframe (say, every week or two) or distance (after every two bobbin fills, for example).

I clean mine once a month—because it’s easy to remember and doable. I don’t sew often (maybe a project or two each month, plus a little mending), so it seems to be enough right now.

How to clean your machine

Gather your supplies:

  • the little brush that came with your machine (or a soft cosmetic brush or pipecleaner)
  • appropriately sized (tiny) screwdriver
  • tweezers
  • lint-free cloth
  • your machine manual

Banish lint, renegade threads, and dust:

  • Unplug your machine. Just in case.
  • Dust the outside of the machine with the lint-free cloth. (I like to cut up my hubby’s old white undershirts for this purpose—and to clean my glasses). Keep it handy and give your machine a loving wipe down after each use.
  • With the presser foot and needle in the up position, remove the needle and the presser foot.
  • Now remove the throat plate (that metal cover), bobbin, and bobbin case. If you think you might have trouble remembering how to reassemble everything correctly, take a picture of each step, each part, before you remove it. Set all your parts aside and together. (I like to put them in a tray or bowl so that I don’t lose anything.)
  • Using the brush, dust out the lint. Get under the feed dogs, all around the bobbin—every nook and cranny you can reach. If you’ve lost the lint brush, pick up another at your local sewing center, or use a clean, soft cosmetic brush or pipecleaner. Tweezers come in handy for long-lost lint deep in crevices. This is satisfying work, right?
  • If it’s removable, also take out the hook mechanism and wipe it clean. Check your manual to see if it should be oiled (some machines should not!). If so, use a tiny drop of sewing machine oil on a clean cloth. (Some folks leave all oiling to the experts, but as long as you limit yourself to the tiniest drop, you should be okay.) Oiling helps keep parts from wearing out as quickly. Use only sewing machine oil, as recommended in your manual. Different machines require different oil. None require cooking or three-in-one oil!
  • Check your manual for other spots to oil. Again, not all sewing machines need oiling—and some should only be oiled by a pro when you take it in for a tuneup. Check your manual! Again, use the tiniest drops.
  • Dust all of the parts (plates, presser foot, etc.), and reassemble everything. Your manual should tell you how to put the bobbin case in so that it’s correctly lined up.
  • Run the machine for a while before threading it, then thread and run a piece of scrap fabric through it to catch any stray oil before you sew your next project.

Important tip: Don’t use your breath to blow away dust or dirt. The moisture in your breath can erode your machine over time.

About compressed air: While some experts recommend compressed air for blowing away lint, there are some good reasons to avoid it. Reason enough for me is that it’s a fluorocarbon gas (not actually air but a greenhouse gas).

Another reason is that it can apparently really mess up your machine. If you’re lucky enough to have a fancy new (or even basic new) machine with computer control boards, compressed air can push lint into these boards and cause havoc. In fact, some argue, compressed air can blow lint and dust and broken needles and head pins and all manner of leftovers into your machine, causing things to bind up. (Some machines are arranged so that you can blow the air through—in one side and out the other—which would minimize this risk.)

How to protect your machine between uses

Unplug your machine when you’re not using it, to prevent a power surge from taking it out. A surge protector can offer some insurance, too, if you’re not likely to unplug. This is especially important if you have a computerized machine.

If you don’t often use your machine, store it in a place where dust, moisture, and insects won’t get to it (not in front of an open window or over a vent that’s likely to blow dust on it, for example). Room temperature (rather than a cold basement or hot attic, for example) is best. Extreme temperatures can cause cracking and rusting.

A protective dust cover is perfect for keeping the dust out. You can use the perfectly functional (though likely less-than-lovely) cover that came with your machine, or you can make a fun/pretty cover for it. (You do sew, right?)

You’ll find directions for lots of fun (and funny: RV camper cover anyone?) covers online.

I prefer something simpler and plan to make this one, without the handle opening on top (my machine isn’t a portable, but a beautiful old green metal Singer housed in a wood cabinet). In the meantime, I toss a pretty, lint-free cloth or pillowcase over my machine when it’s resting. Have you made a pretty cover? Please share!

Schedule regular visits to the sewing machine expert

You still need professional maintenance once a year (some say every other year) or so. A pro can adjust your tension, properly lubricate everything, and make sure the mechanical settings are spot-on. Be proactive about this (get it on the calendar!), and you’ll prevent bigger problems from popping up.

Look for a maintenance person who appreciates vintage machines, if that’s what you have.

You might also want to learn to be a pro (or semi-pro) yourself. Check with your local sewing centers for classes on taking care of your machine. I took a class years ago to learn how to do my own tune-up. It wasn’t hard to learn. I use it to do mini-tuneups through the year but still have a pro take a look yearly.

By the way, the maintenance you do between checkups means that your machine is less likely to need major work when you do take it in for servicing (kinda like a routine physical when you’re in good shape!).

Read the manual

Well, at least skim it. If you no longer have the manual, check online. It’s amazing how many old manuals are still available! Print it (or send for a printed copy), and make it yours: highlight important points, take notes in the margins, schedule maintenance dates in it. Visit the troubleshooting section when a problem comes up – or even ahead of time, so you’ll be prepared.

A prettily purring sewing machine is a lovely sound, don’t you think?

How often do you clean your sewing machine? Do you have any tips to add?

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