Your Machine Needs a Spa Day

With everyone in “hunker down” mode due to COVID, a lot more sewing has been happening.

That means more time spent on your sewing machine.

Which means that thing has probably been humming away for hours/days/weeks at a time.  The quilters I’ve talked to have either been whittling away at their UFOs or making masks out the yin-yang. 

If this is the case, then right about now, you need to give your sewing machine a spa day.  Clean it, oil it if necessary, and maybe even give it a hug.  It probably has kept you very productive and on the right side of the thin line between sanity and insanity.  Since this is the case with my Big Red, I thought it may be the same for you and your machine.  So, today we’re talking about sewing machine maintenance.  But first, let me issue a word of warning:  Before undertaking any of my suggestions, READ YOUR SEWING MACHINE MANUAL.  Some of these points are universal (such as changing your machine needle) and others are brand-specific (such as oiling).  And even if you have two different machines that are the same brand, the procedures may be slightly different for each.  My little Juki requires less oiling than my Juke 2010Q. 

Under normal circumstances, I recommend cleaning your machine regularly and taking it to a tech every 12 – 18 months for servicing.  A sewing machine is an investment, whether you’ve paid $200 or $2,000 for it.  If it’s taken care of, it should last you for years.  I have a loose schedule for keeping up with these two tasks.  I clean my machine the first weekend of every month and take it to have it serviced before I leave to go on my fall quilt retreat.  Knowing when to change my needle is a little trickier, but we’ll get into that later.

Since there is a difference between maintenance and cleaning, this blog is broken into two parts.  In the first part we will deal with maintenance – those activities which should be done regularly to keep your machine in good working order.  The second half of the blog will discuss cleaning your machine.

One thing you want to do is keep your machine covered if you’re not using it every day.  Most quilters use at least one of their machines almost daily.  If that’s the case, you don’t necessarily have to keep that machine covered.  However, according to the last quilting statistics I received from the Craft Industry Alliance, the average quilter has six sewing machines (this does not include long arm machines).  Chances are the average quilter is not using all six sewing machines at the same time.  The ones which aren’t in use really need to be covered.  This keeps dust out of the machine.  Big Red is rarely covered unless she’s going somewhere.  But my Baby Lock Embroidery Machine, my Featherweight, and both Juki’s stay covered because I don’t use those every day.  Most of today’s machines come with at least one soft cover or a hard one.  Some older machines – such as my Featherweight – come with a carrying case but no cover.  Since I don’t use Marilyn the Featherweight regularly, I made her a cover.

Another maintenance issue doesn’t have to do with the machine itself, but does take into account what type of thread you use.  While your stitches may not show the difference between short-staple thread and long-staple thread, the inside of your machine will.  Short-staple thread is linty and can make a mess on the inside of your machine, especially around the bobbin casing.  Long-staple thread isn’t as linty.  If you use the short-staple thread, be prepared to clean your machine more often.  If you want to know more about thread, you may want to take a look at my blog: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2019/04/17/a-love-affair-with-thread/ .

The type of needle used in your machine is just as important as the thread.  As quilters, we know it’s important to have the right size needle for the job.  Quilting cottons don’t use the same size needle as denim.  A top-stitch needle is great for machine quilting.  However, it’s equally necessary to have the right brand of needle in your machine, and it’s necessary to consult your sewing machine manual to make sure you have the right one.  Some machines, such as Big Red, work best with Schmetz or Organ needles.  Same with my Jukis.  My Baby Lock likes Schmetz.  My feather weight uses Organ.  I’ve learned the hard way that “universal” brands don’t work well in my machines (those generic needles that claim they can be used in multitudes of machines). Some sewing machines, such as most Singers, use only Singer needles.  When you use the wrong size needle the results will render skipped stitches.  If you use the wrong brand of needle, you can damage your machine. 

Changing the needle regularly is just as essential as using the right one.  Even if the needle looks perfectly straight to your eyes, after it’s been used awhile, it can be slightly bowed, even if you can’t see it.  The tip of the needle also will blunt after hours of use.  The general rule is to change the sewing machine needle after eight hours of sewing.  If a titanium needle (my favorite!) is used, you can double the amount of time to 16 hours.  However, I’ll admit it’s difficult to keep up with all the hours you’ve used a needle.  Years ago, when I first started quilting and was only working on one project at a time, I simply changed the needle after every project.  This seemed to work well for my machine and for me.  But now I work on multiple projects at once and more on one machine than another.  Due to this, I’ve developed some general rules I follow:

  1.  If I’m using titanium needles, I change those every three weeks.  If I’m sewing with regular sewing needles, I change those every two weeks.  I do this for the machine which is being used the most.  The other machines will go longer between needle changes, and for those I generally change the needle after I have to refill my bobbin twice.
  2. If I’m performing what I call a “high density stitch project” such as machine quilting or paper piecing, I change the needle (no matter what kind I use) as soon as I complete that quilt.

If you’re a stickler for getting every second out the needle you can, just keep a notebook near your sewing machine and log your time.  And I’ll throw this out right here – I swear, the longer you sew on a machine, the more in tune you become to it’s sounds.  When I hear Big Red make a distinct “thunk” as the needle moves through the fabric, I know it’s time for a needle change.  And if you find yourself replacing needles frequently, do what I do and purchase them in bulk.

The last thought I want to throw in under general maintenance is clean the outside of your machine regularly.  Even if it’s covered, every couple of weeks take a clean cloth and wipe down the outside of your machine.  Dust can do a number on your machine, and it doesn’t take much time to wipe down the outside.  If you don’t cover the machine your using for a project, wipe it down every couple of days or so. 

Now let’s talk about actually cleaning the inside of the machine.  Big disclaimer here:  Every sewing machine brand is a little different and it’s vitally important that you read your manual before cleaning and oiling your machine.  If you’ve misplaced your manual or purchased a used machine which didn’t come with one, Google your brand, make, and model number of machine.  Chances are it’s on-line and you can download it.  Most manuals are available for free downloads.  I even found the one to my Featherweight 222 on the internet.  I am covering generalizations for cleaning and oiling.  Be sure to confer with your machine’s manual before proceeding.

These are my tools for cleaning my machines:

Q-Tips, make-up brush, soft toothbrush, and toothpicks.  Know what’s not in this picture?  Canned air.

While canned air may seem like a great way to blow out lint and dust, it can actually harm a machine in two ways.  First, instead of blowing out the grime, it can force it down into tiny crevices and make it super-difficult for even a sewing machine tech to remove.  Second, canned air contains moisture, which is bad for all machines, but especially computerized ones. 

This is the inside of my Janone 7700. It has a top loading bobbin, which in my opinion, is the easiest bobbin set-up to work with. I remove the needle plate and clean the entire inside.

The bobbin area is the first place I start my cleaning process.  I remove the needle plate on Big Red, my Baby Lock Spirit, and my little Juki because they have drop-in bobbins.  My other machines have separate bobbin cases and they load under my needle plate, but I can get to those without removing the plate. 

Side-loading Bobbin Mechanism

I use a small make-up brush and a Q-Tip to clean the bobbin area out.  Next, I move to the feed dogs and use the soft toothbrush to clean the teeth on those.  If there are large clumps of lint visible, often a toothpick can get those out.  The universal rule for cleaning all machines is don’t force anything into any of the mechanisms to clean them.  Clean only the areas you can see with your eyes.  With Big Red I can remove the entire bobbin case mechanism, so I can clean her pretty thoroughly. 

After you clean the machine, go ahead and oil it if your manual tells you oiling is necessary, and then oil only the areas it tells you to.  With Big Red, I have one spot and one spot only that I oil. 

The only place I oil Big Red.

My Juki 2010Q has several areas, as well as my Featherweight.  Some machines are self-lubricating and don’t require you to oil them at all – the tech has to.  In any case, be sure to read your manual before oiling and use only sewing machine oil.  Most machines come with a small bottle of oil.  When that runs out, I recommend Nifty Notions Zoom Spout Oil.

This is why I like Zoom Spout. You can get into the small spaces on machines that have lots of spots to oil.

During the normal piecing process, I clean my machine after I’ve used up two bobbins or the first of every month, which ever comes first.  If I’m paper piecing, using flannel fabric, or quilting, I do it as soon as I’m through with the project, no matter how small that project is.  All of those processes are notoriously linty.  Also, if you’re using short-staple thread, remember you will need to clean the machine more frequently. 

The last issue I want you to think about is your sewing technician.  I’ve always thought   every woman needs her own village – every woman needs a BFF who will tell her the brutal, honest truth; a good auto mechanic who she trusts and won’t price gouge her; an equally good and honest appliance repair person; and a great general physician she trusts.  If you sew, you need to add one more person to your village: a good sewing machine technician.  In the past, I’ve always encouraged those who are in the market for a good sewing machine to buy local.  Purchase the machine at the locally owned fabric or quilt shop.  This is a good idea for two reasons.  First, it supports your LQS.  Second, if you purchase at a LQS, most of the time the first year cleaning and tuning is free.  When you take the machine in, you meet the technician, who most of the time, is also a local person and wants to make sure your machine runs like new.  With more and more LQS’s shuttering completely or closing their brick-and-mortar stores, this is getting more difficult.  Often there is no local shop to purchase a machine from and on-line ordering is the only way to get a good machine.  If this is your situation, ask around for a good, local sewing machine technician (take it from my personal experience – you don’t want to ship your machine off for servicing – remember what happened to Loretta, my first long arm?).  If you’re not sure who to ask, see if there is a quilt guild in your area and post the question on their Facebook page or send them an email through their website.  Ask other folks who sew or quilt.  Find out from several people who they use and if you see the same tech popping up with glowing reviews, this is who you need to call and add to your village. 

How often should you take your sewing machine to the tech?  Of course, if it’s skipping stitches, the tension is wonky, or some other issue pops up and you’ve done everything the manual has said to correct it, call the tech.  Chances are it’s just a minor issue, but it may be something only the tech knows how to do.  Otherwise, if you have several weekly sewing sessions, take it in once a year to have it thoroughly cleaned, serviced, and oiled in areas you’re not supposed to.  If you’re a less-frequent sewer, you can go up to 18 months between servicing.  But I wouldn’t go any longer. 

Let me throw this in here, too.  If you’re thinking about purchasing a new machine, call your tech.  They will know the best brands for the dollar, those which give the least amount of trouble, and those that still need some time to get the bugs worked out of their computerized systems. 

Take care of your machine(s) and it will give you years of enjoyment and service.  And after all the COVID quilt making, I know Big Red needs a couple of days off and the spa treatment.

Until next week, Level Up Your Quilting!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

Categories: Uncategorized

2 Comments on “Your Machine Needs a Spa Day”

  1. Carmen N
    September 9, 2020 at 9:28 am #

    Great post on taking care of our precious babies. I am a stickler about cleaning and maintenance too. Years ago, when taking a class on using my new machine, the dealer recommended using a chenille pipe cleaner to help remove lint from the bobbin case. I keep it hooked around my oil bottle. Works great. Thanks for keeping us informed about such a variety of topics!

    • September 9, 2020 at 10:23 am #

      You’re welcome! The pipe cleaner is a great idea!

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