This page was printed from

Sewing machine savvy

Feature | May 1, 2019 | By:

Maintenance—and knowing your machine—means less downtime

It’s human nature. Even the best-intentioned person doesn’t always floss his or her teeth daily. And, as it turns out, not all fabricators read the instruction manuals for their sewing machines. Or take the time to keep up with the machine’s maintenance needs.

The sewing machine is the heart of most good fabrication shops, like this Juki at Good Vibrations Canvas in Marina del Ray, Calif. Owner Rick Balabuck uses magnets to keep his hand tools attached to the machine so they are readily available. Photo: Good Vibrations Canvas.

Those who don’t are much more likely to lose valuable work time when a machine refuses to operate the way it should. So, what’s it take to minimize the chance that might happen to you?

Start with the right machine

Buying the right machine for your shop is critical to keeping it up and running. 

“Fabricators really need to do their homework and make sure they get the right machine for the right job,” says Sam Sloan, owner of Sloan Machinery Company, which sells sewing machines, parts and accessories from its offices in Salem, N.H. “They need to get educated. When someone asks me what machine they should get, I really want to know what kind of work they will be doing, now and in the future.”

Sloan says he will ask for sample materials, including thread, that the fabricator is going to use. He then checks that a particular machine (and needle) will be able to handle the kind of jobs the fabricator will be doing. 

Steven Kaplan of S. Kaplan Sewing Machine Co. Inc., Newark N.J., inspects a sewing hook assembly and bobbin case for wear or damage. Photo: S. Kaplan Sewing Machine Co. Inc.

Steven L. Kaplan, owner of S. Kaplan Sewing Machine Co. Inc. in Newark, N.J., does the same thing. “The type of material and the type of thread that is going to be used is important,” he says. “The guys in my shop take the time to set up a machine and sew the item that the customer sends me.” 

“You need the correct machine for the job,” adds Calvin Hampton, assistant general manager of technical services for Juki America Inc., a leading manufacturer of sewing machines, based in Doral, Fla. 

For example, says Hampton, “If you try to sew with materials that are not suited for the machine’s durability, you’ll overtax the mechanical parts—and cause undue stress for the operator trying to produce the product.”

Read the manual—really

“People will sit down at a new sewing machine and say, ‘I know how to thread this.’ But maybe they don’t,” says Kaplan. “Reading the manual is the easiest way to avoid trouble with the machine. If you take the time to do that,” he says, “you’re going to find a myriad of things about operating the machine, as well as about maintenance.” 

Kaplan, like many other dealers, offers training to customers who buy machines. “You’d be surprised how far people will come to do it,” he says. “People will come and spend an hour or two with the guys in my shop. ‘How do I do this? How do I do that? How do I clean it? How do I take care of it?’ That goes a long way.”

How does stitching turn out poorly, as in the photo above? According to Faith Roberts, owner of Banner Canvas in Ham Lake, Minn., it’s caused by a tension disk (left) that gets loaded up with thread residue. Regular sewing machine cleaning is critical to its proper operation. Photo: Banner Canvas.

Provide regular maintenance 

“Effective preventative maintenance is the best rule of thumb,” says Hampton. “It’s the key to the longevity of any equipment. If maintenance schedules aren’t implemented and carried out, then the equipment is sure to fail.”

At the start of every project, Rick Balabuck, owner of Good Vibrations Canvas in Marina Del Rey, Calif., says he goes over his machine to make sure everything is working properly. “Then I sew lots of little test pieces,” he adds, “making sure it’s giving me the kind of stitch I want.”

Fabricators and dealers recommend a quick cleaning of a machine every few days, or even daily, depending on what’s recommended by the manufacturer and how much the machine is being used, using a brush and/or a canister of compressed air. 

Photo: Banner Canvas.

Regular oiling is critical as well, perhaps as often as daily. But don’t overdo it, cautions Faith Roberts, who has owned Banner Canvas in Ham Lake, Minn., since 1987. “I oil every day, but when I say that, I mean the machines get oiled sparingly. I had a guy that worked for me who would run around with an oil can, and oil would be dripping off of things—and of course that ruins product.” 

Frequency of maintenance is often dependent on the materials being sewn, Roberts explains. “I’m just finishing a 5,500-piece order of [sewn] books, so I get all these fine little pieces of paper that are embedding themselves in the machine. I’m constantly blowing air to get rid of it so it doesn’t act like sandpaper. I’ve taken the machine apart to clean twice already, and I’ve oiled it several times because I’m running at higher speeds. And I’ll do all that again when I am done.”

Used canvas that is being repaired can also cause issues. “When you’re working on new, clean canvas, there aren’t many problems,” says Ben Lange, owner of Wyoming Canvas in Wyoming, Minn. “But when you’re working on repairs, the canvas can be really dirty or sandy. That’s when needles break and machines get knocked out of time.”

“If I’m using one of my machines on an old dirty tarp, that machine has to be cleaned as soon as I’m done,” says Roberts. “That has to go into the cost of the repair as well, because now I have to take time to clean that machine for that one job.”

Troubleshoot immediately

Even with a regular maintenance schedule, operational issues can still arise. 

“I can’t tell you how many machines we get in here (for service) in the course of a year because the wrong needle has been put in the machine and they’ve tried to adjust for it, or the needle has been put in incorrectly,” says Sloan. “Every machine takes a specific needle. You may have multiple boxes of needles in the shop, but you need to take time to find the right one.”

And if you don’t? “A machine has to run in time, and if you try to time it for the wrong needle, you’ll throw everything out of adjustment, and quickly,” he explains.

“We get a lot of machines for service that are threaded wrong,” adds Kaplan. “People will think, ‘I’ve been doing this for years, I know what I’m doing,’ but the path the thread takes through the sewing machine, particularly through the needle, is exacting.” 

A machine’s manual will tell the user how to thread the machine, of course, but help can be found in other places as well. “The great thing about the internet is that you can call up pretty much any kind of threading diagram you need,” says Kaplan.

“On the newer digital machines, the operators can make adjustments by the touch of the screen, customizing to fit the customer’s needs,” explains Hampton. “Older machines are more mechanical, and too often people make adjustments that result in self-inflicted mishaps and critical damage.”

Roberts says she has found that she needs to replace the spring hook on her bobbin case regularly, every two to three months. “And if I’m running certain threads, like monofilament, it’s going to wear a lot faster,” she adds.

While quality sewing machines can be found at many price points, Balabuck says he runs into fewer problems now that he uses a higher-end machine. “It’s just built so well,” he says. “I think less expensive machines aren’t always made to the same tolerance and can need more fiddling. I don’t want to spend all my time fighting with the machine—I want to make what I’m trying to make.

“The biggest key to me is that when something goes bad, I’ll hear it before I see it,” Balabuck explains. “There will be just a subtle change in the way the machine sounds, caused by anything from a dull needle or broken thread or the tension being off.

“The tendency is often to hope the problem goes away,” says Balabuck. “Of course, it never does. I’ve learned the hard way—if it sounds funny, stop what you’re doing and figure it out.”

Sloan says he sees issues with users “popping” the safety clutch on their machines. “They don’t know how to start out properly and they pop the clutch,” he says. “That gets thread all jammed up in the machines. Fifty percent of our calls are helping people get their machines unjammed.”

Today’s high-tech threads, such as polytetra fluoroethylene (PTFE), also can cause problems. “You need a lot of tension to sew PTFE thread,” says Sloan, “so we put special springs in the machine to make it sew PFTE. PTFE is also rough on parts—it’s like dental floss. You need to make sure your tension disks are clean and don’t have cuts in them. You can crank the tension all you want, but it won’t work if the parts are worn.”

Make time for service

One important advantage of purchasing a sewing machine from a reputable dealer, as opposed to buying one online, is the service a dealer can provide when things go wrong. “My guys are on the phone probably three or four hours a day helping our customers,” says Sloan. “People who shop only price forget about the service that’s going to be needed after the sale.”

And there will be times, no matter how hard a fabricator tries to straighten out a balky machine, that it’s just not going to “sew nice,” to use Lange’s words. 

 “Especially in the spring, when you’re really busy, you don’t want to be messing around trying to fix a machine,” Lange says. “If something goes wrong and we can’t fix it, I call our repair shop. We need our machines up and running.”  

Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer from Minneapolis, Minn.

Basic sewing machine maintenance can go a long way toward ensuring an uninterrupted workflow, bur regular replacement of machine parts—even if they seem to be working fine—is also a way to avoid machine trouble, says Steven L. Kaplan, owner of S. Kaplan Sewing Machine Co. Inc. in Newark, N.J.

“We refer to some parts as ‘mortality parts,’” he explains. “If you’re using your machine on a regular basis, once a year you should replace the feed dog, the needle plate and the presser feet. Even if you think they don’t look particularly worn, spend the money, the $50 or $75. That will go a long way toward keeping your machine out of a shop like mine for repair.”

Photo: Heber Springs Marine Upholstery Inc.

Here’s a tip from James Foster (pictured), owner of Heber Springs Marine Upholstery Inc., in Heber Springs, Ark., on working with polytetra fluoroethylene (PTFE) thread:

“We always try to put out a product that is going to last as long as absolutely possible, using the best materials and the best thread.  At one point, we were really wanting to use PTFE thread but had a challenge using it that took some time to work through. I found a trick that works on one of my machines. It may not be a standard remedy, but it really worked for this Consew® 205 noncompound walking foot machine, a normal unit for canvas fabrication.

“Instead of just running the thread in the normal threading pattern and then through the needle, I loop it around the needle one time and then through the needle, so it holds the thread tight against the needle. The machine was skipping stitches quite frequently before I did that. Now there are no skipped stitches. I tried different tensions and other remedies, but that completely solved my problem.” 

Share this Story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments are moderated and will show up after being approved.