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17 Common Sewing Machine Problems and How To Solve Them

There’s nothing worse than working with an uncooperative sewing machine! Broken or tangled threads, skipped stitches, snapped needles—it can make for a very frustrating experience. But most of these issues can be resolved without taking your machine in for expensive repairs. We’ve assembled a list of some of the most common sewing machine problems, and their solutions, to help you troubleshoot even while mid-project!

1. Thread bunching up under your fabric when sewing

If you’re seeing knots of extra thread on the underside of your sewing, there are several likely culprits. First, remove your sewing from the machine. You may have to cut through all the extra thread to get it free. Don’t simply pull it loose, or you risk damaging the mechanism of your machine, not to mention your fabric! Once your project has been freed, carefully remove all the cut bits of thread as well. Now you’re ready to identify the issue. Keep a scrap piece of your fabric on hand to test solutions as you try them.

  • Remove your top thread and re-thread the machine, being careful to follow the threading schematic provided in your machine’s manual. Make sure your presser foot is up while threading—many machines lock the tension disks when the presser foot is down, making it impossible to thread the machine through the disks correctly.
  • Remove and re-thread your bobbin. Some machines are particular about which way the bobbin unwinds. Consult your manual to be sure it’s inserted correctly.
  • Make sure you are using the same type of thread in both top thread and bobbin. A difference in thread weight commonly causes machines to draw threads at different rates, leading to tangles and knots.
  • Adjust your tension settings. This is a common issue, especially if you go from working with a heavy fabric to a delicate one (or vice versa) without remembering to adjust your settings. Test your tension settings on a scrap of your project’s fabric to make sure everything is correct.

2. Bent or broken needles

This is a problematic issue that can be dangerous as well as annoying. Always use a new needle for a new project. This prevents needles from getting dull or hooked at the tip, which can damage your fabric. Make sure you’re using the right type of needle for the project at hand— knit fabrics do best with a ballpoint, or jersey needle, while leather, vinyl, or denim will need sharp, sturdy needles. If your needle breaks or bends, stop sewing immediately. Carefully remove the broken needle and put it in a container to be disposed of properly. Replace the needle with the correct type for your project, being sure to install it according to your sewing machine’s manual. Re-thread, and continue your project. If you’re using the correct needle, but you continue to have issues with breaking or bending, you may have underlying mechanical issues with the timing mechanism, which will require expert repair.

3. Fabric not feeding

Make sure if your machine has a drop-feed setting that it has not been activated, and that you don’t have an embroidery or darning plate covering the feed dogs. You’ll also want to be sure that your presser foot is down, and is set to the correct pressure for your fabric—too little or too much pressure results in a poor feed. When starting a seam, make sure the fabric is all the way under the needle before lowering your presser foot.

4. Thread keeps breaking

Check the type of thread that you’re using. Delicate threads designed for hand sewing are not suitable for use in a sewing machine. Your top and bottom threads should also be of the same weight. Re-thread your top thread, making sure your presser foot is up while threading. If you’re still having issues, lower the tension settings for your top thread.

5. Machine is skipping stitches

There are several possible reasons for your machine to skip stitches. First, check that your needle is installed correctly, not bent or otherwise damaged, and that you’re using the right type of needle for your project. If the top thread is not reaching the bobbin, the threads will not lock properly, resulting in a skipped stitch. Re-thread your machine, both top and bobbin threads, and test. If your machine is still skipping stitches, there may be an issue with the timing, which will require expert repairs.

6. Bobbin tension not consistent

If you find yourself constantly adjusting the tension of your bobbin thread, check the bobbin itself. Plastic bobbins especially can wear, causing them to grow loose within the bobbin housing and making it difficult to maintain the correct tension. Try switching to a new metal bobbin and see if that resolves the issue.

7. Seams in stretch fabrics coming out wavy

This one may be a sewing machine issue, but it can also be a problem with your technique. First, adjust the way you’re sewing. Make sure the entirety of your project is supported while you’re sewing. The weight of the fabric alone can be enough to cause knits or other stretch fabrics to stretch while you’re sewing, so don’t let your fabric drape off the table while you work. Let the feed dogs do all the work, and avoid pulling on the fabric to straighten it as you sew. Pin well before you start! If you’re still seeing issues, adjust the pressure of your presser foot, or better yet, switch to a walking foot, which will feed the top and bottom layers of your fabric under the needle at the same rate, avoiding that distortion.

8. Sewing machine seizes up or won’t sew

It’s not uncommon to need to give your machine a bit of help by turning the handwheel, especially when you’re just getting a seam started. However, if you need to force the wheel to turn, or the machine doesn’t pick up after a bit of assistance, stop what you’re doing! Likely, your fabric is too tough for your machine to sew, and continuing to try will damage your machine. If you’re not working with a particularly tough fabric, make sure that your needle is installed correctly and is the right type. Remove it to check that it isn’t bent. If you’re still having issues with your machine not sewing, check your manual for cleaning and maintenance tips. A build-up of fuzz and lint can make it tough for your machine’s mechanisms to work correctly.

9. Needle comes unthreaded before sewing

How annoying! You just spent ages getting that thread through the eye of the needle, and as soon as you go to start sewing, it unthreads itself. Luckily, there’s an easy fix for this one. Before threading your machine, just make sure that the needle is at its highest point. You can do this by winding the handwheel toward yourself (always wind it toward yourself since this advances the machine—winding it backward can cause threads to tangle) while watching the needle. Some machines also have an “up/down” function that allows you to raise or lower the needle automatically to its highest or lowest point.

10. Fabric or threads are bunching at the start or ends of seams

Your seams should lay perfectly flat from one end to the other, but it’s not uncommon to see bunching or tangled threads at the ends. This is caused by backstitching (or back-tacking) over the ends of the fabric, which changes the tensions your sewing machine experiences and causes tangles. Avoid this by sewing an extra few millimetres into your fabric before backstitching at the start of seams, so that the backstitches are all made through fabric and not over the edge. Similarly, when ending a seam, backstitch before you hit the edge, and then sew straight off the edge for a nice clean finish.

11. Thread inconsistently knots, loosens, or tangles

This can be an infuriating problem to track down. One minute, everything’s sewing along just fine, and the next, your machine has tangled, skipped stitches, or knotted up the threads. If the issue is inconsistent, the problem is not likely to be your threading or tension settings. Instead, the issue is probably fluff! That’s right, the tiny bits of lint and dust that build up inside your sewing machine, especially in and around the bobbin case, can cause no end of difficulties if they end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Avoid the issue by regularly cleaning your machine per the instructions in your manual. Many sewing machine manufacturers recommend using brushes or vacuum attachments to remove lint; while using cans of compressed air may seem like a good idea, they often have a tendency to drive tiny bits of lint further into the mechanism, where they can continue to wreak havoc. It’s best to follow the manufacturer’s instructions!

12. Thread fraying, shredding, and breaking

If your thread looks as though it’s been through the mill, it’s probably an issue with your needle. Make sure that your thread and needle sizes are compatible—your needle needs to be large enough for the thread you’re using to pass through the eye without catching or pulling. If your needle and thread are incompatible, there’s a good chance one or the other isn’t right for your project anyway, so start by making sure you’ve got the right tools for your materials.

13. Fabric feed is inconsistent

Even seams are the mark of a good sewist, but it can be terribly difficult to manage if your machine isn’t drawing the fabric evenly. There are several possible reasons for uneven feed, and the culprit, not surprisingly, is usually the feed dogs. If your machine is older, it’s possible the feed dogs may have worn down enough that they aren’t catching the fabric evenly. They can typically be replaced, and your machine can be running good as new in no time. If your machine is new, try cleaning around the feed dogs. Lint tends to build up in this area, particularly if your machine has a drop-feed function. If neither of these seems to be the issue, try increasing the pressure of your presser foot to make sure your fabric maintains even contact with the feed dogs.

14. Machine is making strange noises

Step one: stop sewing! As soon as you hear unexpected thumps or clunks coming from your machine, take your foot off the pedal. It’s likely that your machine just needs a good cleaning, so check through your manual for the recommended maintenance procedure. Clean and oil your machine according to the instructions, and then give it test on a bit of scrap fabric. If there are still unusual noises, it’s best to take it to a repair shop to have it tuned up.

15. The machine is running, but the needle won’t move!

Though initially perplexing, this problem has a simple solution. Your machine is likely set in bobbin-winding mode, so check that the lever or winding post for your bobbin is in the correct position.

16. Decorative stitch settings aren’t working

If your machine has a variety of decorative stitch settings, but they don’t seem to be working, the first step is to check your stitch length and width settings. Many decorative stitches require specific settings in order to appear properly. Double check your manual to make sure that you’re using the right length and width for the stitch you’re trying to create.

17. Seams are puckered and distorted

While a bit of unevenness in a seam can be dealt with by pressing, puckered and distorted seams may actually be a problem with your machine. First, check the weight of the thread you’re using. A thick, stiff thread will cause distortion in lightweight fabrics, and will also throw off your tension settings. Tension is the second thing to check, if your thread is sufficiently lightweight for the project. Another possibility is uneven feed. If your presser foot pressure is correct, and your feed dogs are working properly, try switching to a walking foot, which can help even out the feed for slippery or heavyweight fabrics.

As frustrating as it can be to have your sewing machine stage a revolt, the solution is likely quite simple. A bit of regular maintenance can help prevent the worst issues, and your manual is an invaluable resource. Do you have other tips and tricks to help with sewing machine difficulties? Share them in the comments below!

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