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Publisher: Amy Barrett-Daffin Creative Director: Gailen Runge Acquisitions Editor / Editorial Compiler: Roxane Cerda Managing Editor: Liz Aneloski Editor: Lynn Koolish Technical Editor: Debbie Rodgers Cover/Book Designer: April Mostek Production Coordinator: Tim Manibusan Production Editor: Jennifer Warren Photography by Bernie Tobisch, unless otherwise noted below Author photo by Milton Taylor of Imagery Photography on cover Published by C&T Publishing, Inc., P.O. Box 1456, Lafayette, CA 94549 Acknowledgments I would like to thank my wife, Shelley, who has been there through thick and thin. It’s not easy living and working with someone, and she has managed to stick with me. Her patience, her enthusiasm, her work ethic, and her rose-colored goggles have been an immeasurable help to me. I’m looking forward to the next twenty years of adventure! Thank you also to our great clientele. You have become family, and I appreciate your support more than I can say! To all the shop owners with whom it’s been my pleasure to work, thank you. Last but definitely not least, to Glen Zoerb, who hired me into this business and taught me a thing or two, my heartfelt thanks! Introduction I have been a sewing machine technician for 42 years and have enjoyed every minute of it. I couldn’t have found a better career to match my personality and skill set. I have had the opportunity to work on every kind of sewing machine from 200-needle mattress quilters to the latest household computerized embroidery machines. For the last 20 years, my focus has been on household machines. Along with my wife, Shelley, I have taught many hundreds of classes. She teaches the techniques, and I relate them to the sewing machine. This has worked very well and has been a lot of fun for us. Over the years, I have come to understand and appreciate that most sewists have a very strong relationship with their sewing machine. The connection is not like one with a toaster, microwave oven, or dishwasher. This is much more pers; onal. I’ve heard it said that in a fire, the sewing machine would be the first item to be saved. I have seen this relationship be the source of much joy and the cause of many tears. In our many classes, I have started to see myself as somewhat of a relationship counselor and always do my best to reestablish trust and understanding. But at times where there were irreconcilable differences between sewist and machine, I have also had to facilitate separation and divorce. My goal with this book is to help you gain a better understanding of your sewing machine—its needs and what it is trying to communicate to you. I hope that this new understanding will allow you and your machine to become best friends. I have tried to include enough styles of sewing machine so you find one that is similar to yours; but as always, the manual that came with your machine should be the final authority. If you don’t have a manual, many manufacturers have downloads available from their websites. About the Author Bernie Tobisch was born in Germany and moved to Canada as a young boy. He grew up in Saskatchewan and moved to Alberta in his early twenties, where he began his career as a sewing machine technician with Singer. He became a dealer after a few years and continued to service machines. In the late 1980s, he moved to the Vancouver region, opened up shop, and has been there since. He has a daughter, Bonnie, and son, Gord. He also has one grandson, Dylan, whom he thinks would make a great technician! Bernie is happily married to his wife, Shelley. They met in the sewing machine business and have worked together for the past 20 years teaching classes on precision piecing, machine quilting, and getting to know your sewing machine. He also still services sewing machines. Bernie enjoys sailing and fishing, and if he ever retires, he would love to sail off into the sunset to repair his boat in exotic locations! Troubleshooting Guide Tension in the Relationship Bad tension can ruin any relationship. You are trying to sew a simple seam and are getting a nest of thread under the fabric. You might be using two colors of thread, and you are seeing the bobbin thread being pulled to the top of the fabric. Last week, when you were working on this project, the tension was perfect. What is your machine trying to tell you today? Your expectations are not being met, and that is frustrating. The key is knowing what you are dealing with. Is the machine misbehaving, or is this simply a misunderstanding? Let’s explore how tension mechanisms work. TOP TENSION The top tension mechanism is actually a very simple thing. It really doesn’t want to give you any grief, and it rarely does. Basically, two metal discs provide the tension on the top thread. On one side, a spring regulates the amount of pressure to the thread. In the photo, I am using two pie plates to symbolize the metal discs. My hand on one side represents the spring. The harder I push, the more tension there is. Tension discs That spring is controlled by a dial or, in the case of some computerized sewing machines, by the computer itself. Increasing the number increases the amount of pressure on the thread. Decreasing the number lessens the amount of pressure on the thread. The control dial can be found on top of the machine on some brands and on the front of the machine on others. On older machines, you might find the dial on the left side. On machines where the tension is controlled by the computer, there will be an icon on screen that allows adjustment when touched. Your instruction manual will indicate where the tension control is for your machine. How the Presser Foot Is Involved When you raise the presser foot, the discs separate and allow the top thread to slip all the way between them. As you lower the foot to sew, the discs come together and provide the selected amount of pressure to the thread. If you thread your machine with the presser foot down, the top thread does not enter the discs and therefore has no tension. The result will be that the top thread is pulled to the back of the fabric, sometimes in long loops. Loops of top thread on back of fabric Setting the Top Tension Top tension has many increments of adjustment. Manufacturers usually give a range of 0–9. Don’t let this intimidate you! I have had many sewists tell me that an instructor has frightened them by yelling, “Never touch your tension!” intimating that something bad may happen if you touch that dial. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your machine will not explode. In this relationship, you are in charge! You just have to know what to communicate to your machine. Tension dial with adjustment range of 0–9 There is a reason the adjustment is there, and when you understand how simple the principal is, you and your sewing machine will sing a harmonious duet! The higher the number you select, the tighter the tension on the top thread. The lower the number, the lower the tension. Tip Many machines have two sets of tension discs. A metal divider in between gives another path for the thread. These are provided for situations when you use two top threads, such as pin tucking. For normal use with one thread, it doesn’t matter which side of the divider you put the thread into. BOTTOM (BOBBIN) TENSION The bobbin tension provides the yang to the top tension’s yin. When the two are balanced, the stitch looks great and the fabric is held together firmly and without puckers or loops. Two different styles of bobbin tension mechanism Over the years, manufacturers have created their own ways to form a stitch, and it’s in the bobbin area that you will find the most variation. Although there are many styles of bobbin cases, for the most part, the adjustment is accomplished the same way. They have a screw that is tightened for more tension and loosened for less. Threading the Tension Spring Most bobbin cases have a tension spring that needs to be threaded. On some, a lever pushes down on the top of the bobbin to create tension. In the horizontal drop-in-bobbin-type bobbin case, it is a very common occurrence to forget to pull the thread into the tension spring. Here is how the stitching looks when the thread is not in the tension spring and the bobbin thread is pulled to the top. Stitching when bobbin tension is not threaded In the vertical type of removable bobbin case, it seems to happen less frequently, possibly because the case is removed to load the bobbin. The final authority on threading the bobbin case for your model of machine is, of course, your manual. Using the Right Bobbin A common cause of problems is using the wrong bobbins for your type of sewing system. Many bobbins look the same or have very slight variations. However, using the wrong one can cause not only tension problems but breaking thread. A good policy is to buy the same bobbin that came with the machine originally. In the example below, notice that the bobbin in the machine is slightly higher than the top edge of the bobbin case. As the top thread tries to come over the top to form a knot, it catches under the bobbin and jams the machine. At a minimum, this is frustrating, but there is also a chance it will end up spinning the bobbin case around and damaging it. In the following example, the bobbin is too narrow and will move around, creating the possibility of the needle hitting it and causing damage. Tip: Prewound Bobbins Prewound bobbins work well, provided they match the size of the bobbin meant for the sewing machine. However, if the machine has a low-bobbin warning, it will most likely not work when you use these bobbins. TENSION CALIBRATION AND ADJUSTMENT Now that you have a better understanding of the tension mechanisms involved, take control and make your stitch look like it should. This is really a very simple procedure, and when you’re done, you should never be afraid of tension again. Finding the Default Top Tension Every machine has a default setting for top tension. The easiest are the computerized versions. When you turn on the machine, it automatically goes to the right setting for the stitch, in this case straight stitch. These machines typically have touch screens, but some don’t. On those you may see the dial move on start-up. Some manufacturers designate a position for the dial labeled Auto. This is the setting you want for those machines. Some machines have a mark on the dial that designates the default setting. For the machines with a few numbers highlighted on the dial, select the middle number. Most other machines will have a dial with a range of adjustment from 0 to 9. On those, you will select 4.5. Making and Analyzing a Sample Very little can ever go wrong with the top tension mechanism, other than something getting stuck between the discs. That is why you are going to trust these numbers, having made sure, of course, that the discs are clear. Before you start, make sure that the top tension is set to default (see Finding the Default Top Tension). There is a chance that the default setting is not correct on your machine, but this is not a common problem. If it is, you need to take it in to your sewing machine technician and have it set properly. This calibration process assumes that yours is right. 1. Thread the machine with a good quality 50/2-weight light-colored thread, such as Aurifil or DMC. 2. Use the same thread in the bobbin. Do not miss this important step! You want to work with a very light-colored thread. The reason for this will become evident shortly. 3. Insert a brand new sharps 80/12 needle. A new needle means one out of the package, not from the pincushion. 4. Using a piece of good quality cotton in a very light color (such as Kona Snow or equivalent), fold the fabric so you will be sewing on two layers. 5. Set the stitch length at 2.5 or as close as your machine will allow and sew a straight stitch 4˝–5˝ long. 6. When you are done, inspect the stitching by looking in the hole created by the needle. The knot made by the top and bottom thread should be in there. Use a magnifying glass if necessary. Look at both the top and bottom of the fabric. The knot should be right in the middle. To make it easier to see, the following photo uses a prop to show the location of the knot in the fabric. Prop showing knot in middle of fabric You may find that this is not the case and that the knot is more to one side of the fabric than the other. Knot pulled to the top Knot pulled to the bottom Making Adjustments If your knot is not centered perfectly, then you will need to adjust the bobbin tension. Have no fear, you won’t mess anything up. Consult your sewing machine’s manual to locate the bobbin case adjustment screw. The adjustment screw is what you need to turn. The direction depends on what the sample stitch out showed you. If the knot is pulled to the top of the fabric, tighten the screw. If the knot is pulled toward the underside of the fabric, loosen the screw. Make the increment of adjustment very small, maybe a quarter of a turn. Sew another seam and examine it again. Adjust until you have centered the knot perfectly. Congratulations! You have just taken control of a very important aspect of this relationship. What Could Go Wrong? Now that you are feeling powerful, try a simple exercise: Unthread the machine and take out the bobbin. Rethread the machine with the same type of thread, only in black. Remember to wind some of this black thread onto the bobbin as well. Sew another seam right beside the best one you did after calibration. I’m guessing that you are not going to be as happy with this row of stitching as you are with the one beside it. Now take a black piece of cotton fabric and fold it in half. Fold it over the bottom of the light-colored fabric. Start sewing a seam on the light fabric and continue onto the black. Examine the stitching. The tension seems to change as you transition from one color to the next, but the machine doesn’t know what fabric you are on. As you sew onto the black, the tension looks good again. Your calibration is good, and the tension is right. The problem with the stitching on the light-colored fabric is simply the color contrast with the thread. Dark threads on light fabrics do not stitch out well. You might be convinced that you have a tension problem when you really don’t. The reason for this exercise is to explain that whenever the stitching is going to show, it is a good idea to test-sew. Topstitching, machine quilting, and buttonholes are good examples where you may want to limit how much contrast there is between thread and fabric. Interestingly, using light thread on dark fabric does not create as bad a look. THINGS THAT MIGHT AFFECT TENSION Your tension should now be calibrated. This is something that you might have to do occasionally. The adjustment screws on the bobbin case can loosen with the vibration of the sewing machine. For this exercise, you used good thread and used it top and bottom. That may not always be the case when you are sewing. • You may choose to use different threads made of different fibers. • There might be times when you want to use different weights of thread on top and bottom. • Decorative threads have very different properties from those you used in our calibration. These things will all change how the stitching looks. Now that you have set up the machine properly, you will not have to adjust the bobbin tension. All adjustments will be made from the top. Situations That Might Require Top Tension Adjustment Heavier thread on top A heavier thread is usually less supple than a lighter one. Monofilament or other plastic threads These threads, either round or flat, create extra tension wherever they contact metal. This means the tension discs and all thread guides, as well as the needle. Different brands of the same weight thread Even different brands can behave differently. Some threads have more sizing in them and are less supple. Some are just lesser quality and are not as smooth and even. Different colors top and bottom Sometimes you might want to use a different color from the top thread in the bobbin. In this case, depending on the thickness of the fabric, when you look in the needle hole, you might see the thread from the opposite side show through. In all these situations, you can balance the tension properly by using your upper tension control. Making Top Tension Adjustments With the top tension control, you can very precisely control the position of the knot in the fabric. Knot in middle—proper tension adjustment When the knot is pulled too far down in the fabric, increase the top tension by setting it to a higher number. Raise the number, raise the knot. Knot toward bottom and needs to be raised When the knot is pulled toward the top of the fabric, decrease the top tension by lowering the number. Lower the number, lower the knot. Knot pulled toward top of fabric and needs to be lowered Controlling the tension is really that easy. When your machine is calibrated properly, you raise and lower only the top tension number to move the knot to where you want it. This knowledge gives you the freedom to play with different threads with confidence. You can achieve the kind of results you want. Tip Raise the number, raise the knot. Lower the number, lower the knot. It’s Hardly Ever the Tension Most often what looks like a tension problem actually isn’t. As important as it is to know how and when to adjust, it is just as or more important to be able to recognize and fix a problem that disguises itself as tension. Most of the other problems are very simple, as you will see in this chapter. SMOOTHING BURRS ON THE HOOK The hook is the metal part that revolves around the bobbin case. It is responsible for picking the thread up from the back of the needle and pulling it over top of the bobbin to form a knot with the bobbin thread. Top thread being pulled over bobbin by hook If the hook has a rough spot on it, particularly on the tip, the top thread will not be pulled around smoothly. This may show up as uneven tension, loops under the fabric, or even breaking thread. Your first thought may be, I need to adjust the tension. These rough spots or burrs are caused by breaking needles or even by deflecting needles coming in contact with the tip of the hook. Let’s take a look at each of these systems individually and see where to look for the burrs. Oscillating or CB hook In the photo below, an arrow points at the tip of the hook. This is often where you will find a burr. They are almost never on the front or flat side, but rather on the sloped part. The best way to find the burr is to slide your fingernail toward the tip and feel for the roughness. Another arrow points at the second spot where you might find needle damage. This should be more visible. It happens when the needle deflects while in the fabric and makes direct contact. This type of hook also had a plastic version that can have needle damage on the black portion. Oscillating hook with plastic variant Industrial-style rotary hook One arrow points at the tip of the hook. Run your fingernail toward the tip on the sloped side. This is where you will find the burr. The second arrow points at a flat piece of metal called the bail. If you run your nail along the outer edge of this bail, you might well find rough spots where a deflecting needle has made contact. Industrial-style rotary hook Drop-in bobbin horizontal rotary hook The arrow is pointing at the tip of the hook. Slide your fingernail along the sloped part toward and off the end of the tip to find a burr. Feel around the top inside edge for rough spots as well. Large vertical rotary hook The tip of the hook is marked by the arrow. Run your fingernail down the sloped part off the end to find a burr. Floating vertical rotary hook The arrow points at the tip of the hook. Run your fingernail along the sloped part off the end to find a burr. With this type of hook, make sure to examine the plastic portion for any needle damage. High-speed rear-facing large vertical rotary hook This hook swings forward when you open the bobbin door. You won’t be able to remove it to check for burrs. Your technician will have to check this when the machine is in for service. After you have determined if there is a burr or any other damage from needle strikes, you can use a piece of 400-grit (a.k.a. #400) wet and dry sandpaper and polish off any roughness. The #400 is smooth enough that you will not scratch the metal or plastic parts. The large high-speed rear-facing vertical rotary hook is the only one that I would recommend you do not polish. I suggest you take it to your dealer if you find needle damage. Never polish the flat edge of the hook tip. Work only on the part that slopes toward the tip. THREAD Thread quality, thickness, and number of plies are often overlooked when analyzing stitch quality. It is one of those important variables. Different threads labeled as the same weight may not look the same when sewn, due simply to the manufacturing process. If your stitching does not meet your standard, maybe you have changed brands recently. You may need to alter the tension to compensate (see Top Tension). DAMAGE TO THE BOBBIN CASE Oscillating or CB This type of bobbin case rarely sustains any damage. It can, however, become tarnished with time. When that happens, you may start to hear a slight snapping sound when the top thread passes over it. The stitching may also start looking bad with small loops underneath. The thread may start to break. The solution is to shine up the bobbin case with a metal polish. After the luster is restored, it will function properly again. The best and easiest to use product I have found for this is The Original Never-Dull Magic Wadding Polish (by The George Basch Company). It is a wadding with the chemical infused and does a great job. Industrial-style bobbin case These bobbin cases seem more prone to needle strikes and should be examined for needle marks. These can be polished with #400 wet and dry sandpaper. Those needle strikes, as well as dropping the bobbin case on a hard floor, can also cause them to go out of round. If you are pulling on the bobbin thread and you can feel a tight spot every revolution, this has probably happened. I have had good success reshaping, using needle-nose pliers. Gently pull the metal back to round. This style of bobbin case can also benefit from a polishing if it is tarnished. Caution: It is possible to break the metal, so this is something you might want to leave to your sewing machine technician. Drop-in bobbin case These are the most susceptible to damage from the needle, but they can be repaired with a good degree of success. Often, usually as a result of incorrect threading or using too heavy a thread, top thread can wrap around and spin these bobbin cases into the path of the needle. This creates rough needle holes that then catch the top thread in its path around the bobbin. Scratches around the edges and underneath can also result. Using #400 wet and dry sandpaper, you can polish out most of the rough spots. Sometimes, if there is too much damage, you may have to replace this bobbin case. Large vertical rotary bobbin case These bobbin cases don’t often suffer trauma from the needle. It is a good idea to check the position of the wire loop, as they can be dislodged occasionally. If so, it is best to have your sewing machine technician repair it. High-speed rear-facing vertical bobbin case Keeping this area free of stray thread is important. A tool provided by the manufacturer can be inserted into the gap between bobbin case and hook to clear caught threads. INCORRECT THREADING Threading is often overlooked as a source of tension problems, and it is most often the cause. While most machines work on the same threading principals, there are slight variations from brand to brand. Presser Foot Up One of the major causes of problems is not lifting the presser foot before threading. This action opens up the tension discs and allows the top thread to slide between. When the foot is dropped, the discs close on the thread and create tension. The main symptom is loops on the back of the fabric. Loops caused by threading with foot down Missing the Take-Up Lever It is possible to miss threading the take-up lever that moves up and down on the front of most machines. When this happens, the thread will tangle around the bobbin case in long loops. In some cases, it will spin the plastic drop-in bobbin cases around and possibly create needle damage that will need to be polished out. Sometimes the damage will be too great, and the bobbin case will need to be replaced. Some machines have a hidden take-up lever. This calls for a little extra care when threading. If the machine is computerized, take one stitch with the foot control before threading. This positions the lever and the needle in the right place for proper threading. If the machine is mechanical, with no automatic needle stop, turn the handwheel toward you until the needle has just started on its downward path. This should position everything properly. Skipping a Thread Guide The thread guides on your sewing machine serve the important function of ensuring the thread is following its intended path. Missing a guide can be the cause of what looks like a tension problem. Always thread all guides, including the one directly above the needle. Wrong Size of Thread Stopper If you use the horizontal spool pin on your machine, it is important that you use the proper size stopper. If it’s too large for the spool of thread, it can cause the thread to catch as it unwinds close to the stopper. If it’s too small for the spool, it can cause the thread to catch on notches and imperfections on the edge of the spool itself. Stopper too large Stopper too small Correct size Correct size Thread caught on notch of spool It is also very important that you inspect the outer edge of the stopper for nicks and places for the tread to catch. If possible, polish them smooth with #400 wet and dry sandpaper. NEEDLE PLATE DAMAGE A very common cause of perceived tension problems is needle damage to the needle plate. As the needle enters the slot or hole in the plate, as well as when it is on its way back up, the top thread can get caught on one of the sharp notches. This can cause bad stitching and breaking thread. The rough spots on the inside of the opening can be polished with fine abrasive cord. The damage on the surface can be polished with #400 wet and dry sandpaper. In some cases, the plate will be damaged beyond repair and should be replaced. Never grind out the plate to repair it. The hollow created can cause the fabric to move up and down as the needle goes in and out. This is called flagging and can cause skipped stitches on some finer fabrics. SPOOL PIN ORIENTATION Most sewing machines have two spool pins. With some, the extra one will be in the accessories box. Often one of these will be horizontal and the other vertical. The spool pin you choose to use can also make a difference to your stitch quality. Horizontal Spool Pin The horizontal spool pin does not allow your spool of thread to spin. This causes the thread to twist. This twisting can show up in your stitching here and there as a slanted stitch. With some threads, the twisting can be so bad that the thread creates a loop that can get caught in a guide and catch or break the thread. The benefit of this spool pin is that it is quiet because the spool does not spin. The advantages and disadvantages will need to be weighed by each sewist. Prop showing how thread twists as it comes off horizontal spool pin Vertical Spool Pin The vertical spool pin allows the spool of thread to turn as it unwinds. This prevents the thread from twisting, delivering a more consistent stitch. The disadvantage is that it is noisier because the spool is turning. Prop showing how thread doesn’t twist as it comes off vertical spool pin NOTE It is important to note that if you are using one of the larger spools of thread, such as the popular 1,300-meter variety, they are heavier, and you might have to turn down the top tension slightly until it is about half full. This is to compensate for the extra tension created by the weight of the thread itself. It is a good idea to have a spool pin felt under the thread to reduce friction. Tip The black stuff that you see on the vertical spool pin is glue from the label on the thread. This glue is very sticky and can stop the spool from turning freely. It is a good idea to clean it off with a tissue and some rubbing alcohol. This will help keep stitch quality consistent. Vertical spool pin covered with glue Independent Thread Stand These stand-alone thread stands can be used for large cones of thread that don’t fit onto the sewing machine. Even though they have a vertical spool pin, it is important to note that, because the thread goes first to a guide above the cone, the cone does not turn. This means that the thread will twist. Parallel-Wound Versus Cross-Wound Thread Both types of thread work well. The reason I mention them is the belief that the cross-wound thread will work better on the horizontal spool pin. While it does work better than the parallel-wound spools, it still twists as it comes off. This is particularly true when the spool is closer to empty. Metallic threads and monofilaments will twist badly. If possible, it is wise to use the vertical spool pin to deliver the top thread. This will improve stitch quality due to less twist in the thread. BOBBINS Loosely Wound Bobbins A loosely wound bobbin will give less than perfect results. The important key to getting a bobbin wound properly is to use the pre-tension as specified by the manufacturer. This gives the thread exactly the right amount of pressure needed to wind evenly and tightly. There are many variations and placements of this mechanism, and to get it right, you will need to refer to the manual for your model. Here are a few: It is a good idea to refer to your manual to ensure that you are using all the required thread guides when winding a bobbin. Overfilled Bobbins Even a slightly overfilled bobbin can get stuck in the bobbin case and add extra tension. Most sewing machines have an adjustable bobbin stop. They are easy to adjust and can make the difference between good and bad stitching with a newly filled bobbin. The stop should be adjusted so the machine stops winding just before the thread reaches the edge of the bobbin. The adjustment screw should be barely loosened, and the stop can be moved to the desired position. Do not loosen the screw too far or you may undo a nut underneath that could fall into the sewing machine. This will allow overfilling. Correctly set adjustable bobbin stop There are many variations for the placement of the adjustment screw, but it will always be beside the winder mechanism. Some machines do not have an external adjustment. These will need to be taken in to see the sewing machine technician if a change is required. It is worth noting: A bobbin that has been wound with more thread on one side than the other may not cause a tension problem, but it will not allow you to fill it to its capacity. Bobbin with more thread on one side That Extra Little Piece of Thread An uneven bobbin tension can be caused by that little tail of stray thread that can be present after winding a bobbin. Bobbin with extra tail of thread When you insert the bobbin into its bobbin case, that piece of thread often ends up caught between the edge of the bobbin and the inside of the bobbin case. This will cause what looks like a tension issue. Thread caught between bobbin and bobbin case (horizontal system) Thread caught between bobbin and bobbin case (vertical system) You can do two things to solve the problem: Either cut off the little piece of thread very close to the bobbin or wind it slightly differently. To wind without a tail, put the thread through the hole in the side of the bobbin, from the inside to the outside. Hang onto this thread as you are winding. If you hold it close to the bobbin and don’t let go, it should break off on its own. Put thread through hole in side of bobbin and hold tail. Some machines have bobbins that have a rough post inside. These you only need to wrap a few times and then cut off on the cutter built into the bobbin-winder engagement lever. Wrap thread around bobbin and cut. Some brands have a slot underneath the bobbin that holds the thread in place after cutting. Wrap thread around bobbin and cut. Machines with Self-Winding Bobbins Many sewing machines have self-winding bobbin systems. They allow you to wind without removing the bobbin from the bobbin case. The key to proper winding is to secure the top thread around the presser-foot screw and have the activation lever, or in some cases the bobbin-cover slide plate, in the right position. Some models have a friction ring around the presser-foot screw that will hold the thread for you. Some you will need to hold until the thread breaks off at the bobbin. Move activating lever to the left and hold onto thread until it has broken off. In another version, line up the triangles on the slide plate and slip the top thread into the friction ring on the presser foot screw (as shown by the arrow in the photo above). As always, refer to your manual to get the best results for your model. Damaged Bobbins Even sewing machine technicians, when trying to hunt down a tension problem, can overlook damaged bobbins. I have seen chipped, bent, and even broken bobbins in machines. Bobbins for the most part are inexpensive and should be replaced when damaged. Chipped bobbin Bent bobbin Broken bobbin THREAD LOCK A sewing machine can be easily stopped in its tracks by a thread lock. A piece of thread gets caught in the hook and completely jams the machine. This happens with all styles of sewing systems. The reason is usually that the needle and take-up lever were not in the right position when the seam was started. If you have an oscillating- or CB-hook or removable rotary hook machine, simply open the race gate and pull out the hook. The thread can then be easily removed. Removing thread lock, oscillating hook If the machine is rotary, turn the handwheel slowly backward with increasing pressure until the thread breaks loose. Try to find and remove the culprit. If you feel that too much force is called for, then you should take the machine to the sewing machine technician. Break thread lock on rotary hook machine For the drop-in bobbin systems, remove the threads wrapped around the bobbin case, making sure that it has not popped out of position. Proper drop-in bobbin case position Needles, Threaders, and Automatic Thread Cutters NEEDLES Next to the tension, needles are probably the most misunderstood part of the sewing machine and yet one of the most important. This is quite understandable. As fabric and thread choices have increased, needle manufacturers have come up with adaptations and design features to deal with them. When I started in this industry, there were fewer choices, and it was simple to choose the right needle for the job. Now when you go into a store, a whole wall full of different styles and sizes can boggle the mind. In this chapter, we will try to demystify and simplify the choices. Anatomy of a Needle The least expensive sewing notion you will buy for your projects is going to be the sewing machine needle. The right needle is an unsung hero quietly going about its work without drama. The wrong needle is devious and stealthy, causing problems and making you think it’s your machine or worse … you. For many, needles, and why there are so many different types, are a complete mystery. Note: The following photos use props to show needles, thread, and fabric. A needle is a marvel of engineering with some interesting features built in. In this front view, you can see a long groove, running from the eye all the way to the thicker shank. This is designed to accommodate the thread as it pushes through the fabric. When the right combination of needle and thread is used, the fabric can’t interfere with the thread in this groove. Needle front view In this side view, the indentation or scarf above the eye is visible. This is where the tip of the hook picks up the loop of top thread and pulls it around the bobbin case to form a stitch. You can also see the flat part of the shank that allows the needle to sit properly in the needle clamp. Needle side view Important Relationships A needle has two relationships. They are equally important, and understanding them will go a long way toward achieving great results. Relationship 1: Needle Size and Thread The size of the needle relates mostly to the weight of the thread being used. There is, of course, a correlation to fabric density, but the main relationship is between the diameter of the needle and the thickness of the thread. The thread must be able to hide in the long groove in the front of the needle as it goes down through the fabric. There should be no interference between the two in the front of the needle. In the photo, you can see the thread as it is meant to fit into the needle. If the thread was thicker, then it would extend above the groove. Front view of thread properly in groove Now I’ll explain why this is important. Forming Stitches When a needle pushes down through fabric, it takes with it a certain amount thread. This happens because the take-up lever on the front of the machine moves down at the same time, allowing slack in the upper thread. As the needle comes back up, the thread is pinched between the back of the needle and the fabric. This creates a loop above the eye at the scarf. When the needle comes back up 2–2.5 mm, the tip of the hook grabs this loop, and as the top thread is pulled around the bobbin case, the take-up lever pulls the excess thread back up and snugly into the fabric. In the photo, my finger takes the place of the tip of the hook. If the thread is too thick for the needle, then the fabric interferes with the thread in the groove and creates a loop in front, above the fabric. This doesn’t allow enough thread down through the eye to form the right size loop behind the needle. The hook can miss the loop altogether and skip a stitch or hit the thread directly and break it. The stitches that are formed can give the impression that there is a tension issue. As you can see, this relationship between the weight of thread and size (diameter) of needle is very important. Needle Sizes Needle packages are marked with the size on the outside. Typically, you will see 80/12, 90/14, and so on. Needle sizes marked on packaging The first number is a metric measurement of the needle diameter. A size 100 is 1 mm in diameter, size 80 is 0.8 mm, size 70 is 0.7 mm, and so on. This is a very easy to understand system. The second number is an American sizing number. In both numbering systems, as the number increases, the needle gets larger. The larger the needle, the heavier a thread it can accommodate. The smaller the needle, the finer the thread. Size of the Needle Hole Another reason to use the correct size needle for the thread you are using is that the hole left by the needle can create what looks like a tension problem. If you use a large needle with a fine thread, the thread will not fill the hole, and the loop of bobbin thread is easily seen, even though the tension is properly balanced. The stitches may appear slanted or staggered. Fine thread with large needle On the other hand, if you try to use a heavy thread with a fine needle, then not only are you risking skipped stitches and broken threads, but the top thread will not be able to pull the bottom one up into the hole created by the needle. This will look like the bobbin tension is too tight or the top tension is too loose. Fine needle with heavy thread (top) Fine needle with heavy thread (bottom) Both samples above were sewn at the same tension setting. As needles change in size, the length from the bottom of the eye to the tip may also change. This helps to keep an even taper as the needle diameter gets larger. The distance from the top of the eye to the top of the needle stays constant, so as not to affect where the hook grabs the loop. Needle length increasing with diameter Relationship 2: Needle Style and Fabric The point shape and style of needle relates directly to the type of fabric or, in some cases, the type of thread you are working with. Some needle manufacturers label the packages with names such as jeans, sharps, microtex, ballpoint, or leather, for example. These names usually refer to the type of point on the needle. There are also specialty needles—such as quilting, topstitching, metafil, metallic, and stretch—in which a specific point is combined with other features to aid in sewing particular fabrics or specialty threads. These features may include a larger eye, special scarf (see Anatomy of a Needle), and special coatings. Types of Needles Ballpoint needles True to their name, ballpoint needles have a rounded point. They are used to sew on knits, fleece, and other stretchy fabrics. The rounded point parts the fibers so they are not cut. This prevents runs in the fabric. Jeans needles Jeans needles used to be very sharp. In the last number of years, some manufacturers have changed this to what they call a modified ballpoint. This may be due to the fact that a lot of denim has become stretchy. It is important to note that if you are using finer jeans needles to do patchwork piecing on quilting cottons, which used to be recommended, you may now hear the needle popping as it pierces more densely wovens, such as batiks. This is because these needles are no longer sharp enough for this application. Leather needles A flat blade rather than a sharp point is the distinguishing feature of these needles. The sharp blade slices cleanly through leather rather than punching through. This makes it easier on the sewing machine, as there is less resistance. Metafil or metallic needles Metafil or metallic needles have a large eye and are recommended for metallic threads. They will also do a better job with monofilaments, including the flat, shiny decorative threads. Microtex needles These needles have a very sharp tapered point and are used for tightly woven natural fabrics as well as microfibers. They are also the needles of choice for finer silks. The sharp point allows them to pierce cleanly with the least amount of resistance. The long fine taper makes it necessary to change them more often, as they are more easily damaged and worn. Stretch needles Stretch needles are a specialty version of a ballpoint. They have a modified scarf to allow for better pickup of the top thread by the hook. They are used on very stretchy fabrics, such as spandex or rib knits. They aid in preventing skipped stitches. Topstitch needles These needles have a very large eye and are easier to thread. This large eye also reduces friction when using heavier and some metallic threads. Quick or self-threading needles A small slot on one side allows the user to pull the thread easily into the eye of this needle. If you do not have a machine with a needle threader or your eyes are not what they used to be, these needles may be right for you. They are not to be used on dense fabrics, as they are structurally weaker. Also, the slot in the eye makes them unsuitable for batting and fabrics such as polar fleece, as fibers will get caught in the slot. Quilting needles These needles feature a slightly rounded point and are recommended by their manufacturers for quilting with batting. Universal needles Universal needles have a slightly rounded point and are the jack-of-all-trades but master of none. Longer-Lasting Needles Titanium-Coated Needles These needles have a titanium coating that increases lifespan and are more glue resistant. HLx5 Hard Chrome Needles In my opinion, HLx5 needles (by Organ Needle Company) deserve some extra consideration. This is an industrial needle with a flat side in the shank so they will fit into your household machine. The hard chrome coating makes them last longer than regular needles. A specially designed shaft gives them less flexibility, which makes them less prone to deflection when doing free-motion work. They are available in sharp and ballpoint, which covers a wide range of fabrics. The color-coding for size is helpful. Choosing Needles by Quality or Price If you are fussy about your stitching, buying quality needles from a manufacturer you trust is important. I often solve stitching problems just by changing needles. The needle is the least expensive thing you will buy for your project, and getting the right one of good quality makes a difference. I recently researched different brands for a distributor, and I took close-up photos of the groove in the front of the needle where the top thread lies. I was somewhat surprised to see how much smoother one needle was than another. The thread must slide in this groove, and I could see how much easier it was going to be in the smoother one. It’s easy to see which needle will give more consistent stitch quality. To achieve good results, it is important that the eye of the needle be perfectly formed. This allows the thread to pass cleanly through without friction. I read somewhere once that the same piece of thread will go back and forth through the eye of the needle something like 93 times before becoming part of the seam. I have never counted, but it makes sense. Imagine the shredding and breaking (and frustration) if the eye is deformed or has a catch. The few pennies saved by buying a lesser-quality needle isn’t worth the heartache. When to Change Needles This is one of the most frequently asked questions. Often the needle will let you know by making a popping sound as it punctures the fabric. That sound can mean that the tip of the needle may be dull or damaged and the point is having a difficult time getting through the fabric. In this case, the fabric is probably being damaged. A damaged tip can occur when the needle hits the needle plate or the presser foot. Fabric damaged by blunt or deformed tip It’s also possible that you have switched fabrics and the needle is no longer the appropriate one for the new fabric. An example would be going from a knit to a woven cotton. If you were using a ballpoint needle and didn’t change it, the needle will pop as it goes through the cotton. If the machine is skipping stitches, it is a good sign that the needle may have to be changed. The skipping may be caused by a bent needle. The bend may be imperceptible, but enough to move the needle away from the tip of the hook as it comes by to pick up the top thread. The small gray bit represents the tip of the hook as it passes behind the scarf of the needle and picks up the loop of top thread. Having the wrong style of needle for the fabric you are sewing may also cause skipping. As a guide, change needles … … if you hear a popping sound as the needle enters the fabric. … if the machine is skipping stitches. … if you change the weight of thread. … if you change the type of fabric you are sewing (such as going from a woven to a knit). … if the thread is breaking. Important: When changing needles, it is important to have the flat part of the shank facing the correct direction. Almost all recent machines have the flat part facing the back. The exception would be the high-speed mid-arm machines that have the flat part to the right. Vintage sewing machines use a variety of positions. The rule of thumb is that the flat part is opposite to the needle bar thread guide. The symptoms of having the needle in backward are broken thread and skipping stitches. Refer to your manual for the right position for your machine. Make sure the needle is pushed up all the way to the stop in the needle clamp. Needle Know-how I get many phone calls about problem stitching. Often before I explore any other options, I ask if the needle has been replaced with a new one. The answer is usually yes. When I get the sewing machine and see the problem is needle related, I find out the “new” needle was one sticking out of the pincushion. Now I specifically ask, “Is it a new needle out of the package?” Something that I hear often is, “Use a real thick needle to sew thick fabric.” Remember that a thick needle is for thick thread, and your sewing machine’s motor may not have the power to drive a size 110/18 needle through denim. I have often hemmed jeans with a size 50 thread and a size 80 HLx5 needle. The sharp point, combined with a strong fine needle, went through the seams with no problem and did not strain the motor. Summary If you are noticing that there is some overlap in features of needles and feel that the differences are very subtle, you are not alone. It can be very confusing trying to figure out which needles you should buy. To simplify, if you have some sharps, some topstitch, and some ballpoint or stretch needles in various sizes, you will be well covered for different fabrics and threads. Note: Remember the two relationships. The size or diameter of the needle with the thickness of thread and the type or style of the needle for the fabric! Twin, Triple, and Hemstitch/Wing Needles These needles allow you even more creativity! From hemming to decorative stitching to heirloom sewing, the right needle can be found in this group. Understanding their limitations and special needs will prevent and solve problems. Twin Needles Twin needles are two needles joined at one shank. They go into the machine just like a regular needle. Twin needles come with various points for different fabrics and various sizes for different threads. It is just as important to use the correct one as it is with regular needles (see Relationship 2: Needle Style and Fabric). Earlier, left-needle-position machines had twin needles with a shank on the left side, but these are getting hard to find. Twin needles come in widths from 1.6 to 8.0 mm. It is important to know your machine’s limitations when it comes to these needles. If your needle plate has a 5 mm opening and you put in a 6 mm needle, you are going to hear a five-dollar “crunch” as one or both needles break on the foot or needle plate. Be sure to check the manual for your model to see the maximum width allowed. Various twin needles Twin needles are used for hemming, pin tucking, decorative stitching, and even quilting. A 9 mm vertical hook sewing machine can take advantage of the widest twin needle. This can give you some of the nicest decorative stitching. If you have a drop-in bobbin machine, check your manual to see the widest needle allowed for your model. These machines use a horizontal hook, and the different needle positions are described in an arc, because the hook tip goes around in an arc. You can see this by the shape of the opening in the needle plate. It is possible that the very wide twin needles may hit both the plate and the hook. Tip: Do the Math! When you are going to use a twin needle for any stitch that has zigzag in it, you must subtract the width of the twin needle from your maximum stitch width. Not doing this will result in a broken needle or even a broken presser foot. Twin needle about to hit foot For example: 9 mm max stitch width – 3 mm wide twin needle = 6 mm wide decorative stitch maximum Some of you may have machines that let you tell them how wide the twin needle is and automatically override the width to its maximum allowable, whatever the stitch. This feature is well worth having and can save needles and damaged feet and plates. Twin needle with proper width setting For straight stitching, the twin needle width cannot exceed the width of the plate opening. Maximum width twin needle for this machine Triple Needles A triple needle has a shank with three needles attached. Triple needles can be used for topstitching, hemming, and some decorative stitching. As with twin needles, not all your machine’s decorative stitches will look good when sewn with a triple needle. You will need to experiment to see what works. Note: All the cautions that were listed for twin needles also apply to triple needles! Hemstitch/Wing Needles These needles are used for heirloom sewing and create holes in the fabric. They are sharp and can cut you, so be careful! Because of the width of the blade, the stitch width will need to be adjusted to prevent needle breakage when doing any stitch with zigzag, just as you would with a twin or triple needle. If you are straight stitching only, do not use a straight-stitch plate, as the needle may get stuck in the opening. Wing needle stuck in straight-stitch plate MACHINE NEEDLE THREADERS Many sewists have a love/hate relationship with the needle threader. When they work, they are loved. When they don’t, well … you know. If it makes you feel any better, sewing machine technicians have the same feelings for them. If I had a dollar for every time I have fixed one of these devices, I would be retired and sailing to exotic ports to fix my boat. The most frequently used phrase I hear is, “It’s never worked!” This is probably because needle threaders are fragile, and it’s easy to misuse them when a machine is new. The machines that thread completely automatically have a much lower frequency of threader breakdown because there is less human input. How a Needle Threader Works Whether the threader is activated by the sewist or automatically by the machine, they all end up doing exactly the same thing. A very fine wire hook is passed through eye of the needle from the back. This hook catches the thread, which has been put in its path in the front of the needle, and pulls this thread in a double strand, back through the eye. What Could Go Wrong? The threader mechanism is simple, but some things could go wrong. Let’s look at those. Needle in the wrong position The fine wire must pass cleanly through the eye of the needle. If the eye is not positioned in exactly the right spot, the wire will come into contact with the shaft and bend. If you then reposition to the correct spot, the wire, being bent, will now pass to the left or right of the eye. This is when the name-calling starts and needle threaders are belittled! Most machines that have needle threaders also have a needle-up/-down button to choose where the needle stops. If you take a stitch before threading, then the machine has stopped in the right spot for the wire to go directly through the eye. Do not turn the handwheel by hand before using the threader. If you have set your machine to stop in the down position, then use the button or foot control to move the needle to the up position. Needle too fine I recommend that you do not use the needle threader on a needle that is smaller than size 70/10. There is a good chance that the wire hook will get caught in the small eye on the finer needles. This will cause damage to the threader and may also scratch the inside of the eye of the needle, which will affect stitch quality. Thread too thick for the needle Relationship 1: Needle Size and Thread discusses the relationship between thickness of thread and size of needle. This relationship also comes into play when it comes to the needle threader. The small wire hook must pull two strands of thread with it back through the eye of the needle. Considering the thickness of the wire itself plus the thread, the eye starts to fill up. If the thread is too thick for the needle, the wire jams in the eye and can shred the thread or bend the wire hook. This may also bend the needle back. Lint in the threader head Sometimes you’ve done everything right and the threader doesn’t work as it should. Maybe it’s intermittent or doesn’t grab the thread at all. Lint buildup around the wire hook can prevent the threader from engaging all the way. In this case, using a very fine pin and some tweezers, clean out the lint to make everything work again. Caution: Do not dislodge any springs or wires. Take a good look at how everything is put together first. If you are nervous about doing this yourself, your local sewing machine technician or shop would probably do this for you. Inappropriate thread Not all threads will work with your needle threader. Some plastic threads and some metallics are too stiff to pull gently through the eye of the needle. Also, some metallic threads have small extrusions that might interfere with the threader. These threads are best threaded manually. Summary A needle threader with a misaligned wire can cause damage inside the needle eye. This damage can cause shredded and broken threads. If you feel the wire catch in the eye, have your sewing machine technician do a proper alignment. Always refer to the user manual for your model for correct use of your threader. AUTOMATIC THREAD CUTTERS One of the great features on newer sewing machines is the automatic thread cutter. Now, at the touch of a button or a press on the foot control, your threads are cut. It can be a real time-saver. Some machines even raise the needle and the presser foot for you. When you engage the cutter, a mechanism extends to grab the top and bottom threads and pull them into a blade with some pressure to cut them. This happens under the feed dogs. You will hear and see the machine move the needle to the appropriate positions. Let’s look at what might cause problems. Note: Oscillating-bobbin sewing machines do not have thread cutters. TROUBLESHOOTING THREAD CUTTERS Lint and thread caught in the mechanism The cutting blade has a pressure plate attached to ensure that as the thread is pulled into the mechanism, it is cleanly cut. If stray threads are caught, the pressure is reduced, resulting in erratic cutting. You might see a tattered thread end, or the thread might be cut only intermittently. It is difficult to explain here how to clean all the variations in thread cutters offered by the manufacturers. If you feel that yours is not working well, start by taking off the needle plate and looking for threads that are stuck. You can use tweezers to gently pry them loose. Some brands have a section in their settings area that will give you an icon to touch that will extend the cutter for easy cleaning. Refer to the manual for your machine to see specifically how to clean your cutter. Inappropriate thread Most cutters have no problem with the normal range of threads you might use. The exceptions that I have seen include thicker poly and Dacron threads, metallic, and some monofilaments. Thick cotton threads can also bog down a cutter. To extend the life of the blade and some of the rest of the mechanism, it is prudent to avoid using the thread cutter on these threads. You will probably know which ones overpower your cutter. Dull blade If you use the cutter a lot or use some of the threads mentioned earlier, eventually the blade will get dull and will need to be replaced. This is something your sewing machine technician should do, as there are alignments that need to be right. Thread nest at beginning of seam after using cutter There will always be a small nest under the fabric at the beginning of the next seam, after you have used the thread cutter. The top and bottom threads are cut at a precise length to leave enough thread to form a knot on your first stitch. If you feel that the nest is too large, make sure that you are not pulling any extra top thread through the needle manually—this a habit that I see a lot. Just use the cutter and start sewing the next seam without touching the upper thread. This will give the smallest amount of thread behind the fabric. Tip: A Caution When cleaning the cutter area, clean gently. Do not poke a brush at it like it was a raccoon on your back porch. The reason I say this is that I have seen springs dislodged in the cleaning process. If you can’t get the debris out with a gentle brushing and some tweezers, then I suggest you take the machine in to the shop and have it done there. Presser-Foot Pressure Adjustment The presser-foot pressure adjustment is one of the most overlooked yet valuable features on a sewing machine. With it, you can adjust the downward pressure of the presser foot and ensure proper feeding on any fabric. I have seen only a handful of sewing machines that have handled all fabrics without this feature. LOCATION OF ADJUSTMENT Most machines have a mechanical adjustment for pressure. It can be a dial on the side or top of the machine. It might have a number or graduating scale associated with it. The higher the number, the more pressure on the foot. Some vintage machines will have a button on the top left side of the machine. As the button is depressed, the pressure increases. Pushing down on the outer lower ring releases it. Some of the older machines may have an adjustment screw rather than the push-down button. Yet another style of adjustment is a lever inside the door that covers the take-up mechanism on the left side of the sewing machine. Move it down for more pressure and up for less. Electronic Adjustment Higher-end computerized sewing machines often have the pressure adjustment on a screen. For these machines refer to your instruction manual. These machines will often have different settings programmed in for different tasks. WHEN TO ADJUST PRESSURE Having a presser-foot pressure adjustment on your sewing machine gives you a much broader range of tasks you can handle without struggle. Too Much Pressure Something as simple as sewing two pieces of fabric together can be a problem if there is too much pressure. The top layer of fabric can end up longer than the bottom, and accuracy becomes more difficult. Imagine trying to piece a quilt under this circumstance. All the shifting and stretching of the top layer would make for a very wrinkly result. Lowering the setting allows the top layer to be transported at the same rate as the bottom, and both layers end up the same length. You can see the effect a simple adjustment can have. The samples were sewn on the same sewing machine at different pressure settings. Another task for which too much pressure can cause a problem is sewing over thick seams, such as hemming a pair of jeans. When the foot gets to the thick seam, it starts to angle up in the front. If the pressure setting is too high, the foot might get stuck in this position and the fabric stops feeding. In the best-case scenario, the stitches get much smaller; in the worst case, the feeding stops altogether, the needle breaks, or both happen. Again, by lowering the setting, the foot is allowed to rise up easily at the seam and glide over. This takes away the struggle and minimizes changes to the stitch length. Not Enough Pressure When there is not enough pressure on the foot and therefore on the fabric, you have another set of problems. The fabric floats, resulting in an uneven stitch length and wandering seams. The foot does not hold the fabric down as the needle is going up. This can allow the fabric to lift with the needle, resulting in skipped stitches and breaking threads. This can be a real problem when working with a free-motion or darning foot. The foot pushes down on the fabric when the needle goes in. As the needle lifts out, the foot stays on the fabric to prevent it from lifting until the needle is well clear. Once the needle is high enough, the foot lifts, allowing easy movement of the fabric. If you are experiencing skipping stitches or breaking threads when doing free-motion, increase the foot pressure so the foot can hold the fabric down properly as the needle is rising. Summary Presser-foot pressure adjustment is often overlooked as a cure for common problems. It is a most valuable tool and enhances your sewing machine’s capabilities. A little study of your manual’s chapter on this feature can give you new insight. Forward/Reverse Balance Adjustment Balance adjustment is a feature that is often ignored on sewing machines. It can play a significant role in how some of your stitches look. Some stitches on your sewing machine move the fabric forward and backward. However, not all fabrics feed the same in reverse as they do in forward. The relationship between the length of the forward and reverse portions of these stitches is called balance. The adjustment of balance changes the ratio of the length of the stitch between forward and reverse to allow the stitch to look as it was intended on a wide variety of fabrics. WHERE IS THE ADJUSTMENT? The adjustment can be found in different places on different sewing machines. Some machines have dials located on the right side under the handwheel area. Your machine’s manual will tell you where to find the adjustment. Others have a dial on the front. On some computerized sewing machines, you will find a button on the front. You may find the adjustment on your machine’s touchscreen. WHEN TO ADJUST When you are working with a stitch that has a forward and reverse component and it does not look like the photo, it might be time for balance adjustment. The stitch may be piled up or stretched out. Buttonholes A very common example is with buttonholes, where the two beads are sewn in different directions. Often the forward and reverse beads are different stitch lengths. This results in an unattractive buttonhole. By adjusting the balance, you change the relationship between these two beads to make them look alike. For more on making and troubleshooting buttonholes, see Buttonholes. Stretch Stitches These stitches are designed to stretch with knit fabrics. You will see that when using these stitches, the fabric moves forward and backward. This gives the seam elasticity. Decorative Stitches Many decorative stitches have a forward and reverse component. It may be necessary to adjust balance on some fabrics to give these stitches their intended look. Alphabets If your machine has alphabets, you might find the need for balance adjustment. Letters come out nice and crisp when the setting is just right. Using Balance to Create a New Stitch Your sewing machine may not have come with the perfect stitch for the job you are doing. Sometimes by adjusting the balance, it is possible to create that stitch. Here is a good example. Recently my wife, Shelley, was teaching an appliqué class. She was after a stitch that would mimic hand appliqué, but the stitch designated for this on her machine had four stitches between the tiny zigzag that reached to the left to grab the appliqué fabric. The gap was too big. What she wanted was a pattern that did one stitch between the tiny zigzags. The closest thing to this on her machine was the blanket stitch, but she wanted the zigzag portion to form a V. By adjusting the balance, we were able to create exactly the stitch and effect she was after. The preceding photos show the stitching in contrasting colors to highlight the differences. In the next photo, you can see the stitch exactly as Shelley intended it to look on the project. Summary I hope this chapter has helped you gain an appreciation for the value of the balance adjustment on your sewing machine. Not only can it help you solve feeding problems with certain stitches on some fabrics, but it can allow you to create new and different stitches. It is a very underrated feature! Buttonholes I have seen buttonholes cause stress in the relationship between the sewist and the sewing machine. A number of systems are offered by the different brands, and it’s important to understand how yours works. BUTTONHOLE SYSTEMS Dial with Buttonhole Stages Early machines with built-in buttonholes had a completely manual system where the sewist turned a dial to engage the different stages of the buttonhole. Typically, these stages are … 1. Bar tack (top of button hole) 2. Bead (line of stitching; down one side) 3. Bar tack (bottom of buttonhole) 4. Final bead (up the second side) Most often, these types of buttonholes are sewn with the two long beads in different directions. It is not unusual that a balance adjustment is required to make these two beads look the same (see Forward/Reverse Balance Adjustment). Some sewing machines use a five-stage dial. This adds a tie-off at the end. Tip: Using the Correct Buttonhole Foot On the completely manual system, to make a buttonhole where the two long beads are parallel, it is absolutely critical to use a proper buttonhole foot with the two grooves. The first bead rides in one of the grooves as the second bead is formed. This guides the fabric straight and keeps the two beads parallel. Counting Stitches Some sewing machines have programmable buttonholes that count the number of stitches in the first bead and then repeat that stitch count in the second bead. These machines can sew both long beads in different directions or in the same direction. If it is in different directions, one in forward and one in reverse, there is a possibility of over- or undershooting the bar tack. To help solve the problem, use a stabilizer under the fabric to help the fabric feed at the same stitch length in both directions. Ensure that the balance is correctly set (see Forward/Reverse Balance Adjustment). Measured Length Many sewing machines offer measured-length buttonholes. This is accomplished in different ways by the different brands. Tripping a Switch by Lever This is a very common system. The button sits in the foot and sets the distance to be measured. A lever is pulled down and rests between two tabs on the foot. As the foot is fed to the limits set by the button, the tabs engage the lever, which trips a switch that tells the machine when to bar tack and change directions. This style of buttonhole most often sews the beads in different directions. If the stitching does not look the same on both beads, a balance adjustment (see Forward/Reverse Balance Adjustment) may be required. Sometimes with this type of system, the lever fails to trip the switch. This is a simple adjustment that can be performed by your sewing machine technician. Sensor Feet Some brands offer feet that will measure the desired length of a buttonhole. These feet are used in different ways. Some sew the first bead, and then when the length is reached, the sewist touches a button to signal the machine to set the length. The buttonhole can then be repeated as often as needed without reprogramming each one. The foot recognizes when the desired length of any bead has been reached, and the machine takes necessary action. Input Buttonhole Length Directly Some machines allow you to enter the length of the buttonhole in millimeters directly. This, used in combination with a sensor foot, will give as many buttonholes of a given size as desired. TROUBLESHOOTING BUTTONHOLES Uneven Beads For machines where the two long beads are sewn in forward and then in reverse, it is possible that the beads have different stitch lengths. To solve this issue, adjust the balance (see Forward/Reverse Balance Adjustment). Sensor Foot Not Working Properly If the foot is one that is plugged in, make sure the connection is positive. If the sensor foot is the light beam type, make sure there is no lint or dust on top of the lens. Check also the lens in the machine, just above the one in the foot. This type of foot is also calibrated to its own machine. If you are the owner of two sewing machines that have this foot, it is easy to mix them up. If the buttonhole doesn’t want to measure properly, try changing the feet. Sometimes these feet can go out of calibration. On newer sewing machines from this brand, you can do this yourself. Just refer to the manual. On older versions, you will need to take the machine and foot in to the dealer for the calibration. Fabric Not Feeding When Using Buttonhole Foot There are situations in which the fabric may stop feeding when you are trying to make a buttonhole. When you are using one of the long buttonhole feet and it is resting on a ridge, such as at the edge of a jacket front, the feed dogs cannot reach the fabric properly to feed it. There are two solutions to this problem. One is to turn the buttonhole and make it vertically. The other is called a buttonhole compensation plate. A number of brands have this kind of plate. It holds the fabric, and the machine actually feeds the plate. Fabric Puckering A buttonhole is a satin stitch and as such, the fabric will tend to pucker. This is particularly true of the bar tack portions, as they are wider. To solve this, use an interfacing or stabilizer that is stiff enough to provide stability for the type of fabric you are using. Making Great-Looking Buttonholes Here are a few tricks to getting a nice looking buttonhole. • Don’t set the stitch length too short. The stitching can pile up and give a less-than-stellar result. • Some sewing machines with oscillating hooks have a hole in the stitch finger of the bobbin case. Threading the thread through this hole will give a nicer-looking satin stitch and therefore a nicer-looking buttonhole. Note: Do not leave the thread in this hole for normal stitching, as it increases the tension on the bottom thread and may not give the result you are looking for. • Decrease the top tension. For those machines that don’t have a way to thread the bobbin case, you can decrease the top tension to mock extra bobbin tension. • Insert a cord into the satin-stitched beads of your buttonhole. Some feet are able to hold a cord as the needle stitches over it. This can make a very nice raised buttonhole. Just pull the loop in and snip the tails. • The type of thread you use and the amount of color contrast can make a big difference in how a buttonhole looks. A dark thread on a light-colored fabric can make a buttonhole look sloppy. A lumpy thread does the same. These were sewn at exactly the same settings and look quite different. Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder and what works for you is right! Sewing Machine Reference Tool Download Copyright © 2020 by C&T Publishing, Inc. ISBN 9781644030011 Published by C&T Publishing, Inc., PO Box 1456, Lafayette, CA 94549. www.ctpub.com All rights reserved. No part of this work covered by the copyright hereon may be used in any form or reproduced by any means—graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, or information storage and retrieval systems—without written permission from the Publisher. Acceptable uses of this ELECTRONIC PRODUCT: 1. 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