How to Keep Your Embroidery Machine in Tip-Top Shape

comments (3) September 6th, 2008     

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JenniferStern Jennifer Stern, contributor
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My Creative Vision.
My trusty Pfaff 2170.
Look at all the thread lint on that needle bar.
My Creative Vision.

My Creative Vision.

Photo: jen stern

It wasn't until I purchased my first embroidery machine that I realized the importance of taking the time to care for my machine every time I started a new project. I worked at a sewing machine store for at least five years before I bought my first machine. I had the lucky advantage of being given store machines to take home and use as my own. This store featured a full-service repair department...and I was a regular customer. I remember bringing in "my" machine and hearing the repair guy say something like "*$@($*@#%*%!!" I developed the reputation for causing all sorts of mayhem to any machine that I came in contact with for any length of time. I would sew over pins, never change my needle, and slam the presser foot down. If I heard a noise coming from my machine, I would try to "sew through lt," hoping it would stop all by itself. And I NEVER looked under the needle plate or in the bobbin area to see what was going on.

When I purchased my first machine, I loved it and somehow it was different because it was actually my machine. It's a funny thing—just from working in a sewing environment, I must have learned (subconsciously) how to care for embroidery machines, because all of the sudden, I knew what to do, and I did it! About that time, I was asked to write an article for Threads magazine on how to maintain your sewing machine. I showed a draft of the article to one of the service techs and he was shocked that I could be so thorough on such a topic. Anyway, let me share some of the important points about taking care of your machine so you can have happy embroidery every time you turn it on.

Embroidery machines and sewing machines are really one and the same in most cases. There are machines that just embroider, but the majority of them have both capabilities. Because you use your machine differently when you embroider, there are some specific things you need to pay attention to.

Let's get started by taking a general inventory of the condition of our embroidery machines. Externally, is it dirty? Are there obvious clumps of lint clinging to the needle bar? Lint can build up around the needle bar—twice as fast if you use a lot of cotton thread for embroidery. Embroidery designs can have a lot of color changes. It's recommended that you snip the thread next to the spool and pull it out from the needle to change colors. Honestly, I don't do that; I just whip the thread out of the machine as I pull the spool off the pin in one fell swoop. For as many times as I've done that (and I've probably changed the color of my thread during embroidery thousands of times) I can't say that it causes a problem—UNLESS IT'S DIRTY. Lint flecks off the thread I'm using and it can build up along the thread path and down around the needle bar. I can't see what's going on along the thread path because it's closed up by the outside covers of my machine, but I can see it clumping around the needle bar. As you pull thread out of the top of the machine to change color after color, all that lint can be dragged up into the machine and settle on the tension discs. If lots of lint starts to coat the tension discs, they will not be able to effectively clamp down on the thread and your embroidery will not stitch out right.

Check out the lint all over my needle bar.


Take the needle and embroidery foot off before you start to clean the needle bar area.

Use the small brush that comes with your machine to gently wipe the lint away.


Lint can get stuck on the needle threader. Be extra gentle so you don't bend or break it as you clean around it.

If you have a front-loading bobbin, remove the accessory tray and take a look. More than likely, it's a mess down there as well...especially if you haven't cleaned it out lately. Keeping this area clean will keep your bobbin thread sensor working properly (if you have one). If you run out of bobbin thread when you're embroidering and your bobbin sensor is not working, your machine will keep going until it jams, breaks a needle, or finishes that color. This can ruin your project, kick your machine out of timing, or just waste a lot of time.

To clean the bobbin area, take out the bobbin case and remove the needle plate.


My bobbin thread sensor is the little black dot below the bobbin case on the right.

Some machines come with a tool to remove the needle plate if it doesn't just slide off. I lost my tool, so I use a small screwdriver to pop the needle plate up.


Insert the screwdriver under the front of the plate and gently twist it to release the plate.

With the needle plate removed, you can really see what's going on. There may be clumps of lint around and in between the feed teeth. If you have can of compressed air and you want to blow out the dust, position the nozzle at the back edge of the opening, behind the needle bar. Shoot the air down and out toward the front of the bobbin area. I tend to stay away from using canned air because you can end up blowing stuff deeper into your machine where it will accumulate and cause problems down the road.


The white stuff between the feed teeth is lint.

I like to use the small brush to clean the feed teeth and area around them.


Use a brush to clean the feed teeth.

Use the brush to clean the bobbin case area as well.


The supplies you'll need are: paper, cutting tools, small pliers, some wire, and an awl or needle for making small holes.

If you use a lot of spray adhesives to keep your fabric in the hoop, some of the stickiness is carried into the bobbin case area by the needle. Lint fibers that are stitched through the stabilizer can also be sticky. To remove any residue that may have collected, moisten a cotton swab and use that to rub it away.


"Shine" up the eye of the bobbin thread sensor so it can "see" if you are going to run out of thread.

Use the cotton swab to polish any other tight area on your machine that may be dirty. I tend to collect a lot of gunk around the thread tension unit on the top of my machine.


Just be careful not to push stuff into the thread take-up area.

If you've been following along with a front load bobbin, the last step is to put a drop of oil on the outer edge of the metal ring that holds the bobbin case. Turn the handwheel toward you a few turns to distribute the oil evenly.


You just need to add oil once a month to keep your machine running quietly and smoothly.

If you have a top-drop-in bobbin, this is what is looks like after you take the needle plate off.


These bobbin cases do not need to be oiled.

Lift out the plastic bobbin case to reveal the space underneath. Lint and dust can accumulate here, too. If you want to use a cotton swab to clean out this area, use a tiny dot of machine oil to moisten it.


If a lot of lint collects here, the bobbin case won't sit properly.

Before you put the bobbin case back, check it out carefully for burrs or holes. When your machine jams or if you break a needle, it's a good idea to check the bobbin case. There is very little space for the needle to go up and down in. If it becomes bent, it can strike the plastic and create a burr or hole.

This is the leading cause of thread breakage or fraying that occurs while embroidering. As the needle goes up and down, the thread rubs against these burrs and weakens or breaks the thread. The best way to avoid these problems is to use the appropriate needle for your project and to change your needle frequently.


If you find a burr, depending on how bad it is, you may be able to use a piece of smooth-grit sandpaper to buff it out.

The same thing can happen to your needle plate. So, inspect it for dings and burrs as well. Most can be buffed out with fine-grit sandpaper. In either case, if the damage is too much to buff, visit your local sewing machine dealer and purchase a new bobbin case or needle plate.


Be sure to flip the needle plate over and inspect the bottom, too.
posted in: embroidery

Comments (3)

Jen1964 writes: Thanks. I've heard good things about Pfaff, and yes it's the cost that's thrown that idea out, for the time being. The one with the quilting feet sounds really practical, knowing me. As for speed, don't think I wasn't tempted, last spring, sewing my daughter's curtains! Stitch witchery is a viable shortcut for some of the projects, but I haven't even used that in a long time. One mother I knew (a Brownie troop leader at the time) stapled her daughter's uniform insignia on! That's a first, I think. Anyway, I'll keep your recommendations in mind!
Posted: 9:26 pm on September 23rd
JenniferStern writes: Hi Jen, while hand sewing has it's merits, having a sewing machine can really speed up the process. I working at a sewing machine store for 10 years, and I've sewn on a lot of brands of sewing machines. While I'm a Pfaff girl, there are brands that are very user friendly and less expensive. I like Brother's NX-250. it's a entry level computerized sewing machine and it works great. The next model up, the NX-450Q comes with quilting feet and an extension table. Both of these machines were well under $1000.00 the last time I checked. Janome makes great lower priced machines as well. Hope that helps!
Posted: 9:57 am on September 19th
Jen1964 writes: Wow! I guess that explains it. For years, my first Singer and I got along great, and I knew it's dust points and care, and oiling and did it all. Then I started quilting. All was well, as usual, until I patched together a Queen size quilt -in velour. I had no idea it was that much more dusty and hard on the machine. Cleaning and oiling each session wasn't enough for that fabric, and alas my dear machine bit the dust permanently. (Yes I hand quilted the whole thing once it was pieced.) I tried replacing it, but wasn't happy with the new one. I've been on hand sewing ever since, and that was 14 years ago. Any recommendations that won't interfere with my 2 kids going to college? I'm amazed at how much more machines cost these days, and wonder if they're worth it. I could buy my next 3 wardrobes for that, and then some.
Posted: 10:07 am on September 17th
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