Introduction: How to Service a Sewing Machine

Picture of How to Service a Sewing Machine

Huge numbers of sewing machines have been manufactured over the years. The older vintage machines are virtually indestructible, indeed one highly skilled and experienced seamstress told me that she still uses a 1929 treadle machine as her daily workhorse. Newer machines, especially the very cheap ones, have many more plastic parts and a much shorter life. Nevertheless, the life and effectiveness of any machine can be extended with simple maintenance, and my aim here is to show you how.

For demonstration purposes in this Instructable I will use a vintage machine probably dating from the 1950's or 60's because it's easier to show the mechanism, however, all machines work in the same way. If you can get hold of such a machine, so long as it's complete, you should be able to keep it running indefinitely and certainly much longer than a modern machine.

You can find an expanded version of this Instructable, including a description of sewing machine principles and common problems and their solutions in the Sewing Machines page on the Restart Project wiki.

Many spare parts, particularly for older machines, are readily available on eBay and probably elsewhere.

Step 1: Removing Fluff and Dust

Picture of Removing Fluff and Dust

The first thing to do is to remove all dust and fluff, wherever you can find it. Between the feed dogs is a favourite place for it to collect. Remove the needle, the foot and the needle plate to facilitate cleaning. The needle plate is a plate beneath the foot with cut-outs through which the feed dogs protrude, generally secured by one or two screws. Where the dust and fluff has become matted you can pick it out with a pin or a needle, otherwise use a brush and/or a vacuum cleaner crevice tool. You can use a can of compressed air or simply blow but there is a risk you might just blow the fluff further into the mechanism. Look out for any pieces of broken needle which might have come to rest here and could jam the mechanism.

Also, check for and remove any dust, fluff or pieces of broken thread where the thread passes between the discs of the upper tension adjuster, and at any other points in the threading path of the upper thread where it might have collected. Good quality thread sheds less fluff than cheaper brands and so is advised.

Replace the foot. Check the needle before refitting it. Run it between your fingers from the shank down to the tip. Any roughness can be carefully removed with fine emery, but it is better replaced if it has seen more than 6 - 8 hours' service. Always replace a bent needle as it will cause nothing but trouble.

Step 2: Checking the Bobbin

Picture of Checking the Bobbin

In a vintage machine the bobbin is often accessed by sliding away a plate next to the needle plate, as shown in the first photo. In modern front loading machines a very similar mechanism is accessed from the front of the machine. In modern top loading machines the bobbin is dropped horizontally into a mechanism in front of the needle plate.

Many very old (like pre-war) machines have a completely different bobbin fitting into a bullet-shaped shuttle which is thrown through a loop in the upper thread to make each stitch.

On a vintage machine as shown, the mechanism is hinged on a wooden base and can be lowered into a horizontal position and rested on a pile of fat books for easy access to the underneath. The remaining photos were taken with it in this position.

Remove the bobbin and bobbin case and remove the bobbin from its case. Blow out any dust.

The bobbin case fits into a bobbin case holder which rotates as the machine operates. It should be easily removed, for example by releasing a pair of clips on a retaining ring.

The bobbin case holder has a sharp point known as the hook (shown in the last photo), designed to catch the upper thread so as to engage it with the lower thread and make a stitch. Run your finger over this and if it feels rough (probably due to needle strikes) then smooth off any burrs with fine emery. Take care to reassemble it correctly.

In the case of a second hand machine, make sure that all the bobbins that came with it (and any extra ones that you buy) are of the right sort. There are several types, superficially similar, and the wrong ones will cause problems if they work at all.

Step 3: Lubrication

Picture of Lubrication

This is easy on a vintage machine. The bottom mechanism is accessed by tipping it on its side as in the previous step, and the top mechanism can generally be accessed by removing a couple of screws retaining the top cover.

On a modern plastic machine you will generally have to remove a number of screws, and you may then have to release a series of clips holding 2 halves of the plastic case together. Probe the crack between them with a thin spatula or blunt scalpel or thin knife in order to determine where the clips are. Take care not to insert it too far or to damage the plastic. Angling the spatula so as to lift one side of the case whilst depressing the other should release a nearby clip. Insert an old credit card, plastic prying tool, guitar plectrum or anything similar in the gap so created to prevent the clip re-engaging while you probe for the next one. Stubborn refusal of the case to come apart often means there's one more screw, possibly hidden under a label or a rubber foot.

Having gained access to the top and bottom mechanisms, gently turn the hand wheel to see which bits move. Anything that moves needs oiling on its bearings, joints or sliding surfaces, except for nylon gears, wheels or cams - these are generally greased for life.

Use only sewing machine oil. Never use bicycle oil, or motor oil, or grease, or olive oil, or Vaseline, or anything else. None of these are sewing machine friendly.

Apply no more than a drop of oil to each bearing or connection. Wipe away any excess before it has a chance to drip.

In the case of a vintage machine that has been out of use for a long time, the mechanism may be very stiff or have seized up completely. Oil it thoroughly (but wiping away any excess) and leave it for a while for the oil to penetrate. Repeat as necessary until it operates smoothly.

Step 4: Checking the Tension

Picture of Checking the Tension

It's important to check the bobbin tension as you will get poor results and possibly broken or snagging thread if it's wrong. Fit a bobbin of thread to the bobbin case and thread it under the tension spring. Suspend it by the thread. The tension is correct if it is just sufficient to support the weight of the bobbin and case. Shaking it gently should unwind just a little more thread. Adjust with the screw in the tension spring. If you have any difficulty, make sure there isn't any fluff or pieces of broken thread under the tension spring.

Step 5: Checking the Bobbin Winder

Examine the bobbin winder. This often engages with the hand wheel by means of a wheel with a rubber tyre. If the tyre is worn or cracked or perished, replace it. Spares are generally easy to obtain.

Try winding a bobbin. The thread tension should be sufficient to produce a neat and tight (but not excessively tight) pile. Badly wound bobbins can cause trouble.

(I don't have any pictures of a bobbin winder as it's missing on my machine. I wind my bobbins on a piece of dowel fitted to the chuck of an electric drill.)

Step 6: Checking the Electrics

Picture of Checking the Electrics

Before touching any of the electrics, double check that your machine isn't still plugged in.

Smooth operation of the foot pedal is essential otherwise it will be very hard to sew successfully. It may simply need lubricating. On older machines it will contain a rheostat, which is a variable resistance wired in series with the motor. Newer machines will more likely have an electronic speed control similar to a dimmer switch.

You will need to examine the foot pedal to determine how to disassemble it. Do not use sewing machine oil, but rather any light lubricating oil, or grease on sliding parts, and keep oil and grease away from all electrical contacts.

Also, check the motor belt tension. You should be able to adjust it by loosening the screws or nuts on its bracket. If the motor is sparking excessively or doesn't appear to be working well, check out the Electric Motors page on the Restart Project wiki. Replacing the brushes or cleaning the commutator might be necessary. If the motor bearings seem to need lubrication you should use grease specially intended for electric motors, preferably as recommended by the manufacturer.

A replacement bulb is easily fitted on older machines but may be wired-in and not so easily changed on newer ones. Consider replacing a filament bulb with a more modern LED equivalent, which will run much cooler. However, if the bulb needs to shine mainly downwards but the LEDs in a LED bulb appear to face sideways it may be less suitable. Take the old one with you to make sure you get a new one with the same sort of base.

Step 7: Checking the Timing

Picture of Checking the Timing

If you are getting unexplained broken threads, it could be that the timing needs adjustment. This is beyond what can be covered in an Instructable at this level and may be best left to a professional with the appropriate service manual, but it's not too difficult to see whether this is indeed the problem.

You need to be able to see the needle and the hook at the point where the hook catches the top thread. In the photo, I've turned my machine on its side so I can see the underneath, and I've removed the bobbin and and the plate which holds the bobbin carrier in place. I had to hold it to stop it dropping out as I turned the handwheel.

With the needle threaded, turn the handwheel until the hook passes the needle, whilst holding the free end of the thread taught, but without pulling on it. The photo shows the thread having been securely caught after the handwheel has been turned a little further.

The tip of the hook should pass the needle just after it has reached its lowest point. Typically, the needle should have risen 3/16 of an inch (1/10 of an inch, or 2.5mm). At this point, the rising needle causes the thread to go slack and form a loop which is caught by the hook.

Turning the handwheel still further, you should see the thread drawn around the bobbin (if you have it in place) so as to make a stitch.

If having come this far you've got the bug, and if the alternative is to scrap the machine, by all means search online for your make and model of machine with the key words "timing adjustment" appended, and you should at least be able to see what is involved in adjusting the timing. You need to ensure both that the lowest point of the needle brings the eye to the right level beneath the hook, and also that the hook passes the needle after it has risen by the prescribed amount. These settings and how to adjust them should be given in the machine's service manual, if you can get hold of it.

Step 8: And Finally ...

I hope you have enjoyed getting to know your machine better and overcome the fear of looking into quite an intricate and a very ingenious mechanism. If you have a good quality machine, hopefully it will now be purring away contentedly like a cat that's had the cream.


chevyl2 (author)2017-07-29

Thank You. Great pictures and explaining. Helped me tons!

p_leriche (author)chevyl22017-07-29

Glad you found it useful - happy sewing, and thanks for stopping by!

AhmadF154 (author)2017-07-24

This blog is very good, I appreciate it, thanks to your writing, so I can spirit in writing in blog for better like you. I am from Indonesia greeting friendship

p_leriche (author)AhmadF1542017-07-25

Glad you liked it, and thanks for dropping by to say so!

Bee Gianni (author)2017-02-25

my Janome has been in its case for the last 10 years. I knew it needed service but I could not remember how. Your tutorial is fabulous and a service is in my near future. Thanks again.

p_leriche (author)Bee Gianni2017-02-26

Glad you liked it, and thanks for stopping by to say so. Have fun!

Kind regards - Philip

RubenFerol (author)2016-02-16

I have a problem with my wife's sewing machine. Can you help me with a link to a good forum?

Shiseiji (author)RubenFerol2016-07-28

On Yahoo (at least for now . . . )

We Fix it is huge, a query will often lead to the answer you need. Can be off topic a lot but good people. Some of the other sites are very much "On-topic" moderated by a retired mechanic.

Often the group files have A LOT of information that is well worth looking over before posting a question that's been asked 1,000 times before. Also links to some great "How to's"

Ron (with too many machines I'm trying to pare down).

RubenFerol (author)Shiseiji2016-07-28

Thanks, but i just bought a new one this may. I still have the old one but i was considering to sell it for parts.

Shiseiji (author)RubenFerol2016-08-01

The posting will live for a long time, perhaps it will help someone else out.

p_leriche (author)RubenFerol2016-02-16

I'm afraid I can't recommend any particular forums, especially not knowing what the problem is or the age or make of the machine. I suggest you hang out in a few and see which ones seem to scratch where you itch.

AndrewG47 (author)2016-02-12

I think the more appropriate thing to have said about timing would be at least how to check and see if it's off, and if so, refer to service person or more in depth instruction. Checking it is simplicity itself as it's an industry standard applying to just about every machine ever made. When turning the machine by hand, when the needle reaches the bottom of its downward travel look for the hook to be engaging it when it has come back up 3/32 of an inch. This is the magic place where the hook grabs the thread from the needle and throws it over the bobbin case. If you can't verify the timing is correct, there's very little point in servicing or otherwise tinkering with a machine. Most newer machines have a breakaway arm on the mechanism that in the event of a jam, separates the upper from the lower ends of the machine to prevent damage. I worked as an industrial sewing machine mechanic almost 25 years ago and that's about all I remember. Great article, I just didn't feel it went far enough with explanation of the timing.

LarryW41 (author)AndrewG472016-03-28

The space between Tip of Rotary Hook and Needle is also important as the Hook will slide in and out when screws are loosened.

p_leriche (author)AndrewG472016-02-12

Thank you for your helpful comments. I wasn't keen to get into timing as I don't have personal experience of adjusting it, but as you say, explaining in simple terms how to check it shouldn't be hard. I think I tried taking illustrative photos of the hook catching the thread but with the bobbin case etc fully assembled it was pretty hard. I'll maybe have another go.

mlm_1950 (author)2016-02-21

Would the fluff, as you call it, affect the grabbing capability of the feeders? I was thinking that my machine might have been ruined by using it for thick materials, but maybe I need to deep clean it?

p_leriche (author)mlm_19502016-02-21

You certainly need to clean out all the fluff, and then fit a new needle as the old one might have been dulled or bent by your thick material. Also check whether there's an adjustment for the height of the feed dogs - you will probably need a different setting for lighter material. Check also that the foot is pressing down on the work when it's lowered. I have a slightly more detailed version of this Instructable at which you might like to consult.

mlm_1950 (author)p_leriche2016-02-21

I double checked the manual and I only found an area where it read how to clean under the plate for the feeders, but nothing about adjusting them. My hands are not very dexterous due to the onset of arthritis, but I found a coin as suggested and that worked better than using the small screwdriver. I am embarrassed to say that the feeders were almost plugged up on the left side! I am happy to say that I now have a Brother sewing machine that runs well! Thank you for the site. I saved it.

p_leriche (author)mlm_19502016-02-21

Thank you for reporting back - I'm thrilled that you managed to sort it out!

cattibalistic (author)2016-02-20

Any idea what the belt around the wheel that moves the needle is called and where i could get one form? I've been trying to fix up a machine from the 50s or 60s (it seems pretty similar to what you have) and that piece is all worn out.

p_leriche (author)cattibalistic2016-02-21

I presume you mean the belt driving the sewing machine mechanism from the motor. Hopefully you should be able to get one quite easily. If you simply search eBay for sewing machine belt you'll find several different types and various sizes. Pick one that looks like yours and has the right dimensions.

kjamieson-hirst (author)2016-02-14

Thanks for the helpful information. In servicing my old Singer sewing machines, I use Tri-Flow Superior Lubricant for the parts that need oil. It works wonderfully. Also, a reminder that some motors need to have grease added to them occasionally and that only grease, such as Singer, should be used - never oil. I have many vintage sewing machines and have more information at

Thank you - noted!

lazemaple (author)2016-02-12

A bad needle can really mess with stitches. It is recommended a new needle for each garment sewn or if it becomes dull - some fabrics dull needles faster than others or bent or your stitches don't seem quite right. Needles are relatively cheap and easy fix. Thread quality is another - never pays to use cheap thread.

p_leriche (author)lazemaple2016-02-12

Thank you for those comments. I'll take another look and see whether perhaps I should emphasis those points a little more. In fact I go into trouble-shooting in a bit more detail in my article on the Restart wiki at

macoco222 (author)2016-02-12

Gracias! You inspired m to make some maintenance to my machine! I have a Janome 420, and I already had to change the semicircular plastic gear under the bobin because I broke it trying to sew leather. That involved a lot of fine tuning, and I thought I would not be able to fix it, but I succeeded. Today I´ll give my machine some love, oil and cleaning.

SEVoiland (author)2016-02-11

Thank you for the lesson. I do perform maintenance regularly on my precious machine. I just got my Bernina 830 (the first 830 from the '60s) back from "the shop" and the repairman did a great job - HOWEVER - it has now developed a hesitation upon pressing the foot pedal to "drive." I now have to turn the drive wheel (at the right end of the machine) backwards a touch to get it going. Sometimes, it needs two and three nudges to get going. Is there a quick fix for this, or do I need to return it for more service? I am willing to work on it. My husband is also a retired gear machinist (experienced from aerospace to railroad and silo works) and he is willing to dive in too. I'm a tinkerer, so between us we have lots of tools. I would be grateful for a response.

p_leriche (author)SEVoiland2016-02-11

If there's a humming noise from the motor when it ought to be running but isn't, then that indicates it's not the foot pedal but the mechanism. If I understand you correctly, it's only developed the fault shortly after return from its first professional service in a while, in which case the presumption has to be that it's something the repair shop did and I'd be inclined to take it straight back. You could look inside and you might then spot the problem but if you unscrew anything in order to do so they might say you messed it up yourself.

SEVoiland (author)p_leriche2016-02-12

Thank you! I will print this for them too. And here I was so excited to get going on it. I've done some sewing, but it's a pain to keep reaching over there and "cranking it."

Puzuma (author)2016-02-11

I have a much bigger problem. I have a busted gear that rocks the bobin. Any ideas on how to fix it?

p_leriche (author)Puzuma2016-02-11

It's a plastic gear is it? Then I'm afraid that's the way modern machines with plastic gears go. Assuming you can't get a spare from the manufacturer, the only possibilities would be to 3D print one or to cannibalise one from another machine of the same (or very similar) model if you could find one on an auction site. Neither may be very realistic I'm afraid.

Puzuma (author)p_leriche2016-02-11

The gear that broke is plastic but I have a metal replacement. To get it replaced will cost $100.00 that I just don't have.

nanaverm (author)2016-02-11

Thanks for this very helpful guide, which will save me at least $60 on a tune-up!

If having trouble with timing, check to make sure that the hilt of the needle is all the way up to the top of its holder. If it slides down, your machine will be out of rhythm. (From experience).

susancnw59 (author)2016-02-11

Very nicely done, thank you. I do wish that we could do a speed on it. I have an 80s Bernina 850 workhorse, all metal workings, and it has just slowed down a lot so it needs a spa day. Because surely it has NOTHING to do with the 3 rag quilts that I made a year ago ;)

p_leriche (author)susancnw592016-02-11

Sounds like there could be a lot of lint in there from the rag quilts that have NOTHING to do with it! The sewing machine equivalent of a spa day might well work wonders.

AliceF8 (author)2016-02-11

So nice to read this. I have a 1972 Singer Stylist. Have done most of this, but never knew how to adjust bobbin tension. Thanks so much.

LauraH78 (author)2016-02-11

Absolutely right. Decades ago the timing went out on a Singer 356K and I took it to a repairman who fiddled with it and returned it after a month. It worked for a bit and then the problem was worse.Unwilling to part with the machine for another month, I fiddled with it myself and eventually got it right. Metal bodies machines are wonderful, fixable by novices, and not to be sneezed at. As opposed to the Kenmore Snarl-O-Matic we bought when the Kenmore was gone. First it didn't work right because it was new. Then it didn't work right because the instructions did not say to oil the screw of the bobbin case-- the only place we are supposed to oil on my Bernina. Once Snarly got that oil, he worked just fine.

tcoe (author)2016-02-02

Having worked for a few major clothing manufacturers as a sewing machine mechanic, ( Lee, Levi, Haynes and Bali), for thirty five years, I wiil say, this instructable gets the basics. However one problem that is very common is unexplained thread breaking. Removing the hook, (assembly holding the bobbin), buffing off a burr, then reinstalling the hook and setting the timing should be included in this instructable

p_leriche (author)tcoe2016-02-02

Thank you for your feedback, and I'm greatly encouraged to hear from a pro that I'm on the right lines. Maybe I've used the wrong terminology, but I do cover buffing the hook (in different words) towards the end of Step 2 and in the last photo of that step. I'll tweak the wording.

But as for timing, I'm afraid that so far, that's beyond my competence. From a very brief Internet search it would seem that this requires the service manual for the specific machine, and if attempted by an unskilled operator could well make things worse. As such, it may not be appropriate for an Instructable at this level.

Thank you again for taking the trouble to comment.

tcoe (author)p_leriche2016-02-02

After reading your instructable again, I did see you explained it. Sorry about that! I guess after so many years of removing the hooks to buff, it just didn't dawn in me that buffing it in the machine was if fact, another way of doing it. Machines I worked on ran from old lockstitch Singer 241's to Durkopp pocket machines that not only sewed pockets on women's blazers, but cut the pocket slot, sewed on the flap and even did the decorative stitching around the opening. I started being a contractor in the late 80's as all sewing operations were moving offshore. At Haynes, I traveled all over Central America to repair equipment in those sewing mills where those people made 30 cents an hour. American semstress' was making 10 to 12 dollars an hour back then. Of course it made business sense to go offshore, but I hated to see people who had worked 2nd and 3rd generation for Haynes, being let go and escorted off the properties by law enforcement.
I started working as a contractor only. There is still a few specialty sewing operations left. Ocassionly I still get a call. Those commercial machines sew at 4 to 6 thousand stitches per minute, but they aren't much diffirent than a home machine.
Have a great day, and I'm glad you are keeping up the art of repair in today's throw away world.

srutkowski (author)tcoe2016-02-11

Greetings from another old sewing machine mechanic. I started out in 1962 as a U.S. Navy Parachute Rigger trained to operate and maintain sewing machines (mainly Singer 111W class). I continued working on industrial sewing and knitting machines for about 10 years after I left the service, but switched careers after I went to electronics school so I could understand how many of the newer electronically controlled machines worked.

I still do all the sewing in my house as my wife never took an interest in it. I bought a Necchi-Alco in '69 and it's still my workhorse.

As for this Instructable.. Great job! If people follow your advice their machines will probably outlast them.

ldistler (author)tcoe2016-02-11

It is wonderful to hear from someone who takes pride in their work and loves their machines. I have worked in healthcare for over 35 years and have seen the same kind of heartbreaking changes in our 'industry'. Hard work, quality of work, dependability, and care of the patient (customer) take a distant second place to the generation of profits and having a marketable appearance. Employees are now considered a commodity, and as such, can also be easily discarded in today's throw away world. I am fortunate to still be working and grateful for my paycheck, but trust and loyalty are a thing of the past.

ShamWerks (author)tcoe2016-02-11

Thank you for sharing this, I love reading about such experience!

If I may ask : you say "There is still a few specialty sewing operations left" : does it mean this kind of operations have geographically moved, or that they have technically changed? (sorry, english isn't my first language, I may have misread your original sentence).

daunrene (author)2016-02-11

I service my own machines all the time. The pictures in your Instructable are really good and clear.

ShamWerks (author)2016-02-11

Brilliant instructable, thank you. My beloved Pfaff 360 thanks you as well.

Marsh (author)2016-02-11

Good job! I had that exact same machine.

Jack of Most Trades (author)2016-02-11

Look inside the machine, and if you see plastic gears, and it's old, like mid-60's vintage, scrap it, because eventually those gears will crumble to dust.

mscott41 (author)2016-02-02

you may have just saved my $100 singer from the scap heap, not to mention hundreds of dollars in work clothing ?

soarfree4 (author)2016-02-02

Thanks for all the great info, and easy to use instructions and pictures... I also enjoyed the previous discussion by tcoe and the author!!

GirishP (author)2016-02-01

We got given an old sewing machine so this is perfect for helping me service the machine. Thank you.

Superbender (author)2016-02-01

Perfect timing. I have that sewing machine sitting there and I've been avoiding using it cause it doesn't work right. Time to get on it. Your instructable will help for sure. Thanks for sharing.

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Bio: You can also find me on and Twitter @pleriche. Volunteer with and keen to share my knowledge and skills and do ... More »
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