As a specialist sewing machine dealer for over 15 years we've helped many customers to overcome stitch quality problems. In our experience the vast majority of problems can be easily resolved at home by following these 7 tips.
What Are Stitch Quality Problems?
So what exactly do we mean by stitch quality problems?
Whether you're a complete beginner or a super experienced sewist we're sure you've sat there at some point tearing your hair out for one of the following reasons:
- your sewing machine keeps jamming
- your machine is skipping stitches
- the thread is looping on the top or bottom side of the fabric
- the bobbin thread is pulling through to the top side of the fabric and vice versa
- the thread is bunching up and 'nesting'
- the stitches are uneven
- your thread keeps breaking
It is incredibly frustrating, especially when all you want to do is sew. I know I've threatened to throw my machine out of the window on more than one occasion!
You probably perform a couple of checks and if you're unable to find a solution you start to wonder if you need to send your machine off to be fixed/serviced/checked.
At this point these seven tips might just be your saviour. They probably include checks you already know, but as a very frequent and keen sewer I still surprise myself how easy it is to forget them and just how well they work.
Check You're Threading Your Machine Correctly
I know this goes without saying but I'll say it anyway - make sure your sewing machine is threaded exactly according to the manual. Take care to ensure the presser foot is in the raised position whilst threading. This allows the thread to freely slot between the tension discs. Feed the thread through the thread guides and take-up lever in the correct direction. Also, make sure the bobbin is inserted in the correct orientation and that the trailing thread goes into the bobbin tension mechanism according to the manual.
We often hear from beginners who think their new machine is faulty due to stitch quality problems, when it is in fact a threading issue. It is incredibly rare for a new sewing machine to have issues fresh out of the box.
Having said that we have supported plenty of very experienced sewists who have changed or upgraded their machine and attempted to thread it in the same way as their old one. However, due to a slight nuance or difference in the threading technique it has caused issues such as poor stitch quality or the thread cutters not working.
If you're still struggling to work it out from the manual, it's always worth searching on the machine model number on Youtube for a threading guide. We recently did a full review of the Janome 725S, which includes a step by step threading guide.
Change Your Needle Regularly
A blunt or damaged needle is the number one culprit for poor stitch quality and can lead to any number of stitch problems, including skipped and uneven stitches and thread shredding. If your machine is making more of a thumping sound as the needle penetrates the fabric, then the needle is almost certainly blunt and needs replacing.
Remember, even though a needle can look (and sound) fine, it can be very slightly bent so don't just rely on your eyes - swap it! How regularly should you change the needle you might ask? I usually change mine after every one to two projects. Sewing machine needles are relatively cheap, so keep a stash and replace them regularly.
When changing the needle be careful not lo let it drop inside the machine as it's perfectly aligned to do just that when you're loosening the needle screw.
A great tip is to place a piece of paper under the foot before loosening the needle clamp screw.
Also, make sure that when inserting the new needle that you insert it in the correct orientation (usually the flat side of the shank facing away from you) and that you push it up as far as it will go.
Not doing so can lead to a number of stitch quality problems, plus it could also strike the bobbin case or bend the needle threader (if your machine has one).
Use the Correct Needle Type
For general sewing, a universal size 80 needle should be fine. However, if you're trying to sew more varied types of fabric such as jersey, leather, sheers or use thicker / thinner threads then you need to use a needle designed for the job. This will help you to achieve good stitch quality on trickier fabrics.
There's a wide range of sewing machine needles available and too many to list here. If you want to know more then you're in luck - see our comprehensive article 'how to choose the right sewing needle'.
Use the Right Bobbins
It can be tempting to use a random bobbin in your sewing machine, but it's really important to make sure it's the correct bobbin for your brand and model of machine.
There are subtle differences between bobbins from different manufacturers, and even for bobbins from the same manufacturer but for different models and generations of sewing machine. To the naked eye they might look identical, but there are often slight variations in the dimension or design.
At best, using the incorrect bobbin can lead to thread nesting in the bobbin area or bobbin thread not being picked up properly. At worst, using the wrong bobbin can actually damage your sewing machine. This is especially true when trying to use a metal bobbin in a machine designed for plastic bobbins. If in doubt, you can visit our sewing machine accessory page and buy bobbins specifically for you machine. They're relatively inexpensive and will give you peace of mind.
Use Good Quality Threads
Over time threads can dry out, become brittle and deteriorate. Don't be tempted to use that box of threads that grandma gave you 20 years ago! I'd also avoid cheap threads from supermarkets and eBay as these can cause stitch problems, thread shredding and lint build-up. A good quality thread makes all the difference.
Here at Sew Essential we only stock good quality thread and have a number of brands to choose from. Gutermann sew all thread is an industry favourite and is perfect for a wide range of projects. We also stock Mettler poly sheen threads and these 120s polyester sewing threads, which are also great quality and fantastic all rounders.
They have less lint content, therefore create less fluff in your machine.
In addition to these, we sell threads made from natural fibres and a wide range of specialist threads, you can find them all here.
Top tip - keep your thread out of direct sunlight as this can lead to drying out, fading and becoming more brittle.
Set Tension Correctly for Different Fabrics
Never underestimate the importance of adapting your approach when it comes to working with different fabric types.
As mentioned earlier in the article, make sure you are using the right type of needle, then it is time to set the needle tension.
For the majority of fabrics the 'normal' tension setting for your machine should be fine. If you're working with thicker fabrics you might need a looser top tension and a longer stitch.
The mantra here is to play around and test on scraps of fabric until you are happy with the results. The scraps should be of the actual fabric you will be using for the project and you should test on the same number of layers as the real thing.
If your thread is pulled tight on the underside and not forming an even stitch then (counter-intuitively) it's usually the top thread tension that's wrong. Sometimes very lightweight fabrics such as sheers can get dragged down into the machine so it's a good idea to use a straight stitch plate.
Also, remember to let your machine do the fabric feeding. Your hands are there to simply guide the fabric. Don't be tempted to push the fabric from the front or pull the back of the machine whilst you're sewing as this will certainly lead to uneven or skipped stitches.
Finally bear in mind that there are other tips and tricks you might need to try, especially with tricky fabrics. You might have the right needle, right tension, but need to use a stabiliser for example.
Maintain Your Sewing Machine
Keeping your machine well maintained not only helps keep your stitch quality tip top, but it also has the added bonus of making it last longer. This isn't as complicated as it sounds either and is actually very quick and easy to do.
*Disclaimer - always unplug the power from your sewing machine when performing any maintenance!
It never ceases to amaze me how often fluff and lint under the bobbin case are the cause of poor stitch quality or a noisy machine.
If you're having problems always remember to check here and don't be tempted to blow - this will only send the fluff further into the machine. Instead use a soft brush to tease it out.
It's also worth removing the stitch plate from time to time and give the feed dogs and surrounding areas the once over with the brush. This solves all sorts of strange problems you might be having, from poor stitch quality to weird sounds. We generally recommend brushing out this area after every project to keep your sewing machine in great working order.
We've found some pretty weird and wonderful things inside sewing machines over the years. Amazingly, an old Singer was host to a dead mouse but the most common intruders are pins and needles.
We once removed over 20 pins from a single machine - don't sew over pins! Unsurprisingly, the sewing machine had damaged gears resulting in an expensive repair bill.
If you do lose a pin or needle inside the machine, do your best to rescue it before it can cause damage. Take off the stitch plate and remove the bobbin case and fish it out if possible. It's always useful to have a pair of long tweezers for such situations.
What about recommendations for oiling sewing machines? Whilst this can be sensible if you know where to oil and how regularly (use only purpose sewing machine oil), using too much oil can attract lots of fluff and lint which isn't great for lubrication.
Many modern machines even recommend against oiling so it's probably worth leaving this to the professionals during an annual service. Either way, it's best to consult your manual as they all have a section for maintenance and care.
So there you have our top tips for maintaining a great stitch quality. If you've got any questions or would like us to publish an article on any given sewing subject, please get in touch. We're here to help!
Have fun sewing!
Lucy and Ed
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