Sewing Machine Gremlins

Just when you thought it was safe to start sewing again, “the machine” acts up. It’s what I call “Gremlins”—all the crunches, crashes, and whirs that drive you crazy as you’re sewing along. Whenever you hear yourself scream “What now?”—that’s a Gremlin. Gremlins are those things that go wrong and you don’t know why, problems you thought were your machine but are in fact “operator” problems. In other words, it’s your fault, whether from mind-set or oversight .

Gremlin 1 is a kerplunk at the beginning of your sewing. You may have the bad habit of threading your ma chine with the presser-foot lifter down. This is the bar that lifts up the foot or sets it onto the feed dogs. When the bar is up, the tension mechanism’s separating plates are disengaged, so there is no tension or resistance against the thread. Conversely, when the presser lifter is down, the tension is engaged .

If you thread your machine with the lifter down, the upper thread won’t be set securely between the plates. There will be no tension on the thread, and you will find a small wad underneath, causing a jam.

If you do monogramming or darning that requires no foot, you still must lower the presser-foot lifter to engage the tension. Otherwise you will have wads, jams, and thread breakage underneath.

When working on thick fabrics, you may be able to prevent this Gremlin by hand-walking the fabric through the machine.

There are actually two kinds of jams: Gremlin 1 occurs under the fabric. Gremlin 2 occurs underneath in the bobbin area. Check closely to see which one is your problem.

Gremlin 2 is the jam when you first start sewing and get a wad underneath. If you don’t hold onto the threads when you first sew, the slack can get caught and hang up underneath. Do not tug at the threads; just hold them gently to the back and start slowly. This technique also helps the fabric feed for those first stitches.

Gremlin 3 is a jam that you can hear coming. It means the thread has wrapped around the bobbin case. Your manual will tell you in which direction the thread passes through the casing. The direction isn't the same on all machines. When you place the thread in the casing, be sure you hear the little click that means it's securely in the tension disk. Otherwise the thread can pull out and cause jams.

There is an important technique to picking up that first bobbin thread.

Most of us were taught to hold onto the upper thread and pull it until the bob bin thread came up and the machine made its first stitch.

But because you now know that at the beginning and ending of each stitch the uptake is at its highest point, if you will then place one finger on the upper thread against the throat plate and make one complete stitch with the handwheel (or single stitch button, if available), the bobbin thread will always come up easily. You then will not get a jam caused by a thread’s wrapping around the out side of the bobbin casing.

If you do get a jam, rock the hand- wheel back and forth sharply. The hook will act like a knife and loosen just about anything jammed in there. You can’t throw the machine out of time by doing this; it takes more strength than you can generate with your hand. The thread will break before any metal part will.

Gremlin 4 is thread breaking when you first start to sew. If you have the habit of backing the handwheel to re move the needle from the fabric, you are going to break threads. When you back out, you create an extra loop of thread at the uptake, which will snap and break when you start sewing again. The handwheel is meant to turn in one direction only: forward.

As well, be sure the thread isn’t coming loose from the spindle and wrapping around it. This can cause broken threads.

Gremlin 5 is skipped stitches and broken threads. This is your clue that the needle may be inserted incorrectly. It must be all the way up inside the needle clamp screw, and firmly tightened. It also must be inserted with the flat section facing the proper direction. In most machines it faces the back, but check your manual if you aren’t sure.

Gremlin 6 is when you are sewing along and in the middle you hear a klunk. Usually you find a ball of thread below. This Gremlin is the improperly wound bobbin, which will cause many problems. If it has loose spots, it will pull too easily from the case and jam underneath. If it's wound too tightly, it will break suddenly while you’re sewing. And if it's overfilled—that is, if you have to jam it into the casing—it will create more drag on the thread, adding resistance in the form of those gram weights by which tension is measured. In short, it will throw your tension out of whack. (See Section 4, under Bobbins.)

Gremlin 7 is when the needle breaks as you’re sewing. Chances are, you were tugging at the fabric from the back to “help” the machine feed. If you pull when the needle enters the fabric, it can bend back, strike the throat plate, and break or cause burrs. If you need to firm the fabric, fine—just don’t yank on it. A repair person can always recognize a “fabric puller” by all the little nicks behind the throat-plate hole.

Gremlin 8 is when your stitches are wobbly and uneven. Check your pressure regulator. If it's not pressing firmly enough, the fabric will shift under the foot instead of progressing smoothly forward. If this change doesn’t work, check your needle point. Is it too round for your fabric? Reread Section 3.

Gremlin 9 is when you hear a clank and your needle breaks. Have you sewn over pins? Anyone who ever told you that lied to you. No machine was truly made to sew over pins. Remember: When two pieces of metal come together, one is going to lose. It’s generally the needle, because that’s the piece that’s moving. But whichever one gives, it’s hard on the machine (and hard on the needle, even if it doesn’t break). Pins must be removed before they reach the foot. No exceptions.

Gremlin 10 is when you have loops on either the top or bottom of the seam. I know you want one of those little drawings that tell you to make one adjustment if the loops are up here and another if they fall down there. Adjusting the tension mechanism is the court of last resort. Once you have checked everything else, then and only then should you reach to adjust the tension knob or dial.

It can be said that if the knot loops are on the bottom, most likely the upper tension is too loose. Or if they are on top, the bottom tension is too loose. But there are no absolutes. The top could be too tight, pulling up the knots, and vice versa. The telltale sign of either being too tight is extreme puckering.

The object is to create a balance between upper and lower tensions. Because the top mechanism is easier to deal with, adjust it first while the ma chine is sewing a scrap of material. Watch the seam, and see if the adjustment makes a difference in where the knots meet. Make all adjustments in small increments.

Gremlin 11 is when you are sewing up to a jeans seam and your ma chine won’t go over the lump, or if it does, the needle breaks. Cure this by using a shim to create an even height for the foot to press on. I use a business card or match-cover folded in thirds. Put the needle into the fabric and raise the presser foot. Slide the folded card in from the back until it rests against the needle. Put the presser foot down and sew over the lump (see Fig. 4.15).

Gremlin 12 is when you’ve tried everything. The machine won’t work, and you still don’t know why. In this case, unthread the entire machine, change the needle (even if it’s brand new), and rethread carefully. In my own sewing, sometimes this simple procedure cures a problem that seems to have no cause. Sometimes, you may never know why a problem occurs, even though you can fix it.

Gremlin 13 is when you can’t seem to sew straight seams with consistent seam allowance width. If this happens, you are a needle watcher. The up-and- down motion of the needle mesmerizes the eyes. Train your eye to look only at the fabric edge and its alignment to the width marks on the throat plate or the foot edge in relation to a line on the fabric.

Remember: Commercial machines are not like home machines; they do one function very well. Although home machines are more versatile, they can not reproduce commercial stitches. Be realistic—personally constructed garments can't look exactly like the ones you buy. But they can be beautiful, professional, and unique, your own creative expression. They don’t have to look homemade.

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Wednesday, 2009-04-29 2:48