Basic Sewing Machine Troubleshooting

Posted in: Ask Sewing School, Sewing 101 — By on March 16, 2011 8:03 AM

Having sewing troubles?

Lanette asked us to help out with her sewing machine woes:

I own an old machine (Bicor XL 1005) which does well, until recently. Your posts have been very helpful in finding how to thread the machine, laying out pattern pieces, and things I should be sure to have on hand. The machine is snarling thread in a ball on the underside of my material. I don’t understand the tension lever mechanisms enough to know how to set them. Any ideas? Overall, the tension settings are completely beyond me – when do I use certain settings? Any info about these settings will be so helpful!

Sometimes your machine just doesn’t want to cooperate!  For me, it’s usually when I’m working with a deadline.  The thread breaks, my needle bends, or skipped stitches – UGH!  Don’t get frustrated!  Take a deep breath and check out our Basic Sewing Machine Troubleshooting Guide.

Very basic things you can try with most problems
  • When’s the last time you cleaned your machine?  It can get linty in there.  You should clean your machine fairly often and you should be able to tell when it needs a cleaning.  A small brush and compressed air are both very helpful tools.
  • Un-thread and re-thread your machine entirely.  Sometimes you forget a loop when you’re threading and everything goes haywire.  Also make sure your bottom bobbin is threaded in the correct direction.
  • Check your needle.  Does it need to be replaced?  Is it the correct size and type for the fabric you are using?

Here are some common problems you might experience and some things that might help.

Problem: My thread is bunching on the back of my fabric!
  • We definitely recommend re-threading your machine.  Go slowly and make sure you aren’t missing anything.  Check your bottom bobbin too – is it threaded correctly?  A lot of the time thread bunches at the back of your fabric because the machine is not threaded properly.
  • Are you using good quality thread?  Are you using the right thread for your project?
  • At the beginning of each seam, hold the top and bottom threads up and away under the presser foot.  This should help with any bunching that occurs at the beginning of your stitches.
  • Make sure your presser foot is in the down position while sewing.
  • Check your tension settings for your upper thread – see below on adjusting your tension.
Adjusting Tension
  • A properly threaded sewing machine with the correct tension settings should set you on your way to happy sewing.  But it’s not always easy to determine which tension settings to use.  Your sewing machine probably has a dial with numbers, but sometimes unmarked.  The general rule is “lefty losey, righty tighty”.  You’ll adjust your top tension most often, depending on your fabric and thread.  Always use a scrap of fabric to test out your tension before you sew any seams.
    The following diagrams show you what your stitches should and shouldn’t look like.

  • Adjust your upper thread tension slowly and inspect your test fabric for signs of improvement or decline in how the stitches are coming together.
  • The idea is to have nice, balanced stitches.
Problem: My needle is breaking!
  • Are you trying to sew through too many layers?  Don’t push your machine too far.  If your needle keeps breaking and you are going through many layers, consider hand sewing that part.
  • Are you using the correct needle size and type for your fabric?
  • Check your stitch settings – Are you using the correct presser foot?  If your needle is hitting something and bending even slightly it can throw things off.
Problem: My thread won’t stop breaking!
  • Try the solutions at the top – check your needle, re-thread your machine.
  • Use good quality thread – it makes a difference!
Problem: My stitches are uneven and sometimes skipping!
  • This is probably a needle problem.  Make sure you’re using the correct size and type for your fabric.  Try a fresh needle – sometimes it’s all you need.

Hopefully we’ve answered some questions and given you some guidance on what to do when your machine won’t work**

Required Reading

**Please note that these are just some ideas on what might be going wrong when  you sew.  If you are unsure as to what you’re doing, take your machine into a repair shop for some professional advice!

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  1. Lanette says:

    Thank you SO much for all the detailed information. It has been extremely helpful with my machine! I appreciate all the notes – I have bookmarked this page and will refer often.

  2. Janine Malyon says:

    When I try to sew with a double needle, it only sews on the left hand side needle and not on the right hand side needle.

  3. Rhonda Terrell says:


    I have an old electric Singer machine which I like very much. (Early 1960′s?) A few years ago I got it cleaned and they said they don’t build them like this anymore! Which made me appeciate it more. (It’s very heavy, not plastic.) I don’t do alot of sewing, just straight seams for hemming and things, so I don’t need a new machine.

    The last time I used it, a few months ago, it would not come on. I switched the plug around a few times in the outlet and it eventually came on. Today I tried to use it again, and it would not come on no matter what I did. I never smelled the motor burning out or anything. So what did I do wrong? Please help!

    • Hi Rhonda,

      It sounds like it could be a problem with the plug/cord. It’s difficult to tell without looking at the machine. I would take it in to a sewing machine shop and have them look at it. You don’t want to mess around with anything electrical unless you know what you’re doing!


  4. marlene thompson says:

    Today I am working on a tshirt quilt. I am sewing on a Singer 401′A and it will not stitch at all on the tshirt fabric. If I switch to cotton everything works good but on tshirt it will just punch holes and not pick up the bobbin thread

    • Jhanry Batabat says:

      Try to dispatch the bobbin and put it back again.

    • Jhanry Batabat says:

      Or change the needle. It must be according to the size and type of fabric you are using.

    • Doreen says:

      Hi Marlene,
      T-shirt fabric is different, maybe you’ll need a needle that is thinner, here in my country they call it jersey needle. I think the needle number is 70.But then me too I got that problem with t-shirts in the past. They told me(in the shop of sewing parts) that I need a special sewing machine (overlock machine with 3 needles) and I should use extensible thresd (like sock thread). Hope you’ll find this helpful.

  5. Haz says:

    Thank you for sharing, very detailed and helpful.

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