Sewing Machine Repair Class

bobbin thread in the needle
I am not sure how I managed, but once, in taking out my test fabric, I managed to thread the needle with the bobbin thread.
A few years ago I discovered the White Sewing Center Sewing Machine Repair Class – two three-day sessions (basic and advanced) on all aspects of non-computerized sewing machine repair. I couldn’t go at the time but I thought perhaps I could give the class to myself as a 40th birthday present. With my personal collection of machines (4 right now; hopefully not to grow more though I have developed a desire for a Singer Slant-o-Matic) and my unofficial responsibility over the Sew-op’s machines it seemed that it would be useful as well as simply interesting.

It was FANTASTIC. I couldn’t have imagined a better class. In the first part we covered:

  • Recommended tools/materials and what you use them for
  • How stitches are formed – in precise detail
  • The key to correct insertion and threading of needles on any machine
  • All about needles and their history; tracing sewing problems to the needle
  • All about thread; tracing sewing problems to thread
  • Cleaning and lubricating machines; detecting and removing varnish (sticky residue from old oil and dust/lint)
  • Testing machines including the clutch and externally-mounted motors; checking parts for wear and tear (and for being correct in the first place)
  • Clutch assembly
  • Feed dog timing, height, and orientation
  • Pendulum timing (for zigzag stitch), cams and cam stacks
  • Bobbin hook timing and how problems there cause skipped stitches
  • Causes for skipped stitches that have nothing to do with the hook
  • Needle bar height
  • All about bobbins: winding, cases, tension, insertion
  • Top threading general principles
  • Diagnosing tension and apparent tension problems
  • Check spring timing
  • Escapement (how top thread passes around the bobbin without the bobbin case being completely loose)
  • Dealer calibration of tensioners (if the number for correct tension is way off of the standard 4-5, how to change it)

We also went through all the machines in the room three times, once to find parts and adjustment points for clutch, feed dogs, and pendulum timing, once to look at the bobbin hook and its adjustment points, and once to look at the check spring timing, escapement, and tension calibration. It meant we weren’t limited to our own machines plus the ones Ray demoed on at the front of the room – we had a wide variety of machines to look at.

Ray’s approach is to teach you how machines work in general, what each part is supposed to be doing, and how to trace out the location to adjust each part on any given machine so you’re not dependent on having the exact service manual. The phrase of the week was “now, this looks different, but don’t let that confuse you – it works exactly the same as on every other machine.” It was perfect for me both because it matches how I learn best and because at the Sew-op we don’t necessarily have the operator manual, much less the service manual.

In the first three days I learned more about sewing machine operation than I’d managed to learn in my 25+ years of serious sewing and self-study. The formation of a stitch is finally not just magic to me! Ray is incredibly knowledgeable and clear, and he has great visual aids.

Two semi-dismantled sewing machines, an Elna and a Morse
A Sew-op Elna and my Morse: my setup for most of the first three days.

The second part was more of a guided work session, where we put what we’d learned into practice (we did some work in the first part, but there was a lot of lecture and demo time) with individual help from Ray and his assistant Cathy, and mini lessons on topics that came up from a given student’s work. During that part we had lessons on sergers, motor wiring, and foot pedals, and I learned more about diagnosing hook timing problems.

Before the class I was unsure how many machines to bring, and it’s hard to give advice on it because the number of machines you want will depend a lot on how much work each one ends up requiring. Ultimately I brought six: two that needed basically no work as far as I knew, two that I knew or suspected needed something moderate adjusted, and two that seemed likely to need significant work. It was the perfect amount, as it turned out. We had two no-show students and I was sitting next to one of the empty places, so I was able to have two machines out at a time. That way I could work on one till I got stuck (or until I needed to give oil time to penetrate) and then switch to the other until Ray or Cathy made it around to me to help me through my stuck point.

Here’s what I did (all machines got general cleaning and lubrication, and upper tension adjustments to balance the stitch):

  1. Extra work to clean and lubricate where handwheel mounts on main shaft (fixed clutch problems); adjusted bobbin tension
  2. Feed dog timing adjustment (fixed what looked like tension problems)
  3. Lowered bobbin tension (this machine had feed problems but they were cured by cleaning packed lint out of the feed dogs)
  4. Extra work to clean and lubricate where handwheel mounts on main shaft; replaced belt connecting handwheel and motor; re-bent bobbin case tension spring to increase tension (Ray did that); adjusted feed dog height (ditto)
  5. Oiled motor shaft (motor was seized); moved feed dogs forward (they were hitting in back on long stitches); adjusted bobbin hook timing (twice; went too far the first time); adjusted check spring timing; adjusted bobbin tension; recalibrated top tension knob
  6. Recalibrated top tension knob; tightened presser foot pressure dial (Ray did that, apparently just by turning it as tight as it would go – after that you could loosen it without it just spinning as it had before)

Those machines are in order of work I thought was needed – very little on the first two, a moderate amount on the second two, and a lot on the last two – so you can see my estimates were not always the best!

If pressed for advice, I’d probably say to bring as many machines as is practical for you but not expect to necessarily get through all of them. Since the class involves going through all the machines in the room multiple times, you don’t have to worry about trying to bring some kind of representative sample. You may have classmates with extras, too. At least two people in the room borrowed machines from other students, and there was a third person with extras to offer. Ray is also happy to make “adjustments” to your machine that mess up the sewing so you have to diagnose and fix the problem. Quite happy. 🙂

A straight-stitch-only Morse machine
My Morse’s big brother showed up.

Other advice would be to bring your checkbook, not just a prewritten check – a few people in the class did that, and then they had to get cash out because they wanted to purchase the myriad tools and supplies Ray makes available.

I think I got a lot more out of the class because of taking apart the Morse last summer (post on that adventure still forthcoming) as well as cleaning and oiling so many machines at the Sew-op. I had better context for what Ray was teaching; I knew what the guts actually looked like so I had some scaffolding instead of everything being new.

It was so very fun, too. At the morning break the first day I texted my husband, “I have found my people.” I never ate (or even drove to) lunch alone, and we laughed and made nerdy sewing machine comments and geeked out on each other’s cool machines.

Rubber stamps from fabric paint

Every once in a while you come across a tutorial that is truly different from the herd and makes you think “What an interesting idea!” Such was my reaction when I came across a post on Mel’s Own Place about making rubber stamps with puffy paint and plastic bottlecaps. Amazing! I’d been wanting some custom stamps but didn’t think cutting them out of erasers with X-Acto knives was going to go well.

Making stamps from bottlecaps and 3D paint.

The stamps I wanted were planner stamps: a recycle symbol to mark recycling pick-up days, and an envelope back to make occasions for which I want to send cards. That way they could be large and visible without really taking up space, because I could write over them easily. I indentured my husband to play with paint with me.

I had two kinds of 3D paint in my stash: Tulip dimensional fabric paint and Scribbles 3-dimensional paint. The taller bottle of the Tulip was easier to control (more in squeezing than aiming), but the Scribbles seemed to keep its shape better while drying – Tulip flattened out a bit. We found we needed 3 rounds to get truly good images. The papers in the picture below show the images after 2 rounds (rectangular) and 3 rounds (hexagonal) of painting – the third round was really just local touch-ups.

Stamps made from bottlecaps and three rounds of 3D paint; impressions after 2 and 3 rounds of paint shown.

As you can see from the Oh You stamp on the hexagonal paper, you still have to be careful and press on all areas of the cap to get a good impression. If you catch the paint at the right moment you may be able to flatten it down a bit while it’s dry enough not to stick but still soft in the middle; I was able to do that to some extent with the recycling symbol.

All in all, though, it’s a great idea – quick, easy to correct errors (more than just heightening low spots: you can see the giant smear of paint in the first image, and there were others on different sheets of newspaper), and fun.

Flat felt

I’d like to make a needlebook to keep my specialty needles, since right now they are insecurely occupying their original package. Needlebooks typically have wool felt pages, and I thought to make it particularly special I could make the felt and cut it into the pages. I found a straightforward tutorial on rosiepink, and I already had the materials.

It went fine, but definitely not as planned. I didn’t realize my bamboo sushi mat was comically tiny, and as it happened my netting wasn’t much better and I didn’t have a spray bottle to sacrifice to the cause like I thought I did. After I finished the first one I decided to try to make another, and be more tidy about it – the first one grew as I layered, giving it a large messy perimeter, and the middle layers of wool show through the outer ones quite a lot.

making flat felt making flat felt

Tutorial modifications: I wanted to decorate the lower side, so I laid netting over the bubble wrap before starting to layer fleece, but in retrospect I’m not sure that was necessary. The netting is definitely desirable for the rubbing step, but you can always move it if you flip the piece (which I did, at least the second one). My needle felting stash has both smoother and coarser wool, so I sandwiched two layers of coarser wool between two layers of smoother wool. It seemed like a great use for some beautiful variegated fleece I’d been hanging on to – three of the sides use that. I only decorated one side of the first piece, with contrasting fleece at different angles, but I put strands of crewel wool on both sides of the second piece. They may need a bit of needle felting to fully stay put. Fortunately this felt won’t see rough handling.

making flat felt making flat felt

My whole sheaf was a lot larger than both the piece of netting and the bamboo mat, so while I did the rubbing with bubble wrap step (though I dipped it in soapy water rather than rubbing it on a bar of soap), after that I couldn’t make the original tutorial work for my setup. Instead, I laid the non-netted side of the wool against a piece of bubble wrap, laid both pieces of netting on top, rolled it up, and squeezed and turned it all along its length, with a hand motion similar to rolling up a sheet of gift wrap. I did make sure to rotate the felt 90 degrees occasionally and flip it at least once, and it worked! Here they are all nice and dry, after a touch of the iron while they were still wet. I know these pictures are somewhat small but you can click them into larger versions.

finished, untrimmed felt finished, untrimmed felt

You can’t get the real effect, though, until you trim off the raggedy edges, so here’s that view:

finished, trimmed felt finished, trimmed felt

I got a little bit of dust from the dark green wool when I cut the edges off. Hopefully they are actually stable. I am not sure I have the necessary patience for hand-felting. Of course, I can always whipstitch the edges once I cut them down into squares, after I decide how large my needlebook will be. I plan to give it a fancy cover as well, so you’ll see this again.