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.

A new family member…

Some people lust after the latest gadgets. I lust after the small appliances of the 1950s.

Morse sewing machine before cleaning

I was unable to resist an amazing mid- to late 50s Morse sewing machine at a charity benefit sale – I tested all the machines at set-up late yesterday afternoon, and found it ran well though it needed a thorough cleaning. When it was still there at close of sale this afternoon, I caved. Some money to a good cause, a boat anchor of a sewing machine to my possession.

Morse sewing machine underside workings Morse sewing machine motor

I am going to take this machine as the opportunity to restart my education in sewing machine maintenance. I seem to have become the sewing machine expert of the Sew-op, however much or little I may merit that title. Since I am interested in sewing machine mechanics anyway, it seems like the perfect time to start earning the respect I already get in that arena.

Morse sewing machine cover Morse sewing machine cover

It was tricky to find anything out about this machine. However, I determined Morse was one of many, many brands applied to the same machine bodies made by just a few companies in Japan (one blog post about post-war Japanese sewing machines says somewhere around 15 companies but over 5000 brands). A page about one person’s search for information about an American Beauty branded sewing machine gave me the most information. My machine’s model number is TZ-17, which apparently is shared by many branded machines and originates with Toyota. Toyota’s sewing machine manufacturing history tells us the TZ-3 came out in 1953. It says nothing about the TZ-17, but mentions a 1961 zig-zag sewing machine with a completely different model number, suggesting they’d moved on by then.

Morse sewing machine levers and dials Morse sewing machine front badge

Before finding that I had estimated my machine to about 1955, based on it seeming a bit less advanced than the machines in a 1957 Morse advertising flyer on the Morse page of the NeedleBar Museum Archive (sewing machines 1829-1960). I found the American Beauty page by doing a Google Image search for my machine, which led me to a forum thread about an Ambassador branded sewing machine that seems identical to mine but for branding. Comments along the way suggest that these are great machines that sew beautifully and will run forever.

It will be a while before I get this lovely back into shape (for one thing, I have to clear space to work on it), but I’ll surely show it off when I do, and if there are any interesting spots along the way.

On the uses of tracing paper

silver-valley-275289_640 Early this year I used tracing paper in two different ways in short order, so I thought I’d write a little post about it.

The main way was for patterns to stitch through, whether by machine or by hand. For the sample embroidered seam block I made for my second crazy quilting class, I used strips of tracing paper to make evenly-spaced repeating stitch patterns from my graph paper sketches. It was a mixed blessing – the stitching creates the perforations to tear along to remove the paper, so shorter stitches = easier removal. Mine were long and tearing the paper without stressing the stitches was a challenge. I also had trouble with the stitches getting loose when I tore away the paper and had to consciously stitch more tightly than I normally would to accommodate it. One piece of advice unrelated to my block: don’t fill areas while the tracing paper is still attached because you will never get it out.

Advice from elsewhere: Susan at Plays with Needles recommends Bienfang brand tracing paper in particular. I’ve only tried what I have – Strathmore – and it’s fine, but takes a little effort to sew through. I’ll test out Bienfang when I need a refill. If it’s easier to tear that will help a lot with avoiding stitch distortion.

monogram applique and its pattern I also printed a large letter to be used as an applique pattern. I put tracing paper through the printer by trimming it to about 8″x10.5″ and taping it across the top to a standard sheet of letter paper, an idea I got from a tutorial for decorating candles with printed tissue paper. I generally use a small piece of tape at each end of the short edge and two more equally spaced in between.

Advice here: if you’re printing large solid letters and don’t have a way to convert them to outline, change them to a nice medium gray. Then you use less ink, which means less time to dry and less distortion from soaking the paper. For my applique I straight-stitched by machine around the outline of the letter, removed the paper and trimmed the applique fabric as close as possible to the stitch line, and then made a tight, narrow zigzag all the way around. In one spot my trimming was a little too close and I had to recapture the fabric with the zigzag, but most of it went as planned.

[This pattern was for a gift for friends we see very infrequently, and in fact we passed it to a mutual friend and it may not even have made it to them yet, but I am tired of holding on to this post until the gift is given!]

Incidentally, the letter shown is Oleo Script Swash Caps, a font that’s free for commercial use. The designer also has the plainer Oleo Script, but I specifically wanted an E with loops in it. Both are thick enough that at a large size you don’t even need boldface to make a good applique letter.

tracing paper rub-on My second recent use for tracing paper was to make my own rub-on transfer. I was drawing a greeting card and had a little fuzzball character that I didn’t trust to come out as well in future versions, so I traced him with a soft pencil (4B), turned the tracing over, and rubbed with the (eraserless) back end of the pencil to transfer graphite. Then I went back with a colored pencil to finish the drawing. It worked really well, and I was even able to face him in opposite directions by turning the tracing paper over, using the first trace as an image to trace again, and rubbing the second version onto the page. In the photo, where I’ve transferred but not drawn over the image, you can see where the first version rubbed onto the scratch paper a bit, ghostly under the tracing paper (which itself is not easy to see).

By the way, as I focus less on blogging I’ve found myself using Facebook a bit more, mostly for random crafty links I come across (though the Fun With Vintage Patterns album gradually grows). I’m not regular with it, but moreso than here.