Sewing Machine Care

Keep Your Machine Working; Your Repairman Not So Much

Sewing machine care consists of cleaning out the lint and threads then oiling. Remarkably simple, right?

However, I once had a lady bring me her machine to look at and see if I could tell why it was sewing so slowly and not acting right. I asked when it had last been in for service and how frequently she cleaned it. Service was at least 25 years prior, and she didn’t know you were supposed to do anything to a machine but sew on it. Oh, my! I knew this would be interesting!

I’ll finish this story later. For right now, let’s make sure your machine never gets like hers.

Before Doing Anything

Step number one step in caring for your sewing machine is to disconnect the power cord. I’d say this is the easiest thing to do, but often overlooked or thought unnecessary. It is necessary for safety. So, unplug!

Tools for Cleaning

Items found in most homes are all that are needed for cleaning. Substituting cotton balls and toothpicks for cotton swabs is fine. Brushes from the kids paint set work fine if they are clean and not losing bristles. Tweezers are helpful. Lint free rags or cut up t-shirts are super. A wooden skewer with a point is one of my favorite tools because it is long, the tip will bend if I am not being gentle, and it can be made into a super cotton swab!

This next tool you will appreciate, trust me. A towel lined cookie sheet works great for holding all the parts and their screws so when it is time to put everything back together you aren’t looking for the part you dropped and the dog went to bury in the backyard, or trying to figure out which screw came from where. This ranks right up there with unplugging! It is a safety measure for your blood pressure, stress, and words you might mutter otherwise. And, you are welcome!

Remove the spool of thread from the machine and put it on the tray. Remove the bobbin from the case as it will be cleaned later.

Your machine isn’t still plugged in is it?

Let the Cleaning Begin

One rule when cleaning – NO BLOWING! It will be tempting to move that piece of dust out of a crevice with a quick puff, but you just might blow it back further than we can clean, plus you blow moisture into the system which is not advisable.

Before we begin, please read the cleaning/maintenance/oiling portion of the manual for your machine and know the manufacturer’s instructions. What I will cover should not void any warranty as it is simple maintenance to keep your machine running smoothly and giving you great stitches. I have several machines made by different manufacturers; cleaning is the same for all. There are limits to how far you can get into the computerized machines for cleaning, which is understandable. Older and non-computerized machines most often allow you access to all areas if the cover pieces can be removed with the screwdrivers that came with the machine or found in most toolboxes.

Ready to start caring for your sewing machine?

Start at the Needle Area

Remove the needle. If you don’t remember when you last changed your needle, it is time, so properly dispose of it. The needle will be replaced later.

Check all around where the needle goes and wipe or brush away any lint or debris. Turn the wheel so more of the armature is exposed for cleaning.

Next, remove the plate cover; it is the metal cover where the needle disappears when sewing. Some are held by screws; others just pop off. The feed dogs will now be exposed. Wipe the plate cover with a lint free cloth, both top and bottom and if necessary, brush lint, threads, or anything in the open slots so it will be ready to reinstall later. Place on towel (with screws if there were any).

The feed dog area is where you will find the most buildup of threads and lint. Carefully brush the teeth and beneath them to remove debris. Sometimes lint and threads have been there so long they have packed together and don’t want to let go. This is when the pointed skewer comes in handy to gently nudge it loose so it will come free. Anything but gentle cleaning can damage parts. Use brushes to reach all areas you can to remove what should not be there. A lint free rag used with the tweezers is also a handy aid. Cotton swabs are good for many areas. Reach as far back into the machine as you can, being super careful not to push any lint or threads further back where you cannot get to them.

Easy cleaning so far?

Bobbin Shuttle Cleaning

Again, refer to your manual on dismantling your bobbin shuttle for cleaning. Top loading bobbin cleaning will be a bit different. Follow the manual instructions.

Side and front-loading bobbins have a round metal or plastic ring around the shuttle. It is secured by two small levers to release the ring. The ring may or may not be attached at the bottom. Remove or lower the ring and then look at the position of the shuttle forked area. Remembering where it is in relationship to the piece behind it will aid in replacing it easily. Remove the shuttle by bringing it straight out of the enclosure. Holding the pin in the center can help. Before putting the ring and/or the shuttle on the towel, wipe each clean of any debris.

It is time to clean all areas now accessible. If any threads are sticking out behind the shuttle enclosure, tweezers are often beneficial in grabbing them securely enough to tug them free. With tools and fingers out of the shuttle area, turn the wheel and see if any additional cleaning is necessary.

Frequency of Maintenace Cleaning

This easy maintenance you should do on a regular schedule. That schedule will depend on what you are sewing and the thread you are using. For example, quilters who use their machine to quilt the top/batting/back (that is a quilt sandwich) will have to clean the machine with every bobbin change or more frequently. Any fuzzy fabric, wool, flannels, and other linty type fabric, regardless of what is being made with them, will at least deserve a quick check when the bobbin is changed to see if there is build up around the feed dogs. Cotton thread will also leave lint, some more than others depending on a few factors. A good habit to get into is cleaning your machine whenever you finish sewing for the day, then it will not be an issue when you return.

Cleaning Behind the Front Plate

Some machines let you simply swing the front cover of your machine open for cleaning and changing the light bulb. If you are so lucky to have one like this, include a quick removal of lint and thread that may be in that area. Other machines have one or two screws holding that front plate on and usually take a regular screwdriver to remove the piece and give you access to clean that area. Wipe away any oil build up that may have collected on moving parts.

If you have a computerized machine, I doubt if you can go any further with ordinary screwdrivers. With other machines, you may be able to remove all the plastic body parts. I like doing this to study the mechanics of the machine in good working order, so if it stops working correctly, I may be able to take off the body and see where the problem could be and with luck fix it myself. Sometimes, even back where general maintenance isn’t going to reach, lint and threads can find their way back there and cause some problems. I like to leave this to be done at the annual visit to the repair person.

Remove any body pieces held on with normal screws and wipe them clean and place them on the towel with the screws. Thoroughly inspect all the areas to remove dust and lint and stray strings to the best of your ability. After cleaning, I slowly turn the wheel and a) watch the movement of the internal parts, b) see if additional debris is exposed and remove it. Likewise, I like to move any nobs or levers on the front to see how they change the movement inside.


Oiling is the second step in easy maintenance to keep machines running smoothly. I recommend you follow the procedure in the owner manual and use a high-grade oil made specifically for sewing machines. A bottle with an extendable nozzle makes it easy to reach difficult areas.

I can’t stress enough if your manual says “one drop” of oil, one drop is sufficient. The manufacturer manual should have a diagram showing all the spots to apply the oil. If the diagram shows arrows to the top of the machine, there should be holes where the drop of oil goes. I also put just a spot of oil on the midpoint of the needle rod so it slides quietly through the mounts. If you put more than a tiny spot of oil, you will have oil dripping off for what seems like forever and can ruin whatever you are sewing. A good rule to follow is to sew several rows of threadless stitches on a scrap piece of fabric until you feel confident no oil will be getting on the fabric.

I also put a spot of oil on the shuttle case back before reinstalling the shuttle. The shuttle moves more smoothly so there is never drag on the bobbin case or your thread.


It is time now to work backwards, returning parts to where you removed them. Don’t forget to check the bobbin case for lint and stray threads before putting it in the shuttle area.

Once everything but the needle is back where it came from and you don’t have any extra screws (LOL!), it is time to reconnect the power cord. With scrap fabric under the foot, press the power control, slowly increase speed to as fast as it will go and then back to normal speed for a couple minutes. This does two things: 1) making the parts move as they are intended helps the oil lubricant get to all the areas it needs to be; and 2) if it doesn’t run correctly, you will find out before the speed has a chance to get beyond starting as the noise will be obvious. What you should hear is the normal noise you are used to becoming quieter. A well-maintained machine should be quiet, not silent, but quiet.

If you don’t intend to sew anytime soon, you don’t have to put a needle in place. If you do, put in the most common size you use so you won’t have to change it for the next project. Leave the empty bobbin holder in the shuttle so you will know where it is.

You are almost finished with the easy maintenance of your machine! It is okay to be proud of yourself!

One Last Area to Clean

One last thing to clean – the tension disks. On some machines, the tension disks are on the front of the machine. For some, the tension disks are inside. I like to use waxed dental floss or pipe cleaners for this task.

Loosen the tension disks completely so you can clean the whole disk. Carefully place the dental floss between the tension disks and slide it back and forth and then complete the circle. I like to use waxed floss, so it not only cleans but makes a nice smooth surface for the thread to move over. Non-wax floss may start to shred during the cleaning process and become lodged between the disks. Then you will have to learn how to disassemble the tension. That is for another post! If using the pipe cleaner, you use it the same as the floss. Pipe cleaners are excellent if it has been a while since you have cleaned the tension, or if you find the thread fraying or sticking and the tension dial has not been altered from where the tension normally is for this weight of thread.

If your tension is inside the machine, loosen it with the adjustment dial and thread the machine with the floss, bringing it up through the tension disks. At that point, take both ends and see-saw around the disks, cleaning the best you can. I have not used a pipe cleaner on my Bernina tension as I can’t see what is taking place.

A damp warm rag should be all you need for cleaning the outside. And when you are all finished, put your machine back in the case/cabinet or put a cute sewing machine cover on. Don’t have one? You could make one. Perhaps I’ll do a Sew-Along on just that!


Your manual should be your guide in cleaning your machine. If your machine is still under warranty, please do not veer from the manual instructions while doing maintenance. A dealer can show you how to clean your machine properly. I don’t believe anything I have written can harm your machine. I am not liable for your actions and cleaning methods. The purpose of this article was to make you aware that sewing machines require maintenance by you. A visit to a certified sewing machine repairman for a check-up is recommended. They will clean areas you can’t get to and make any adjustments needed for the best stitch possible. Talk to your repairman about how often a shop check-up should be done based on how frequently you sew.

To End My Story

Remember the machine I was talking about at the first of this lengthy post? The lint was so packed around, in and under the feed dogs, it was no wonder they were slow! The lint resembled heavy, thick felt! Same for the bobbin shuttle area and deeper into the front of the machine! Test time had arrived after cleaning and oiling! It was music to my ears as the oil spread to dry areas and the machine began to hum. And to think, all it had needed for years was a little love, a lot of cleaning and a drink of oil! Easy maintenance 101!

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