Troubleshooting Thread & Needles

Troubleshooting Thread & Needles

So, just how important are threads and needles to sewing? WAY important! In the course of my 20 years as a shop owner, I fixed more sewing machines simply by changing the needle and thread than anything else. (The right size and type of needle and thread really does make a difference - go figure.)

When I would troubleshoot customer sewing machines that all the sudden stopped working, my mantra I taught to both staff and customers was TNT – thread(ing), needle and tension:

  1. Are you using the appropriate thread for the type of needle you are using, and is the machine threaded correctly, both top and bobbin?
  2. Are you using the appropriate needle for the type of sewing you are trying to achieve, and is it in good shape?
  3. Is the tension correctly set for the top thread? (The bobbin thread tension is static, and RARELY should be or need to be adjusted.)

When customers have sewing problems, nearly 100% of the time the culprit is incorrect threading. And in relation to incorrect threading, nearly 100% of the time the take-up lever becomes unthreaded. (Why? Probably to torment sewists in their hour of need.)

So, when your machine begins to torment you and throw all kinds of thread nests into the bobbin area, and you’ve rethreaded the bobbin nearly 40 times, I’m here to tell you the problem likely does not emanate from the bobbin area. (By the way, flooring the speed control so the machine will go faster doesn’t make it better – it makes it worse. Just sayin’…) Most likely the grief is in the top threading.

Even if you’re completely positive that the top is threaded correctly and you’ve rethreaded nearly a thousand times, go back and rethread the top of the machine. As you are threading the machine, make sure that both the take up lever and the tension mechanism are threaded correctly. (Also, when threading the top of the machine, be certain to have the presser foot in the up position. The tension engages when the presser foot is down. If you thread the top of the machine with the presser foot down, you will likely not get the thread to slip between those tension discs successfully and create grief for yourself.)

But wait. Isn’t this article about thread? Absolutely! But you can’t talk about thread in a vacuum and independent of the sewing machine, the sewing machine needles, thread tension and threading of the machine. In order for the relationship between these four things to coalesce in a way that makes you and your machine happy, attention needs to be paid to each part of the relationship.

Now that we’ve covered threading of the machine, before we dig too deeply into thread, let’s talk about sewing machine needles. It wasn’t regularly that I sought the counsel of my sage sewing friends regarding a sewing quandary. When I was younger, even when I sought the wisdom of my needle and thread gurus, it was likely I wouldn't follow it. Until much later in life, I was a crash-into-the-wall kind of guy who would pick up the pieces, and then crash into another wall until I figured out a problem. (Often, this was accompanied by the realization that I should have followed the advice I was given...)

Fortunately, I've come out the other side of my sewing challenges reasonably victorious, albeit a little battle worn. But had I actually listened to the advice I was given I probably could have made more forward progress more quickly.

Suffice it to say, my first few sewing machines weren't of the best quality, so when anything ever happened, it was the machine's fault. Period. It couldn't be the user in front of the machine - that would be preposterous.

After replacing my first machine, shortly thereafter I began having the same trouble with my second machine. I was quick to complain about this to one of my gurus who was a costume designer. He asked me if I had changed the needle... (For many of you, I don't really need to go on with this story.) Who knew you had to change the needle? I mean, it wasn’t bent or broken, so what gives?

The first best sewing advice I remember actually following was to change the needle every eight sewing hours or after every sewing project - whichever came first. A "Russellism" sprang from this bit of wisdom, and I use it all the time: "Change your needle, change your life!"

Those shiny little harpoons are extremely well-engineered, and purpose-built. There are a myriad of different types of needles and all of these different types come in different sizes. And yes, when you’re first starting out, it can be a little overwhelming. So, when I first introduce folks to sewing machine needles, I break them into two camps: sharps and ballpoints:

  1. Use sharps when sewing woven textiles
  2. Use ballpoints when sewing knits.
  3. Then, select a needle size that is appropriate to the fabric weight.

But what size needle? You want to use a needle that is appropriate to the weight of the fabric being sewn. Bigger is not better; choose the smallest needle that will successfully sew the project. “But what if my needle breaks?” The needle is telling you something. And frankly, you want the sewing machine needle to break before your sewing machine does.

Sewing machine needles are engineered to break when subjected to undue force. When your sewing machine needle breaks, it typically means one of three things:

  1. You’re helping too much by either not allowing the fabric to progress through the machine, or you’re pulling the fabric out from behind the presser foot as it is sewn causing the needle to deflect and hit the needle plate.
  2. The needle is too small for the weight of fabric it is penetrating. Size up! When determining size of needles to use, consider the weight of the fabric: a. For heavy weight fabrics (think upholstery, some denims), use size 90/14 b. For medium weight fabrics (think chino pants), use size 80/12 c. For light weight fabrics (think dress shirts), use size 70/12
  3. The needle is the wrong style for the type of fabric you are sewing. (Using a ballpoint needle to sew denim would be an example.)

As your confidence increases and your textile explorations grow, you’ll begin to explore other types of needles. Working with leather? You’ll want a leather needle. It’s built completely differently to accommodate the way leather sews. And yep, it comes in a variety of sizes for different weights of leather. Working with polyester chiffon? Though it’s a woven fiber, I often use a size 60 Universal needle - a modified, sharpened ballpoint needle.

“Hey! But wait! You said, ‘Universal’.”

Well, you might think that a Universal needle would be universally good on all fabrics. It makes sense based on the name. But if that were the case, there wouldn’t be any other types of needles! I refer to it as a compromise needle: a sharpened up ballpoint, it works moderately well on a broad range of fabrics. If you’re not sure what type of needle to use, a Universal needle will get you going.

OK. So there’s your primer on threading a sewing machine and sewing machine needles. (By the way, lest I forget, don’t sew over pins… but I digress…) Let’s get into thread!

I know… It’s a lot of information and a lot to digest! If you get in a jam (including a thread jam), make sure to reach out to your local sewing machine retailer and ask for their best advice. The key points:

  1. Use the right needle for the right job.
  2. A sewing machine needle has a useful life of eight sewing hours or one sewing project, whichever comes first (change your needle, change your life!)
  3. As the needle size gets bigger, the needle size, weight of fabric and stitch length also increase. The thread size typically stays the same.
  4. Use polyester when you need strength, and cotton for everything else. If you’re not sure if you need strength, you need strength, so choose polyester.

Have a great day sewing!