Needles – Part 1

Operating a retail sewing machine store for 25 years gives one a different perspective on sewing machine needles. We quickly learned that needles are misunderstood by most sewing enthusiasts, even those who have been sewing for decades. It also became apparent that the sewing business, like most others, had a shady side.

A customer came in with a machine that was misbehaving badly, breaking threads, skipping stitches, and generally not working. It didn’t take long to see why. The needle was in backward. We replaced it with a new needle, showing the customer how to insert it with the flat to the back, and the machine was immediately working perfectly. The customer then revealed that she had this problem with her machine many times in the past. Each time her dealer had diagnosed very serious problems and charged a lot of money to “repair it”. Sadly this practice was not uncommon at the time, and more than a few dealers did it. Our fledgling business gained a lot of customers quickly, just because we didn’t trick people that put the needle in backward.

These days machines have needle clamps that make it nearly impossible to insert the needle backward, but that’s not the only needle-related problem that we encountered. There was the machine brought in from years of storage in a barn, that was not working well. The needle was caked in rust. We said we would start with a new needle, which caused the shocked owner to say “Why? It’s not broken!”

Then there was the lady who brought her machine in for service. She had two or three needles loose in the machine, and asked us to be very careful not to lose the one currently installed, as it was “My favorite needle”. Apparently she had no idea that needles have a lifespan and need to be replaced on a regular basis.

By far, though, was the case of a new-to-sewing customer who bought the top of the line (at the time) embroidery-capable machine. She was a minor celebrity, having been on television a decade or so before; not someone you would recognize on the street, but enough of a celebrity that a sewing machine selling for more than $1,000 did not raise an eyebrow. As we did with all customers, we gave her a short introduction to her machine. When we started with bobbin winding her comment was “What’s a bobber? Do I need that?” Patience, and a request that she come to new owner classes, as well as beginning sewing, got her out the door with her new machine.

A week or so later she was back, somewhat despondent. She said “I need a new machine. I broke this one.” We were pretty incredulous, because it looked fine. As it turned out, what she broke was the needle and she was prepared to buy another machine as a result. A new needle and several classes later she was happily embellishing her wardrobe.

At the time our store was one of only two owned by women, having been started by my wife Diane. It was the attitude of the local “good ol’ boy” network that motivated her to open her store, and her honesty got her a lot of flack from competing dealerships. By the time we retired many more women had entered the traditionally male-dominated business and things were much better.

Next time we will discuss the obvious role of needles in the sewing process, and how to get the most from them. Don’t miss it!

Thread – Part 4

When Janome introduced the concept of machine embroidery to the home sewing market, there was suddenly a big increase in demand for embroidery thread. There are now many different brands of thread available for embroidery, in a variety of types. Choosing the best thread to use for a project can be challenging.

There are three primary types of embroidery thread: acrylic, polyester, and rayon. Other types exist, such as cotton and silk, but the goal of most embroidery projects is shiny, attractive, and colorful thread. When choosing the thread for your project, it’s important to consider how the embroidered piece will be used.

When Janome released the Memory Craft 8000, they introduced their own acrylic embroidery thread at the same time. Initially only 24 colors were offered, but this eventually expanded to the 78 colors now in the default Janome thread palette. This thread has a good shine and is relatively strong. It is color fast and washes and dries well. However at higher embroidery speeds it tends to fray, and it’s expensive compared to other types. As a result it’s not very popular now.

Rayon thread is smooth and has a beautiful sheen. It sews well at all speeds and is a good choice, unless the item being embroidered will be washed frequently. Rayon thread is not color-fast in bleach and does not hold up well with repeated washing and drying. If the project will not be laundered, then rayon thread can be a good choice for your project. It’s readily available in almost unlimited colors.

Because of the shortcomings mentioned, the most popular embroidery thread type is polyester. It’s very strong, inexpensive, and can be washed and bleached without losing color. These characteristics make it almost perfect, but not quite! The strength of poly thread makes it somewhat springy when coming off the spool, as it “remembers” the shape it had when wound. This can cause it to flex at an inopportune time, causing a skipped stitch. That will appear as a loop on top of the fabric. While a number of machine problems can result in loops on top of embroidery, a loop or two in a design containing many thousands of stitches is often due to the polyester thread. In most cases the problem can be dealt with by snipping the loop out of the design and using a hair dryer to heat the affected area. This will usually cause the cut ends of the loop to shrink into the fabric so they are no longer visible.

Embroidery thread is sold in varying weights, with 40wt being the most common. The weight is a measure of how many kilometers of thread are needed to weigh one kilogram. So 40wt means that 40,000 meters of thread will weigh approximately one kilogram. The smaller the thread weight, the thicker it is. Thread weight is very important in machine embroidery. If you choose, for example, to use 30wt thread in a design that was digitized for 40wt thread, the extra thickness can create stitch problems like thread breaks or loops, or embroidery that is what is often referred to as “bullet proof”.

By changing the weight of thread used, you can sometimes solve problems. An embroidery design that continually results in thread breaks, jams, or loops with 40wt thread may stitch beautifully with 60wt thread. This is one way to deal with designs that are overly dense, whether due to digitizing or reducing the size in the machine. As the industry has matured, finer threads are more readily available, with 60wt sometimes sold for micro embroidery.

Thread weight is critical when stitching freestanding lace. Most of these designs will work with 40wt, but you generally don’t want to use anything heavier unless the designer calls for it. Intricate lace designs do best with 60wt or finer.

Most sewing machine dealers carry one or more lines of embroidery thread that they have found to be reliable with the machines they sell. In search of a bargain you may be tempted to invest in unbranded thread. The Internet has an almost unlimited number of threads available at attractive prices. Before investing in these you should check with friends, online forums and groups, and even your dealer. The money you save by purchasing inferior thread can be dwarfed by the cost of machine repairs and frustration in trying to use it.

Thread – Part 3

Monofilament thread is used in applications where a match to the fabric is difficult. It is often used in quilting, where the top may have many different fabrics that no single thread can match. While it’s versatile, monofilament has a multitude of risks that can make it infuriating.

The common, cheaper form of monofilament is made from nylon. It’s not very different from fishing line and has many of the same characteristics. One of those is memory. As monofilament is pulled off the spool during sewing it tends to retain the loops that it developed when being wound. The wiry, springy nature of the thread can lead to it looping around things that it shouldn’t. It can also get caught up in moving machine parts. At most sewing speeds that means it will quickly wind into the machine until it has bound up the parts enough to stop the machine. This is a service person’s nightmare. Typically the thread is quite fine. Being transparent makes it very difficult to see. If the machine ran a long time before stopping, some of the thread may have gotten hot enough to melt. Extracting it can mean a lot of disassembly, leading to high repair bills.

A better form of monofilament is made from polyester. It has the same transparent qualities as nylon, but it is usually more expensive. You still need to be careful with it, but it doesn’t have the memory issues and is less likely to throw troublesome loops. Another benefit of poly monofilament is heat resistance. Ironing something made with nylon monofilament can cause the thread to melt, thus removing stitches!

Most sewing machine dealers and fabric stores will carry good quality monofilament. Get polyester (Sulky, Superior) when you can, nylon if it’s not available. DO NOT get Walmart monofilament. It is basically fishing line and has a very high degree of memory and spring.

Use great care when threading your machine with monofilament thread. It will be hard to see, and it’s very easy to accidentally have it loop around something like a bobbin winder that you don’t notice until you start to sew. This type of thread is very strong, and if it is caught and unable to feed, it can easily pull the needle so it hits the plate or bobbin case. When removing it, be sure to secure the free end of thread on the spool. If it was wound on the spool at high speed, having an unsecured end can cause it to “puddle” around the spool. If the free end gets pulled into the machine, disaster will ensue!

Thread – Part 2

The extra flair of metallic thread in an embroidery design can enhance the look of the project. It can also reduce the embroiderer to a state of sobbing despair. That’s why metallic thread has achieved a legendary status of being hard to use.

There are multiple types of metallic thread. The most common type is made by wrapping a polyester core thread with fine metal fibers. This creates more bulk in the thread than you would normally find with non-metallic thread, so a needle with a larger eye is required. If the eye of the needles is not big enough, the metallic component may be pulled off the polyester core, leading to thread breaks.

Many needle brands have a range of needles specifically made for metallic use. Typically the eyes of these needles are both longer and wider than standard needles, which allows the metallic thread to pass through more easily. If you can’t find metallic needles, a good substitute is topstitch needles in larger sizes, e.g. 14. These needles also have a large eye and make a good substitute.

A critical factor in sewing with metallics is how the thread is fed from the spool. If your machine has a horizontal spool holder, the thread will tend to twist as it feeds. This can cause small knots to form before the thread gets to the eye of the needle, and it will then be unable to pass through. Thread that is made from thin strips of Mylar, which is shiny but not actually metallic, is especially prone to problems when fed horizontally. The best way to feed metallic thread is to have the spool mounted vertically so the thread rolls off smoothly.

If it is not possible to mount the thread vertically, or if the thread is wound on a cone, then your best option is to add distance. Use a thread stand and place the thread in a small jar or cup two or more feet behind the machine. This extra distance will minimize the tendency of the thread to knot up in a twist, resulting in much better performance.

Other factors can also contribute to your success or failure with metallic thread. You may prefer to embroider at the fastest speed your machine is capable of, but that can lead to frequent thread breaks. Slowing down to the lowest speed gives the thread more time to squeeze through the needle.

One solution to metallic problems is to use a thread lubricant. You can find such products online and in your favorite sewing store. The prescribed use is to apply it directly to the spool. These lubricants are generally silicon-based, so they don’t stain the fabric. However frequent use of them can cause a buildup of silicon on the tension discs in the machine, resulting in tension problems. You can prevent this by applying the lubricant to the thread after it leaves the tension area, although this is difficult and short lasting. Some people may stick a felt pad to the front of the machine, above the needle and lubricate that. If you follow the instructions and apply the lubricant directly to the spool, follow up by “flossing” the tension after you have finished embroidery. Take a narrow strip of cotton fabric, fold it in half, and run it back and forth through the tension area of your machine with the presser foot raised. This will help to remove residual lubricant. It can also help to remove any thread debris that can cause tension issues.

Speaking of tension, that’s another source of frustration with metallic thread. You may need to increase it or reduce it, depending on the thread. Before starting your embroidery try stitching a decorative embroidery stitch with your machine in ordinary sewing mode. Use a scrap of fabric similar to that used in your project, with the same stabilizer. Adjust the tension up or down until you get the best result. Keep track of the final tension number. When you embroider a metallic thread section adjust the default tension to that same number, but be prepared to adjust further if you have problems.

If your machine is equipped with an automatic thread cutter you should turn it off for any embroidery with metallic thread. The “crunchy” nature of metallics can cause bits of thread to get caught in the cutting mechanism, necessitating a trip to the machine doctor. Cutting metallic thread can also dull the cutting blades, again leading to repairs.

It can be helpful to keep notes with regard to various brands of metallic thread that you use in your embroidery projects. This will make the next project easier and more fun, with less “heavy metal head banging”!

Prolonging the Life of Your Machine – 3

Embroiderers know the importance of stabilizers in producing great machine embroidery. Unfortunately this is an area where many are lured into false economy by using inappropriate materials. In the early days of machine embroidery on home machines it was coffee filters, which were a fraction of the price of actual stabilizer. While these filters work wonderfully for making coffee, they are of dubious value for embroidery. The money saved from buying these instead of stabilizers made for embroidery was usually lost in ruined projects that required more fabric and thread to recreate.

Using items for stabilization that were not created for that purpose can lead to buildup of debris in the bobbin case. Such debris usually falls into the free arm, where it can create issues with the moving parts of the machine. But even if you use stabilizers made for embroidery, inappropriate use of them can lead to problems.

I once was presented a machine for service with the complaint of loops in embroidery, both above and below the fabric. The owner proudly told me that she never had any hooping or placement problems because she ALWAYS used sticky stabilizer in the hoop. It took only seconds to isolate the problem. Every surface of the machine, from the needle plate and feed dogs to the bobbin case and hook race, was covered in sticky residue from stabilizer. Many needle penetrations over the course of years of embroidery had steadily built up tiny bits of the sticky stabilizer, leaving a coating behind. This sticky mess kept stitches from pulling up in the normal way, so they frequently skipped or failed to draw up tight. While diagnosis was easy, it took many hours of patiently cleaning with Q-Tips and Goo-Gone to remove all the accumulated stabilizer. Had this machine been offered as a trade-in, I would have greatly reduced its value or just refused it outright.

Another stabilization product that is often overused is sticky spray. Habitual users of these products often apply it directly to the hoop while it is attached to the machine. It doesn’t take long before the body of the machine is covered in a fine gray fur. Coating in the bobbin case and hook race leads to stitch problems and embroidery hoops will be especially nasty. Eventually this will prompt the owner to bring the machine in for service. This is another prolonged cleanup, but it’s even more difficult than the sticky stabilizer residue. The spray is resistant to products like Goo-Gone, so other solvents are required. Internet lore recommends Williams ‘Lectric Shave, which does work with time and scrubbing. It also leaves the service bench smelling like a high school boy headed out for his first date. I have also had success with rubbing alcohol, though I discovered that alcohol is remarkably effective in removing painted logos and branding from the machine body. After turning a Janome Memory Craft 8000 into a generic, non-branded machine I was a lot more careful in using it.

In class situations where sticky spray was used, we adopted a protocol for applying it. Students went outside the store, with the article to be sprayed in a cardboard box. The box contained the spray and prevented inhalation of the sticky stuff. I’ve often wondered if people who consistently use it in their sewing room have respiratory problems from inhaling all that glue.

While the cost of appropriate stabilizers is not trivial, it should be accepted that the price of high-end machine embroidery is not limited to the price of the machine alone. Buy in bulk, on sale, or at shows, but don’t try to save a few dollars by using inappropriate materials or techniques. Also remember that anything that makes your machine look bad is probably also causing problems that you won’t see until they become critical. Machines that look like they’ve hardly been used will have much higher value at trade-in time.

Prolonging the Life of Your Machine – 2

Next to fabric, thread is probably the item most consumed in the sewing process. Thread quality varies widely, and so do the prices of it. Unfortunately a lot of people compromise on thread to compensate for the amount of money that they have spent on their machine. This is a big mistake! There is a huge difference between thread that costs $7 per spool and thread priced at $1.99 per spool.

High quality thread will be smooth in appearance, with no “whiskers” visible when it’s held up to the light. Cheap thread often has slubs, or thick places where the fibers were not twisted tightly enough. As you sew this type of thread will shed fibers in one of two places. When used in the top of the machine it will pack up between the tension discs, forming a clump. This clump will prevent the discs from closing fully, resulting in loops on the bottom of the fabric. In severe cases it may be so bad that there is no top tension, making it impossible to sew without creating a bird nest on the bottom.

Cheap thread in the bobbin sheds fibers behind the tension spring in the bobbin case. Little by little the tension is reduced until you see bobbin thread coming up during embroidery. Fixing this leads to tightening the bobbin tension, which does little to correct the problem. Eventually the bobbin tension screw will be turned all the way down and it cannot be tightened any more. At that point it will be necessary to either clean the clot from the bobbin tension, or replace the case. In general dealers will opt for replacement rather than disassembling and cleaning the case.

Most dealers that sell thread will carry good quality products. Chain and “big box” stores will usually sell the lowest priced threads, which are also low in quality. Buying thread online may not always be a good choice. Many suppliers in Asia sell unbranded thread of varying quality, which online sellers can sell under their own label. Results will be unpredictable. You can usually rely on online opinions from Facebook, Pinterest, and other social networks. For any given thread brand, though, there will be some users who say their machine “hates” it, and others who claim it’s the only thread that their machine will sew with. Sadly many of the brands that previous generations sewed with have cut corners and quality to stay competitive. Using what your mother or grandmother used is not always a safe plan.

Metallic thread creates a different type of challenge to your machine. If your machine has a thread cutter, some types can get caught between the blades of the cutter and render it inoperative. In general it’s best to not use the cutter whenever you are using metallic thread. Needle threaders are also at risk when using metallic, as the thread tends to be heavier and harder to push or pull through the needle eye.

The worst offender for causing machine problems is monofilament thread. This may be sold as “invisible” or “clear”. It’s popular for any application where the stitches either should not show, or need to blend with two fabrics of different color. Nylon monofilament thread is essentially just a fine grade of fishing line. If it is really cheap, it may actually BE fishing line! This type of thread is very wiry and it has a memory of how it was wound on the spool. As a result, it wants to loop while sewing, which not infrequently causes it to come out of the take-up lever and start winding around the internal moving parts of the machine. That type of problem is difficult to repair, because a lot of parts have to be removed to get to the bind. If you have this happen more than once, don’t be surprised if your service technician puts up the “Closed” sign when you appear on their doorstep.

Prolonging the Life of Your Machine – 1

If you are like most sewing, embroidery, and quilting enthusiasts, when you bought your first top-of-line machine you were certain it would be the last one you would ever need. Now you are on your second, third, fourth, or more machine update. The high end machines of today cost as much as a good used car and it’s natural to want to get as many useful years from them as you possibly can. Even if you trade in your machines every few years, keeping a machine in good condition results in a higher trade-in value.

Most Janome machines use a rotary hook system, with a bobbin case that sits in a metal hook race under the needle plate. As you almost certainly know, lint accumulates under that bobbin case. At some point, when the buildup has reached the critical point, stitching will be affected. Make it a habit to take off the needle plate, remove the bobbin case, and clean out the accumulated lint. Do this every 10 hours or so of sewing. For some this will be once a week, while others may need to do it daily. If you clean it frequently there will be very little lint falling down inside the free arm, where it can cause premature wear on moving parts. You may be tempted to use canned “air” (which isn’t actually air, but a potentially hazardous fluorocarbon) to blow out the lint. That’s bad for two reasons: First, when you spray from a new can there’s a good chance that some liquid will come out. It’s not water, and it evaporates quickly, but when it does it chills the metal parts. Water from the air in the room can then condense in the machine, and you really don’t want it there. Secondly the act of blowing the lint may actually force some of it down into the free arm, which is what we’re trying to prevent. Use a brush or soft cloth to wipe out the lint. There are after-market kits that can be attached to vacuum cleaners. Those work well to suck out the lint, without creating so much suction that machine parts are at risk.

Of equal importance to cleaning is needles. Needles become dull with use and a dull needle can lead to big problems. As one of the least expensive components in the sewing process, needles should be replaced often, not just when they seem to be making popping sounds going through the fabric. This is especially important with needles that are coated with metals like titanium and chrome. The coating makes the needle stronger, allowing it to be used longer than conventional needles. However that doesn’t mean they last forever. An overly dull needle going through heavy fabric can break, often into multiple fragments that can cause injury or machine damage.

Always look for the pieces of a broken needle. Sometimes the tip will wind up under the bobbin case, attracted by the magnet that holds the case in place.

Broken needles are one of the leading causes of machine problems. A needle breaks when it cannot go through what is under it. That might mean a dull needle that cannot penetrate the fabric any longer, but it more frequently is a needle that was pulled out of position by thread that was caught or piled up under the needle plate due to coming out of the take-up lever. Modern polyester threads are strong, so much so that a caught thread will bend a needle. Most of the time when this happens the needle will hit the presser foot, the bobbin case, or the hook race that the bobbin case rides on.

A hit on the top of a metal presser foot is not fatal, as it usually just leaves a small pit. Since the top of the foot does not contact the fabric, this doesn’t cause a problem. If the foot is plastic, though, it may be broken or cracked. If that happens get a new foot. Broken or cracked feet will catch threads, leading to more broken needles and bigger problems.

A needle hitting the bobbin case is much more serious. Sometimes a piece of the broken needle will be embedded in the case. Other times it will pierce the edge of the case, leaving a hole. Most of the time when the bobbin case is hit it should be replaced. The rough edges left by the strike will cause stitching problems, which could lead to even more damage. The best course of action is to replace the case. In rare cases you can buff out the damage with an emory board, but that should be a last resort, “final project on Christmas Eve” strategy.

The worst possible needle break is when it hits the aluminum hook race that the bobbin case sits on. This will always cause some damage. In some cases it just leaves a pit in the metal, but the raised edges of that pit will catch the threads going around the case. That can lead to “jumping” bobbins, noisy bobbins, or even the dreaded “bird nest” that itself can lead to more damage. Janome provides dealers with a tool to smooth this type of damage. It’s a simple process for a technician. Any time you break a needle use a strong light, possibly with magnification, to check the hook race for damage. If any is found, take your machine in for service. Continued use will eventually cause more damage, and if the damage is excessive it may require that the hook race be replaced.

In the next post we will examine some other things you can, and should, do to prolong the life of your machine.