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.

Thread – Part 1

Aside from fabric, the next most important component for sewing is thread. There are many varieties from multiple manufacturers, but the importance of thread is not always appreciated. Good quality thread can make your sewing easy and enjoyable, but poor quality, cheap thread can not only be a nightmare to sew with, it can cause machine problems.

Perhaps the most popular variety of thread is cotton. Quilters value it above other types because it is made from natural fiber that works well with cotton fabrics and batting. Egyptian cotton is prized for thread, due to the fact that the fibers are longer. This makes for a smoother thread, with less lint. Unfortunately once it’s made into thread it is difficult to discover the source of the cotton and a label of “Egyptian Cotton” is not a guarantee that what your getting is really that. An easy way to judge the quality of cotton thread is to pull a foot or so off the spool and examine it closely. Good quality thread will be smooth with very few “whiskers” showing along its length. If you see a lot of fibers or lumps of fiber along the thread you should give it a pass. Lots of loose fiber on cotton thread tends to shed and build up in the machine. When used in the bobbin, these fibers will ball up behind the tension spring in the bobbin case, forcing it out to the point that tension is reduced.

Some technicians will simply tighten the bobbin tension to overcome the problem, sometimes to the point that the tension screw is fully tight against the spring. If you find that you are suddenly getting bobbin thread pulled up to the top, look very carefully at the bobbin case, around the 8 o’clock position. If you see a small bit of fluff there you can gently tease it out with a small needle. That will restore normal tension. If you have had your tension “fixed” by a technician, without having the thread ball removed, you can usually set it back to where it was by looking at the slotted tension adjustment screw on the bobbin case. At the factory this screw is secured by red paint, so it doesn’t change while you are sewing. To put the tension back to factory settings just turn the screw so the broken edges of the paint line up again.

When I was growing up my mother would always use Coats & Clark thread because of the quality. Sadly, like so many other industries, Coats & Clark is now made offshore and the quality has dropped badly. We refused to carry it in our store. However even C & C is better than the Walmart branded thread sold by the store of the same name. It’s very cheap, and in my opinion, very bad.

Your thread choices from local sources may be limited, but thread is not a good place to try to economize. If a project is worth doing, it’s worth spending a little extra to get good thread that will last a long time, and be good for your machine. While you may not have good choices available locally, you can buy just about any thread online.

While we are not affiliated in any way, we like Superior thread. They deserve the name, as their thread is top quality. Superior also has some very informative web pages that provide everything you could ever want to know about thread. If your local dealer does not stock their thread you can order it online.

Recently we polled readers of our Janome list on groups.io for their favorite thread brands. The results of that poll are available here. We will address other types of thread in future posts.

What’s that noise?

Every sewing machine has its own particular set of noises that you hear while using the various functions. When we operated a sewing machine dealership we chose Janome because they made some of the quietest machines on the market. What sounds they do make tends to stay relatively constant through the years of operation. Most owners become used to the normal sounds and are alerted whenever the sound changes. Those who do machine embroidery sometimes employ baby monitors so they can leave the room during a long embroidery. When the sound changes it’s a sign something is wrong and they can hopefully get back in time to prevent a tragedy.

The most common abnormal sound is the one that occurs when the thread is either out of the take-up lever, or there is no tension. Every stitch that wraps around the bobbin case will stay ender the needle plate. This creates the dreaded “bird’s nest” effect. The sound is a loud chunk-chunk-chunk as each stitch further inhibits the hook from making more. If the machine is stopped quickly, damage is usually limited to cutting off the excess thread and rethreading. Unfortunately if more than a few stitches are taken in this mode, the accumulated thread and powerful motor of the machine can lift the bobbin case out of its resting place in the hook race. That allows it to spin past the stopper. At that point it can be impaled by the hook, which usually stops the machine with a “Stopped for safety” message. It also will seriously damage the bobbin case, leaving a deep gouge on the bottom. Often when the bobbin case spins out it will be stabbed by the needle, often completely through the case. This type of damage can also damage the hook race itself, which leads to other noises.

After a bobbin case incident you may hear a rhythmic clicking as you sew. This click is often caused by a hole that was put through the bobbin case by the needle. It creates a small bump on the bottom of the case, and each stitch will catch briefly, causing the click.  If the bobbin case is undamaged, a burr on the hook race can also cause a clicking. This type of damage is hard to see without a strong light and magnification. Your dealer should have the tools to remove minor burrs and scratches (#OILSTONE), but in severe cases a new hook race may be needed.

Bobbin rattling is a common complaint. As you sew the bobbin seems to jump around and rattle in the case. Often this is because the wrong bobbin is being used. Many people have old Singer class 66 bobbins inherited from old machines. They are the right diameter, but they are shorter than the standard Janome class 15 bobbin. That gives them extra room to bounce around. Another place that can induce rattles is the white plastic disc that is in the hook race under the bobbin case. A needle that is not tightened sufficiently can fall out and make nasty gouges in the disc. Every stitch has to pass over it, so if it is damaged it will cause a lot of jerking and bouncing of the bobbin. I’ve worked on machines where that disc was so damaged that it was in pieces. It’s inexpensive and easy to replace.

I’ve already mentioned the hook race as a noise source. If you have noise, but cannot find the source, it’s very likely to be the hook race. One really insidious problem that took me a long time to find is needle strikes on the rim of the hook race, the little “shelf” that the bobbin case rides on. If a needle hits that area it can make a pit with raised edges. Those edges act like a file, slowly grinding off a very fine dust from the bottom of the bobbin case. That dust causes a lot of extra friction. In sufficient quantities it can cause the machine to emit a very loud squawking sound. It can be silence for a short while with a drop of oil, though that can stain fabric, so use caution. In the long term the hook race must be polished or replaced. With this problem the bottom of the bobbin case will have a telltale white or gray line around the edge where the burr was grinding on it.

New embroidery machine owners sometimes complain about a squeaking while the machine is stitching out a design. This is usually not a problem, but is due to the belts of the embroidery mechanism settling in and adjusting to the parts they are attached to. In this problem the squeak is usually more prominent in one direction of embroidery than the other, for example left-right as opposed to front-back. It will diminish greatly over time as the parts settle in.

The last noise I will address is another tough-to-diagnose one. As you are sewing the machine makes a noise that sounds like a chirping bird. Inside the machine there is a pulley that is used to adjust the tension of the timing belt, which joins the upper shaft to the lower shaft for synchronous operation. Over a period of years and/or hard use, the bracket that the pulley is mounted on may slowly bend a little. This can cause the timing belt to drift away from its normal position so that it rubs on the bobbin winder clutch. That rubber-on-plastic rubbing makes the sound of a bird chirp. Your technician can fix it by replacing the pulley mounting bracket, though I have often been able to just bend the bracket a bit to make it line up again.

After you have had your machine long enough to know what it normally sounds like, you will notice if it starts to sound differently. In that case you should take it to your dealer, sooner rather than later. This post may serve as a guide to help you isolate the problem with the technician so you can restore it to its former silent glory.

iFear

To better focus our video-making efforts, I recently posted three questions on our email list:

  1. What is the biggest problem you have with your machine?
  2. What is the biggest problem you have with the Windows software that came with your machine?
  3. What is the biggest problem you have with the software on your iPad? (This applies mainly to the Memory Craft 15000, though the Skyline S9 also has iPad software.)

The replies were varied, particularly with machine problems. We’ll address those another time. Responses regarding the Windows software were also varied, but the majority came down to how to use the software, as well as fear of doing something wrong. This is not surprising, as most Windows programs have a lot of features with different menus and icons. Gone are the days of a thick printed manual accompanying software. These days you might get an electronic manual in the form of a PDF document, but usually it’s just a greatly abbreviated Help file. To make matters worse, most of the Windows software is written by engineers who don’t sew. These programs are built with attention paid to ease of writing, which does not always translate to ease of use. To make matters worse, nearly everyone has heard a horror story about someone who hit the wrong key at the wrong time and wiped out their entire computer. Most of these stories are more myth than fact, but nearly everyone has experienced a crash of some sort while using Windows. Microsoft has created a wealth of software tools for programmers to use, but there is no established set of standards for how those tools are used. Consequently even common tasks are done differently in different programs and there are usually many ways to do the same thing, not all of which are obvious. As Windows has evolved, it has added many more features, further increasing the complexity of using it. This won’t change, so most people will stop upgrading once they’ve mastered using a particular set of software. We will continue to make helpful videos with each new release, but we don’t expect to see much change in the ease of use of Windows software.

While Apple’s iPhone was the first touch-operated device, they actually were working on what became the iPad. Making the decision to change gears and release a phone first has proven to be a brilliant choice. The iOS operating system has, like Windows, evolved over the years, but unlike Windows, it’s more focused on ease of use. Steve Jobs characterized it as “the computer for the rest of us”, meaning those without technical skills and experience. Toward that goal, Apple has spent a lot of time and money on usability. Programmers have a very broad array of tools to use, but Apple also maintains a set of “human interface” guidelines to ensure that apps use those tools as they were intended. Every app must be approved before it goes into the App Store, and attention is paid to how easy an app is to use.

The result is that you can hand an iPad to a 2-year-old grandchild and within minutes they will be happily using it. Why, then, is it so hard for fully mature adults to use iPads? I think the primary reason is fear. The grandchild has no idea how much the device cost or what could go wrong. She just tries things without regard to what will happen, learning as she goes. Adults are afraid of “crashing” the iPad, or making a mistake that will cause all their work to disappear. Much of this fear stems from using desktop computers. Unlike a desktop, each app on an iPad is restricted to its own space. While it is still possible for a poorly written app to crash, it won’t take other apps, or the iPad itself, down with it. Well designed apps not only have built-in help, they often provide hints for what to do as they are used. By making the operating system stable and resilient, hard crashes are extremely rare, and even those can be recovered from quickly. Backup has been built into the devices, so it takes place automatically. It’s even possible to have the backups stored remotely, protecting the data from just about anything.

So what’s the lesson here? It’s simple, really. When approaching a touch-enabled device like the iPad, just release your inner child. Touch things to see what happens. Try things. Get to know the standard icons, like Search (search.jpg), Share (share.jpg), or Delete (delete.png). Well-written apps will use standard icons to clearly present common functions. While some apps will still be more complex than necessary (I’m looking at you AcuDesign!), most will separate features for simplicity. Don’t let your fear of technology stop you from learning how to use the tools it provides. If you find yourself using the often-repeated phrase “I don’t do computers!” you are really hiding. In these times we have to keep learning, just to get through day to day activities. It’s worth the time and effort to learn the tools, and you will probably enjoy the process. And, yes, we will continue to make videos to ease your journey!

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