Answers to the Three Most Frequent Sewing Machine Questions

What is this giant ball of garbage under my sewing?

That would be a tension issue.  But it’s probably not your tension settings, like you might think.  Most likely, your thread has jumped ship and is no longer between the tension discs of your sewing machine, and is getting pulled by the yard to the underside of your sewing.  Your tension mechanism serves to regulate how much thread gets to the needle from the spool–low tension, lots and lots of thread get to the needle; high tension, very little thread gets to the needle.  When you see a big hairball of thread under your sewing like this, it’s tempting to think you ought to increase the tension.  Adjusting your tension settings won’t fix this, though, because the thread isn’t there to get held more tightly. In order for your tension to be set accurately, the thread has to be running through the mechanism properly.

Solution:  Unthread and re-thread your machine from scratch.  Nine times out of then, that will solve the issue.

Why are there all these mystery threads coming out of my needle when I finish a seam?

You’re done with a line of stitching, you raise your presser foot and pull your work to the side, but instead of two threads–one from the needle and one from the bobbin–you have a BUNCH of threads, and they all seem to be attached to your sewing somehow.  Those are actually threads from an unfinished stitch, and they’re there because your sewing machine needle hasn’t been raised to the highest position.  Leaving the needle partway down (even if it looks like it’s all the way up) will cause the upper thread from the needle to grab the bobbin thread and begin a loop that will become a stitch–and that loop gets all stretched out and stuck if you don’t raise the needle completely and allow the loop to find its destiny.

Solution:  As you complete a seam and remove your work, check that the needle has completed its upward motion and is juuuuuust beginning to move back down–then leave it in the highest position as you remove the work so you don’t get all those extra threads.  If you already have a bunch of threads and need to move on, move the handwheel a quarter turn and you’ll see that loop resolve itself.

Why is my machine making a weird popping sound as I sew?

That would be the sound of a dull needle punching its way through your fabric, like a fist through a brick wall.  Sharp needles pierce fabric, and ballpoints push the fibers aside–but both of them can only do that if they’re new and free of burrs or dull tips.  A dull, over-used needle will force its way through your fabric brutally, and cause damage along the way.  New needles don’t make popping sounds, and by the time yours does, it’s been dull for a while.

Solution:  Change your sewing machine needle every 8-10 hours of sewing time (which roughly translates to a new needle for every major sewing project, or a new needle every 2-3 smaller projects).  That might sound like a lot–and it’s almost certainly more often than you’ve been changing your needle–but at about 35 cents, a new needle is far less expensive than the thrill of clean sewing with no snags or snarls.

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  • lisa
    July 20, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    I REALLY wished I had your book when I first got my sewing machine. I wouldn’t have had near as many problems . . . like the first one!

  • Kim
    July 21, 2011 at 7:56 am

    My other best cure for thread vomit (problem #1) is to replace my needle, even it is new. You never know when or where a microscopic chip in the tip will occur, but if it’s there, it will cause hairballs!

  • Katie
    July 21, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    Ok…this post right here? Is rocking my sewing world right now. I am a complete beginner, trying to be self-taught (or rather, blog-taught), and I have had all three of these problems. I am working on my very first project ever. I sort of figured out the first–meaning, I rethreaded and that fixed things but I wasn’t sure why. The second I thought was a problem with my machine because it’s ancient. And the third I was having just last night! Thank you, seriously, thank you very much!

    • Deborah
      July 22, 2011 at 11:52 am

      Hooray!! Oh, I’m so glad it helped! I have so, so many students who come through and assume that they’re doing something wrong, and it makes me so happy to be able to offer a simple solution. Thrilled that it helped you, too!

  • Jodi B.
    July 21, 2011 at 8:25 pm

    Thanks for this informative/reminder post!

  • Erin
    July 22, 2011 at 10:58 am

    The thread garbage was a serious problem for me when I was learning to sew. I re-threaded, and re-threaded, and re-threaded until I was ready to throw my machine out the window. I did some more google searching and found two more solutions. First, I didn’t realize how often one should change needles and making sure I have a sharp needle has helped. The *best* solution for me was to make sure that I cleaned my machine under the throat plate. I’m sure for most this is a no-brainer for most folks, but I had no idea how much dust and fiber had collected under there. Now, if I have thread garbage, I re-thread and if that doesn’t immediately solve the problem, I clean my machine. It’s helped a TON.

  • Betsy
    July 25, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    Oh, Tenson. Re-thread. That sounds way more effective than my yelling “Why are you doing this to me?” and stomping off in a huff. Thanks!!

  • Kristi G
    July 27, 2011 at 7:47 pm

    Thank you thank you thank you!

    The first 2 of these I had figured out on my own. I don’t mean to say I knew WHY it happened, but I could make it all better. 🙂

    But that darn clanking sound! ugh! I must confess, I borrowed this machine from a friend in April… it still has the needle in it that was in it at the time (and had been for God knows how long).

    So I know what I’m going to do when I get home!

    Thanks again!