Sewing Machine Repair, Maintenance, and Storage: The Complete Guide

Owning a sewing machine has long provided ease of use for designers, embroiders, and sewing enthusiasts, but like all machines, malfunctions can occur. It is also important to store sewing machines properly when not in use, in addition to knowing how to properly oil and maintain a sewing machine for years of use. With this in mind, what are the most important things to know about sewing machine maintenance and repair?

The single most important maintenance detail to remember for sewing machines is oiling. All sewing machines need to be oiled liberally at least once a week to maintain proper flow and motor efficiency. Cleaning the machine and removing lint and dust is also important to promote product longevity.  

Is your sewing machine not working as it should? Are you looking for information on sewing machine repairs or how to properly store a sewing machine? If so, this complete guide will tell you everything you need to know. We will look at the basic maintenance and cleaning details to keep in mind with sewing machines. Additionally, we will also explore how to service antique units and offer advice on how to sell or donate old sewing machines.  

setting up thread rolls in an embroidery machine
Image credit: tonodiaz, Deposit Photos

How To Maintain Your Sewing Machines

Sewing machines completely revolutionized the design and fabric industry upon their invention and introduction. These machines drastically cut down the time and labor that went into embroidery and sewing work and allowed sewers and designers the freedom to focus more on the design idea and less on the tedious work of sewing fabric.  

But sewing machines are also sensitive pieces of equipment; there is a motor and supporting parts to keep in mind when using these beneficial machines. For the best tips to keep in mind for how to maintain your sewing machines, follow these steps and consider printing and posting these steps on your table.  

Step 1: Oiling

All motors require some sort of lubrication to survive and work properly. This is no different when it comes to the motor inside of a sewing machine.  

What this oil does is that it allows the internal components of the machine to resist unnecessary friction. This friction comes from the high speeds used by the machine to thread fabric, and without lubrication, these speeds can cause the components to smoke and create sparks, which will lead to motor burnout.  

Sewing machine oil also prevents the formation of rust on the internal components. Since the metal is well-lubricated, the material does not degrade as easily. 

student using sewing machine
Image credit: Wavebreakmedia, Deposit Photos

Step 2: Change Needles Often

It's so easy to become used to using one universal type of needle. I experience this problem often, and I sometimes have to force myself to change to a new needle or even to replace the needle I have been using continuously.  

Regardless of needle preference, it truly is important to change out your needle after excessive use. A dull needle can actually affect the overall performance of your sewing machine.  

Dull needles can cause looping and skip in the threads of the fabric, as well as pulls in the fabric, which is not only dangerous but will also cause skips and delays in the motor of the sewing machine.  

You can change your needles once a day, but I would not recommend using a needle longer than a week at a time to avoid these problems.  

Step 3: Clean the Machine After Each Use

Much like any type of machinery, keeping the machine cleaned is the key to ensuring its longevity. Sewing machines are prone to collecting dust, debris particles, cloth fragments, and possible oxidation of the metal components of the motor and internal parts.  

After each and every use, it is important to wipe down the sewing machine with a damp cloth that will collect and remove all of these particles. Dust and debris can clog the sewing machine motor, and you can also consider using a can of pressurized air to blow throughout the motor to remove all the dust and particles that have collected.

Since it can be difficult to clean every single internal component of the machine, it is important to consider having the machine fully serviced by a professional at least once per year. A maintenance professional can provide a deep, internal clean to the machine, and also calibrate all of the internal parts to ensure that timing and tension problems are smoothed out and removed.  

Additionally, it is important to cover your sewing machine when not in use. This can go a long way in ensuring that dust is not allowed to accumulate inside of the machine.  

Rust-Oleum 224284 Stops Rust Inhibitor 10.25-Ounce Spray, 10.25 oz, Clear, 10 Ounce

How To Clean Old Sewing Machines

Cleaning an older model of a sewing machine requires the ability to maintain the cleaning techniques that were recommended at the time of the production of the model.  

When it comes to cleaning a vintage model, the cleaning process will be much more intensive, usually because the internal components have likely rusted, and the motor is likely going to need some work. Let's go through the process of what it takes to clean an older sewing machine or a fairly modern machine that hasn't been used in a long time.  

The first thing you will need is a miniature accessory vacuum cleaning kit. You can purchase one of these kits here if you do not have one. You will also need a brush and cloth kit for cleaning sewing machines if you do not already have one.  

You will also need a pair of tweezers, a pair of snips, as well as needles and thread corresponding to the types accepted by the machine.  

A great place to begin the cleaning process would be with the needle plate. Remove the plate and the needle with a screwdriver that fits the screws in place. Take off the plate and use a brush to remove all the dust and debris that has collected. If the gunk is heavy or stuck in place, you may need to use pressurized air to blow out all of the particles.  

You can then use your cloth or even a wet toothbrush to completely polish the metal components inside the plate. Pay particular attention to the feed dogs since there will be many spaces in which dust and lint can collect inside of these areas.  

Next, go ahead and clean the bobbin area since it is near to where you just were. Detach the cover and remove any old thread still in place. Take out the bobbin case and the hook ring and repeat the cleaning process you used on the needle plate. After this area is cleaned, make sure you thoroughly oil this area.  

Next, and since the machine is older, it will likely be essential to remove all the casing until all the internal components of the machine are exposed. Using your brush, cloth, and pressurized air if needed, remove all the dust and lint that you can find. For areas in which you cannot access, use the pressurized air to remove debris.  

If your machine has rust, the cleaning process will be much more intensive. If you want to clean the old machine on your own, you can use a metal polish, specifically polish that targets rust, such as Rust-Oleum Gel, which you can apply with a Q-tip. Polish all of the rusted parts until the rust completely removes. Move through each section of the sewing machine repeating this process to restore the metal to its newer state.  

works painting an old sewing machine
Image credit: Meniphoto, Deposit Photos

How To Clean Antique Sewing Machines

When cleaning an antique sewing machine, it is important to try and stick to the cleaning protocols that were used during the machine's popularity. Additionally, an antique sewing machine typically refers to the very first series of models from around the world, which can be from anywhere between the 1830s to the 1920s.  

Needless to say, you will need to be extremely careful when cleaning and restoring these antique machines. If you do not wish to allow a professional to handle the job, you can follow these recommendations to ensure you give the antique a proper cleaning.  

Begin by collecting some Q-tips or toothpicks; these items are recommended since the pressure of cotton or wood will not degrade or damage the older metal. Instead of using pressurized aerosol air, consider using a rubber puffer, which will not be as rough on the internal components of the machine. You will also need tweezers, a screwdriver, a tube of metal polish, a soft cloth, a non-silicone lubricant, such as WD-40, a toothbrush, and sewing machine oil.  

First, wipe down the exterior of the machine, and then remove all covers to work on removing old dust and lint from the inside components of the machine. Remove the slide plates and work on removing the dust with Q-tips, the puffer, the toothbrush, and the cloth. If there are components that you cannot unscrew, and this is possible depending on the age of the unit, tilt the machine accordingly as you work through the insides with a Q-tip.  

Be sure and polish all of the metal parts from the needle plate, including the pressure and needle bar with metal polish. Use all of the products you may need to remove stubborn rust and keep polishing until the steel shines accordingly.

Continue this process by completely removing the machine's faceplate which will allow you to see the condition of the inside of the unit.  

Here is a useful video that shows exactly how to perform this process for an antique sewing machine.  

How To Remove Rust From Sewing Machines

The biggest job when it comes to cleaning old or antique sewing machines is removing the rust that may have accumulated within the machine.  

To remove rust, you will need both a lubricant cleaner as well as a metal polish to restore the metal. I highly recommend using WD-40 because this formulation works well and is not as harsh as some rust-removing lubricants, which is not ideal for an antique.  

It's an intensive job, but the best way to remove rust is to completely take apart the sewing machine. Remove all metal bolts and screws, and separate all the metal that will then be ready to be cleaned piece by piece.  

WD-40 110071 Multi-Use Product Spray with Smart Straw, 11 oz. (Pack of 1)

Spray the WD-40 on each piece of metal and allow it to set in place for about 30 seconds. Using an old toothbrush, polish and scrub the lubricant into the metal and keep lightly scrubbing until the metal is restored and the rust is removed.  

Wipe away all of the excesses after the scrubbing with the lubricant, and then apply metal polish over all of the metal, even with screws and bolts. You may want to use gloves throughout this process.  

If your machine has a lot of rust, you may find it is easier to set all of the detachable metal pieces inside of a container filled with WD-40 and allow the pieces to soak in the lubricant for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the pieces, wipe the pieces down, and then apply polish to each piece before allowing the pieces to dry before putting the machine back together for the intended use.  

How To Learn To Repair Sewing Machines

We have discussed in detail how to go about cleaning a sewing machine no matter its age, but there are instances that arise that require a component of a sewing machine that will need to be repaired.  

It is always advisable to allow a professional to repair sewing machine parts, but it is not essential that you consult with a professional; you can repair a sewing machine all on your own. But this is easier said than done, and you will need to consult some sort of guide or video to show you the exact process for repairing the machine. 

Sewing machine repair
Image credit: [email protected], Deposit Photos

How To Repair Sewing Machines At-Home Book

By far, the most useful repair manual you can find for sewing machines is Brian Tobisch's book You and Your Sewing Machine: A Sewist's Guide to Troubleshooting, Maintenance, Tips & Techniques.  

This in-depth, visual guide shows you how a sewing machine works, how to keep it in good working order, and how to solve common problems. This book is perfect for sewists and quilters of all levels with its friendly approach to learning about and troubleshooting. This book gives you the tools you need to sew and quilt with less frustration and better results.  

As a lifelong sewing enthusiast, I must say, this book did not disappoint. I have been sewing since I was a young child, but I still learned a great deal from this book. Tobisch is a very knowledgeable author, and I know it will prove to be a great resource to dip into in the future when one of my machines stops working.  

Ultimately, it is so much easier to sew well and efficiently when one can understand the gut of the machine, especially the sophisticated machines being produced today, and this book certainly educates in a very clear, easy-to-understand manner with lots of photos and examples. If you want to perform DIY repairs on your sewing machine, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  

You and Your Sewing Machine: A Sewist's Guide to Troubleshooting, Maintenance, Tips & Techniques (A Field Guide)

How To Oil Sewing Machines

The most common malfunction that many sewing enthusiasts encounter is problems arising from lack of oil and lubrication. As discussed above, oiling your sewing machine is absolutely crucial, but there can be some confusion on exactly how this process is performed. Let's take a look at how to properly oil your sewing machine.  

Begin by always using a sewing machine oil that is specific to your brand of sewing machine. You will need a brush and the oil for this process, and any applicable cleaning items we discussed above to remove any dust or lint that has accumulated.  

Begin by detaching the presser foot and the needle and set those aside. Lightly oil the needle clamp since this is where the biggest action of metal pressing against metal at high speeds frequently occurs. Oil the area liberally, and make sure you wipe up any excess oil.  

Detach the cover and pull out the bobbin case and the hook. All of these components and this area will need to be oiled. Dab some oil on a cloth and then spin the cloth inside of the wheel that holds the bobbin case components. Again, make sure you wipe away any excess oil as this could leak onto fabrics when you are sewing.  

Reassemble this area once the oiling is complete, and you can then move on to cleaning and oiling the side case. 

Remove the side cover and repeat the process above for removing any dust and lint. For all the metal components in this area, it is easiest to apply oil to a cloth and simply wipe down and coat all of the metal with oil. You can use a Q-tip dipped in oil to apply the oil to hard-to-reach areas inside the side panel.  

Once finished, wipe up any excess oil, replace all of the panels, and you have now successfully oiled your sewing machine. Consider oiling your machine at least once per week. 

How To Restore Vintage Sewing Machines

Restoring a vintage sewing machine is heavily dependent on what you can and cannot acquire when it comes to missing parts etc. If a vintage machine is fully intact, the entire machine will need to be restored in order to work properly.  

Metal polish can likely restore the metal parts, but if you are trying to restore a machine with heavy rust, the cleaning process will take a while. You can spray WD-40 on each piece of metal in the vintage sewing machine and allow it to set in place for about 30 seconds. Using an old toothbrush, polish and scrub the lubricant into the metal and keep lightly scrubbing until the metal is restored and the rust is removed.  

Wipe away all of the excesses after the scrubbing with the lubricant, and then apply metal polish over all of the metal, even with screws and bolts. You may want to use gloves throughout this process.  

If your machine is 100% rusted, you may find it is easier to allow a professional sewing machine refurbisher to handle the job. If not, you can go piece by piece and clean and polish the metal until it is restored.  

Another potential problem you may run into with restoring a vintage sewing machine is finding any parts that you may need. You can consult the manufacturer if they are still in operation or, go onto various online marketplaces that specialize in selling vintage sewing machines. You can also consult with refurbishers in your area to see if these businesses have the parts needed available for purchase. 

senior seamstress hands removing the bobbin case
Image credit: herraez, Deposit Photos

How To Repair Sewing Machine At Home

When deciding how to fix sewing machines at home, you will first need to assess the machine to find out exactly what the problem is and the required fix that it needs.  

Most of the time, the machine could be malfunctioning from lack of oil, and if this is the case, simply follow the above guidelines for oiling your machine.  

An even more common problem that you can fix at home is issues with the hook timing of the machine.  

For this problem, the timing gear will need to be repaired. You can do this with a pair of pliers, and applicable wrenches. Start by removing the bottom panel of the machine and laying the machine on its side to where the bottom internal components are showing.  

Loosen and adjunct the hook wheel until the needle completely and seamlessly attaches to the thread and spins back through the loop. This is an easy fix and can save you a lot of money for what is essentially a very simple repair.  

How To Fix The Tension On A Sewing Machine

One of the most frustrating issues you may run into when sewing is thread tension issues. I cannot understand how many times I thought I was sewing properly when I started, only to realize the backside of my fabric resembled a bird's nest–it's incredibly frustrating!

This all relates to tension issues, and fixing the tension on your machine is not difficult once you understand the basics of how to address this.  

First, always make sure your machine is threaded correctly. Make sure the thread is looping behind the machine and that all the thread is looped and bound to each component.  

Most machines have a tension setting between 0-9, with 0 being the least amount of tension, and 9 being the maximum amount of tension. Adjusting the tension accordingly is similar to knowing when and when not to apply the brakes on a vehicle–you ease into and slow down accordingly, and speed up depending on the preferred tension that your fabric or project needs.  

The higher you place your tension, the tighter and more forceful your bottom thread will become. The lower the tension, the looser it becomes.  

It's all about trial and error, and the key is to try and find the right and equal balance between the upper and lower thread.  

dressmakers professional equipment
Image credit: ChamilleWihte, Deposit Photos

How To Store Sewing Machines

A great way to ensure that your sewing machine doesn't become clogged with dust and lint, especially in those hard-to-reach areas inside the unit, is to store the unit properly between sewing projects.  

Most sewing machines will come with a protective cover that is meant to be encased around the machine to keep dust, lint, and moisture out of the machine.  

It's also a good idea to lower the needle and the presser foot when not in use because this can prevent jamming of these components, which can become fairly difficult to fix.  

Also, it's a good idea to always return your machine to the standard stitch settings. That way there will be no surprises such as zigzags and tension issues when you bring the machine out of storage and power it on. 

How To Get Rid Of Old Sewing Machines

If you are a professional or just a sewing enthusiast, there may come a time when you find just how many sewing machines you have accumulated over the years. This is an amusing and common problem for all of us, and it's worth considering your options when it comes time to getting rid of old machines, rather you choose to dispose of the machines, sell the machines, or donate the machines.  

How To Recycle Old Sewing Machines

Since a sewing machine has so many parts that can be recycled, including the components of the motor and the various plates, etc., it is worth considering recycling as an option. You can contact any local sewing machine repair shops and donate your machines for repurposing. You can also consider reaching out to disposal services that handle the recycling of metal.  

How To Dispose Of Old Sewing Machines

If you simply want to throw away an old sewing machine, stop and consider the possibility of selling the machine first. There are always sewing enthusiasts on the lookout for old and vintage sewing machines for their collection.  

Alternatively, you can dispose of the machines if this is what you wish to do. Sewing machines are not something that should just be thrown in the trash, it may be worth checking in with your waste removal company to make sure it is okay to throw a metal machine in the regular trash. Some localities may prefer items like sewing machines to be placed at the side of the road instead.  

How To Donate Sewing Machines

One of the best things you can do with an old sewing machine is to donate the unit. Schools, churches, shelters, sewing machine repair services, and even hospitals are places that regularly accept old sewing machines.  

If the machine cannot be fixed, and most of the time, even the most damaged sewing machine can be fixed, the business can extract parts from the machine in case they ever have sewing machines that may need a certain part or component. 

Old Sewing Machine
Image credit: mrkornflakes, Deposit Photos

How To Sell Old Sewing Machines

Another great option to consider for old sewing machines is to sell the units. Places like Facebook marketplace, Etsy, eBay, Amazon third party selling, Craigslist, and your local want ads are all great places to list your old sewing machine.  

If you have a vintage or antique sewing machine, you may want to inquire with local antique retailers to see if there is a substantial price you should charge for the machine, if the dealers do not offer to buy the machine.  

How To Sell Old Sewing Machines Online

The best method for selling an old vintage sewing machine online is to try and locate dealers online that specialize in vintage items and antiques. Do a simple Google search to consult directly with buyers of antique or vintage sewing machines. 

How To Date Vintage Singer Sewing Machines

Singer sewing machines go as far back as the 1850s, and the good news, if you have one of these antique units, is that the serial number has always been posted on Singer units, even in the nineteenth century. 

When determining how to find the value of Singer sewing machines, the serial number will be located either near the on/off switch or somewhere near the panels of the machine. You can then type this serial number into Google and study the results that return the date of production of the model.  

How To Find Out How Much My Singer Sewing Machine Is Worth

If you have an antique Singer sewing machine, an antique being older than 100 years, you should seriously consider finding an antique dealer that specializes in sewing machines to consider your options. Or, you should keep the model; it's not every day that people discover they own an antique. The longer you keep and hold onto an antique, the more valuable it becomes.