Cleaning a sewing machine is a favor to your future self. When your sewing machine is clean, it’s a predictable pleasure to use. A lint-filled sewing machine, to compare, can’t be trusted to smoothly feed fabric or create even, identical stitches.
The good news is, it’s easy to clean your sewing machine at home and avoid problems caused by a dirty sewing machine. Keep these answers in mind as you prepare to clean your machine.
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How Often Should You Clean Your Sewing Machine?
When you see lint building up around your bobbin case, feed dogs, and needle (throat) plate, it’s time to clean your sewing machine. Sewing fabric with a sewing machine makes lint, and the more you put your sewing machine to work, the more lint you create.
Check the manual that came with your sewing machine for specific cleaning advice. Some manuals recommend sewing machine cleaning after a certain number of hours of use. The manual for my Baby Lock Elizabeth says the bobbin case “should be cleaned periodically.” Machines are different and have different cleaning needs.
It’s a good practice to clean after every project, but I don’t think it’ll break your machine if you forget to dust one time. The amount of lint that collects in and on your sewing machine depends a lot on what kind of fabric you sew with. Polar fleece is horrible for creating lint. Cotton lawn doesn’t make much lint at all. Also, projects with a lot of yardage or a lot of seams make more dust.
Why Do I Need to Clean My Sewing Machine?
As you sew, the needle and thread puncture fabric, and these little fabric wounds flake off specks of dust. When too much dust builds up in your sewing machine, you might experience:
- Skipped stitches
- Looping stitches
- Stitches of uneven lengths
- High-pitched noise (always STOP SEWING when your machine’s noises get weird!)
- Loss of tension on the upper thread
- Upper thread breaking
- Lower/bobbin thread breaking
- Fabric that doesn’t feed correctly
- Electronic errors (if you have a computerized machine)
Dust and pieces of thread primarily rest in the feed dogs and under the needle plate (which covers the bobbin area). Lint also flies up to land on the needle and presser foot bars and tension discs. Dust can get into your handwheel, too. Dust particles are small, and they find a way into every crevice on your sewing machine.
Sewing machines are calibrated to the millimeter. Dirt and dust can throw off a machine’s timing — how the needle and bobbin unit work together to create a stitch. Sewing with a machine that’s timed incorrectly can lead to broken needles and damaged needle plates, bobbin cases, and presser feet.
What is the First Thing to Do Before Cleaning a Sewing Machine?
The first thing to do is to find the manual and read about how to clean your sewing machine. The manual will tell you what tools you need for basic maintenance and how to execute the cleaning. If you can’t locate your manual, ask a local sewing machine store if they have one for your model. If that fails, more than likely you can find your manual online or contact the manufacturer for a replacement.
Use these manufacturer’s links as a jumping-off point for a new manual:
|Manufacturer||Link for Sewing Machine Manual|
After you’ve read about how to clean your sewing machine and are feeling confident, it’s time for the most important cleaning step: unplugging your sewing machine! We want no electrical current running through your machine as we get all up in its metal business. Don’t risk accidentally frying yourself or your sewing machine!
I take a few other preliminary steps before attacking fiber funk:
1.) Be prepared to capture the moment.
I have my phone handy to snap photos and take video of components as I take them apart. Trust me, it’s a terrible feeling to have parts scattered around you and not remember how exactly they fit together.
2.) Contain yourself.
Your sewing machine compromises many itty-bitty screws, teeny doo-dads, and miniscule whatchamacallits (technical terms, I assure you). It’s all too easy for these small elements to roll off a table and disappear. Have a bowl nearby to stash parts as you deconstruct your machine for cleaning.
3.) Let there be light.
It’s dark inside your machine, and it’s especially dark when you put your head between the bobbin race and the room lighting (again, speaking from experience). Use task lighting to illuminate your cleaning. A head lamp — such as something you’d wear camping — would be great for this.
4.) Strip away the superfluous.
I remove the needle to avoid stabbing myself as I clean. I unthread my machine and remove the upper-thread and bobbin spools. (You can go through a lot of thread fast if a thread end gets sucked into the vacuum.) I also remove the presser foot and presser foot holder, and I lift the presser foot lever for maximum hand clearance as I clean.
Do I Need a Sewing Machine Cleaning Kit?
To clean a sewing machine, at the very least you need a small screwdriver to get inside the machine and a lint brush to brush away dirt. Most new sewing machines come with these basic cleaning tools. A well-rounded sewing machine cleaning kit could include:
- Set of screwdrivers: Flathead (most common) and Phillips (“X” shape). Make sure they’re short enough to get into tight spaces!
- Set of hex/Allen keys
- Lint brush or pointy paint brush: I’ve wanted this OXO electronic cleaning brush with retractable bristles since forever.
- Microfiber cleaning cloth: To clean the exterior.
- Tweezers: To pick out hard-to-reach lint/thread balls.
- Vacuum: Use the hose and accessories to suck out lint. If you’re feeling extra, you can get mini vacuum attachments that adapt to your regular vacuum. Or if you’re EXTRA extra, there’s even a tiny hand-held “desk” vacuum! (TBH, my household vacuum hose has worked great, but I’ve heard the mini attachments are next level.)
DO NOT use canned air to clean your sewing machine. Canned air blows dust deeper into your machine. Plus, canned air has moisture in it, and you don’t want moisture trapped in your sewing machine (especially if it’s computerized). What’s more, moisture + dust = gummy lint balls that are harder to remove from your sewing machine. It’s tempting to use canned air, but if you want a dust-free sewing machine, a vacuum is the way to go.
Can I Use Baby Oil on My Sewing Machine?
Do not use baby oil to lubricate your sewing machine. Baby oil is fragranced mineral oil, and it’s designed to be rubbed into skin, not dripped into the metal parts of your sewing machine! Be cautious about using vegetable, olive, and coconut oils in a sewing machine, too. Using non-machine oil in a sewing machine could create long-term problems. Generally, putting FOOD into a MACHINE is a bad idea, especially a finely tuned, expensive device such as a sewing machine.
Sewing machine oil and grease-like lubricants are inexpensive — less than $10 on Amazon. And because you use oil one drop at a time, a bottle of oil will last forever. I say, use the right tool for the job. Machine oil is designed for machines.
What’s more, check your manual before lubing up your sewing machine. Your manual may advise against using oil. For example, my Baby Lock’s manual says to not apply oil to the bobbin case, and that’s the ONLY mention of lubrication in the entire booklet! My machine gets oiled by a service technician when I take it in for its annual maintenance. I leave it to a professional, because I think it would be too easy to use too much lube and create a greasy, linty mess.
Ooh, here’s a hot tip for you: When you get your machine back from being serviced, sew on some fabric scraps before starting a project. Many times, extra oil from the maintenance sesh will drip on the fabric. You don’t want machine oil on your next me-made garment!
The bottom line is, you can’t clean your sewing machine too much, but you definitely can clean it too little! Give your sewing machine regular TLC — tender loving CLEANING — for maximum performance.
Over to you: How often do you clean your sewing machine? What’s your favorite cleaning tool?