Since posting my first sewing-machine piece here on my blog, I’ve received a comment asking for tips and tricks on how to service, clean and oil these machines. I figured I’d write up a posting here, to answer that question in greater detail.
Disclaimer etc: I am not a qualified, certified, expert, professional, master machine-repairman by any stretch of fact, fiction or the most rabid and erratic of imaginations. This is merely a small side-hobby of mine; but everything written hereafter, has been done so with the backing of research and experience gained from practice. I have serviced vintage and antique sewing-machines as a hobby, and have restored some for friends and family.
The information pertaining to sewing-machines as mentioned in this posting is strictly for older machines which are mechanically driven, and not those which are generally, post-1960s, which tend to be operated more via electronics and computerised systems instead of cranks, levers, cams and pistons.
How Does a Sewing Machine Work?
I figured I’d do a bit about this first, since it might bear importance later on.
Be they 100 years old, 150 years old, 50 years old, or brand new, all sewing-machines operate in the same basic manner.
Having prepared the machine for sewing, the following actions occur:
1. The needle descends and pierces the fabric. It retracts. As the needle rises up, it leaves a small loop of thread on the underside of the fabric.
2. The transverse shuttle/vibrating shuttle/rotating hook/oscilating hook (dependent on machine’s age and design) swings around. The nose of the shuttle or the swinging hook, catches the loop of thread left by the upper needle.
3. The loop of thread passes over and around the shuttle or the hook, which pulls the bottom thread through the loop as it goes along.
4. At the top of the machine, the thread take-up lever jerks upwards. This pulls the stitch tight and closes the loop.
5. The feed-dogs perform a four-motion movement. Up, back, down, forwards. This pushes the fabric up against the presser-foot, and shoves it back, out of the machine.
After those five steps, the whole process repeats again. Sometimes as slow as hand-sewing, or, as fast as you can run the machine.
Alright…let’s get to what you’ll need to do.
*SPECIAL NOTE: The instructions in this posting are on how to clean, oil and operate your machine. NOT on how to repair them or fix broken parts. By following the instructions in this tutorial, you understand that your machine is in WORKING ORDER, but requires cleaning and general maintenance*
Tools and Equipment
This pertains specifically to old Singer sewing machines, but most of these things you can use to service any antique or vintage sewing-machine.
You will need…
I cannot stress this enough. If you don’t have a pair of these…forget it.
You must have a pair. There is absolutely NO other way to get into the TINY little recesses of the machine to dig out the dust, lint, fluff, dead insects, broken needle-tips and other crap that builds up in a sewing-machine over the course of decades.
Forget about the Dyson or the Hoover or the Miele. They can suck like a tornado, they will not remove the bits of grime that are glued and stuck onto the machine, or which are hiding in tiny, inaccessible places. Without needle-nosed pliers, it’s almost pointless to start.
Tissues or Bog-Roll
Tissues or toilet paper to clean, wipe, polish, stop oil from dripping, etc. Don’t just take one or two sheets. Keep a box of the things next to you while you do this.
I think the Yanks call these things ‘Q-tips’. Everywhere else in the world, they’re called cotton-buds. Those little plastic shafts with fluffy cotton balls on the end, about two inches long.
You need these to clean, wipe or polish areas of the machine which a tissue or other polishing-cloth won’t reach.
A Powerful Torch
Personally, my eyesight is not good. But this would apply to anyone. You need a bright, powerful (preferably small) torch (‘flashlight’ to the Yanks) while you work. This is so that you can shine extra light into the really dark, tiny, tucked-away places of the machine where conventional lights won’t be able to reach.
A Miniature Screwdriver
Cute little thing, isn’t it? This little Singer screwdriver (or one like it) would’ve come with most vintage Singers when they left the factory, or your local shop. This is my screwdriver
Some sewing-machines come with these little wotsits already supplied. Very handy. I know for a fact that Singer machines were sold with their own personal screwdrivers. If you have one, good. If you don’t, toddle off to find the very smallest screwdriver you can find. A flat-head screwdriver, by the way. Ideally, the size should be 3mm wide.
*SPECIAL NOTE: For owners of Singer sewing machines with bentwood cases. If you don’t have the key for your case and the machine is locked inside, you can use a 3mm flat-head screwdriver as a makeshift key. It does not damage the lock and will serve the purpose admirably*
The screwdriver will be essential for…well…undoing screws and removing plates.
Get yourself a can of general lubricating oil. Something that’s used on things like hinges and suchlike.
THIS IS NOT TO BE USED TO LUBRICATE THE MACHINE.
The purpose of this oil is to lubricate the case-lock which holds the machine-case onto the machine-base. And this is just about the only thing that it should be used for.
Sewing Machine Oil
You will also need a bottle or can of sewing-machine oil. Ideally, you want sewing-machine SPECIFIC oil. But if you can’t, a high-grade, thin, runny machine-oil, suitable for sewing-machines, will suffice. Just don’t use 3-in-1 oil. It may say that it’s for sewing-machines, but I have it on good authority that this stuff is not the best thing to use. Personally, I use SuperLube machine-oil, which was the one recommended to me by my local repairman. You can buy this oil from your local hardware shop or your local sewing-shop in little 125ml bottles.
Eyedropper or Syringe
This is to distribute the oil around the machine. If you have a spray-can of machine-oil, of the type described above, then you can use the little plastic tube that comes with the can instead, but if the oil comes in a little glass or plastic bottle, then you’ll want something like an eyedropper or a syringe.
Some of the places that you need to apply oil to in a sewing-machine are quite inaccessible to a big, bulky bottle. This is where a local-application tube, or an eyedropper can come in handy.
A Bowl or Plate
Something that you don’t use anymore. This is to house any screws, nuts, feet, plates etc, that you remove from the machine during the course of your restoration. These things are TINY and they will roll away from you, given the chance. And if your machine is 50, 70, 90, 120 years old, chances are, if you lose a particular piece, you won’t be able to just go out and buy a new one.
You’ll also want a tube of metal-polishing paste. You can get this stuff from hardware stores and car-maintenance shops and suchlike. Personally, I use a German-made product called Simichrome, it does the job on most metals with ease (except brass, I think), and the results will look stunning.
If possible, you should get a hold of your sewing-machine’s manual. Now I realise that if you’re reading this, your machine is probably one that you picked up at an antiques shop, a flea-market, or which you inherited from granny (that’s how I got mine!) and that half the crap that should have come with it, is missing (just like with me!).
Don’t worry. You can buy (or sometimes if you search really hard, download for free) facsimiles of original sewing-machine manuals.
Having the manual is a big help for obvious reasons. It shows you how the machine goes together, how to oil it, what all the parts are, and most importantly, how to use it!
Right…Got all those things? Let’s get started.
Cleaning the Machine
I’m going to assume that the machine you have is a really old one. By that, I mean at least 60 years old. No later than about 1955-1960 (after that, the technology kinda changes a fair bit and this sort of information isn’t as pertinent to more modern machines). Most likely, it looks something like this:
This little sweetheart is a Singer 128 model, and is representative of the kinds of machines seen around the turn of the last century. For those not very good with dates, that’s ca. 1890-1910. Possibly, you might have a slightly later model, such as a Singer 99-series model, from ca. 1920-1960. They look like this:
Or perhaps you’ve got one of those big, old foot-driven treadle-machines, which look like this?
Regardless of what machine you have, if it looks like those (or is very similar to those) and is of advanced age, this tutorial should cover all the necessary directions for getting it running again.
The first process of cleaning is de-linting or de-fluffing the machine.
These old machines have a LOT of places where dust, broken needles, fluff, lint, loose thread, bread-crumbs, loose diamonds and other bits and pieces can fall in and hibernate. They jam up the machine and make it difficult to run (or make it run not at all!). It is essential to remove as much of this stuff as possible before moving onto the next step.
When cleaning the machine, you want to start with ONE area at a time. Broadly speaking, a sewing-machine is divided into four basic areas:
1. Needlebar Assembly
The needle-bar is the area of the machine at the head of the arm (the bit that you pass the fabric under). This is comprised of the…
– Presser-foot bar.
2. Bobbin Area
The bobbin area is directly beneath the needle-bar and presser-foot. It is comprised of the…
– Oscilating hook/rotating hook/shuttle.
3. The Undercarriage
The underside of the machine is where all the secondary cranks and pistons hide out. This is accessed by unscrewing any securing-bolts or nuts, and lifting the whole machine UP and BACK on a pair of hinges. This is where you would traditionally store things like spare needles, manuals, bobbins, scissors, etc. Small fiddly things that you might need. You need to clean in here to ensure that the bobbin-case and the oscilating hook (or other stitch-making apparatus) works properly.
4. Handwheel Assembly
The handwheel assembly and clutch-wheel is the part of the machine right at the back, on your right. This is comprised of…
– The handwheel (big wheel).
– the clutch-wheel (small wheel inside the big wheel. Also called a stop-motion wheel).
– Drive-belt (if your machine is electrically powered, or a mechanical treadle-machine).
– Hand-crank (if your machine is manually-powered).
Now that I’ve labelled those areas, pick one, and start the de-linting or de-fluffing process. This involves disassembling the area to as far a level as you’re comfortable with/capable of, and poking around with your tweezers (the all-important needle-nosed tweezers I mentioned earlier!) to remove any and all fluff, dust, hair, lint and thread that you might find.
Take your time with this. These old machines gather dust and crud like the Amish gather weaving-looms.
Work through each part of the machine, area by area, systematically. After delinting/defluffing, you want to take your tissues and wipe the area as clean as you can. You might also like to squirt a TEENSY bit of polishing-paste to clean a particular area and give it more of a sparkle. This does a lot more than make it look nice – it helps the machine to run better.
A Word of Caution
In old Singer sewing-machines (and, I believe, in other makes and models), there is often a piece of RED FELT hiding inside the bobbin-well. LEAVE IT ALONE!!!
It is NOT lint. It is NOT junk. It is part of the machine’s design. Do NOT remove it. It is important. Exactly why it is important, I will explain later.
This is the red felt. I’ve included these photographs at the request of a reader, who wanted to see its exact placement within the machine:
If the machine looks a bit weird, its because I unscrewed and removed the needle-plate underneath the presser-foot to take these photographs.
In these photos, you can also see the bobbin (round spool), bobbin-case (thing that the round spool is housed in), bobbin-release button (round button with crosshatching on top) and the feed-dogs (the raised bits with little corrugations on top).
After thoroughly de-linting and wiping down every part of the machine where lint is want to hide (take your time with this, trust me, there’s a LOT of places!), then you move onto the fun part.
Oiling your Machine
Right. You’ve pulled the whole thing apart. You’ve de-linted the machine, you’ve wiped it down, you’ve polished it nice and clean. Now you need to oil it.
Do NOT skimp on this step. Trust me, it’s important. Don’t ever worry about putting in too much oil. Better that the machine should drown in happiness, rather than break it’s back from overwork.
Now that you have thoroughly cleaned the ENTIRE machine, you need to oil it.
Take out your bottle of high-grade machine-oil, made for, or suitable for use in sewing-machines.
If you have a can of the stuff with a local-application tube, even better. If not, then also take out of its place of secretion, your eyedropper or syringe.
What you want to do now is to oil your machine. This is not hard to do. And to be honest, it’s kinda fun. It may take a while, but don’t give up hope. Just keep squirting and testing, squirting and testing.
Oiling a sewing machine is easy. Just follow the golden rule: Oil anything that moves. And oil it more than less.
Now, your machine might run jerkily and stiffly, or, as was in my case, it literally would NOT run AT ALL, and that’s with considerable effort put into trying to rotate the handwheel.
In either case, the procedure is the same.
Take your oil and drip it into, and onto any place in the machine where something moves, or something rubs up against something else. The key spots to oil are the key spots where I mentioned earlier, you need to clean. The four main parts of the machine. The needle-bar area, the bobbin-area, the handwheel-area and the underside.
How long does all this take? I can’t tell you. It’s dependent on the machine. With my first machine, which didn’t move at all before it was oiled, it took nearly an hour (about 45-50 minutes). Yours might take longer, or shorter than that.
Don’t worry about getting oil all over the place. These machines are designed to put up with that. More oil is better than not enough. So squirt or drip it all over the machine in places where it needs to go.
Your machine may have a series of holes all over it. Such as along the top of the arm, around the handwheel-area, at the top of the needle-bar area, and so-forth. These are OILING HOLES. Yay! You can pour as much oil down there as you can fit. The oil will seep into places such as pistons, rods, shafts and cams, and get them to wake up and start moving.
A word, though. Be sure that you clean these holes BEFORE you pour oil down them. You don’t want a dead blowfly inside your machine-head oiling hole to be sucked down into the guts of your great-grandmother’s Singer, to be mashed up into bug-goo.
While you oil the machine, periodically operate it. Pump the treadle, press the foot-pedal, push the knee-lever or turn the crank-handle. This will encourage the machine to move, and this, in turn, will spread the oil further around the machine. Keep oiling, pausing, operating, oiling, pausing, operating, over and over and over.
Oh, and remember that red felt I mentioned earlier? The stuff that hides in the bobbin-area?
Drench it in oil.
It’s there to act as a sponge. Squirt a whole eyedropper of oil onto it. This will keep it moist and happy, and will stop the shuttle or the oscilating/rotating hook from scratching against the metal near the felt, and prevent wear, tear and possible damage.
When have you put on enough oil?
You’ll have put on enough oil when the machine runs freely. You should be able to put your foot down, you should be able to press the knee-bar, you should be able to treadle like an Olympic cyclist, you should be able to crank at the fastest possible speed, and the machine offers no resistance at all.
At the same time, the machine should be a lot quieter. It won’t rattle, squeak, jerk, groan or shake the entire table when it runs. If it does, then it needs more oil.
“I’m done…Now what?”
Okay. You’ve finished the entire project! Now wasn’t that fun?
Once the machine is running and you’re hankering to become the next Savile Row master-tailor, you need to keep your machine in good condition.
Basically, this means keeping the dust off it, changing any broken needles, finding accessories, spare parts and other doodads for it, and keeping it oiled.
These old machines drink oil. And it’s important to keep them hydrated. After any significant project (say you just finished making a whole new set of slip-covers for the pillows and cushions of that big, three-seater couch and two armchairs in the living-room), you should oil the machine all over again. Not much, maybe 2-3 drops in each place. When you’ve done that, run the machine at-speed for about 2-3 minutes, to work the oil in, and then put it away.
Given regular maintenance, a vintage or antique sewing-machine will run for another 100 years. These machines were incredibly tough and they were designed to sew together anything short of sheet-metal. They will EASILY chomp through canvas, leather, denim, or even multiple layers of paper (my record is 56 pages, or 28 sheets of paper…I used the machine to sew together it’s own instruction manual!). Being made of steel and wood, there’s almost nothing on these machines that will ever wear out, apart from tires, protective rubber feet, belts and needles. These can generally be easily replaced, either with reproduction parts, original parts, or from materials jerry-rigged for the purpose (I have seen people who re-belted their old treadle or electromechanical machines using nylon rope, to great effect, I might add).
Dos and Don’ts with Old Machines
DO – Take your time with cleaning and oiling it. Nothing was ever gained by trying to rush something, when restoring a vintage or antique *anything*
DO – Use the proper equipment, materials and tools. You won’t get anywhere if you don’t have the right stuff to do it with.
DO – make sure that you cover EVERY part of the machine when you service it.
DO – check for things such as broken and/or bent needles (if such, then remove them), worn belts or tires, missing plates, bobbins etc. Finding reproduction or original parts for your machine will depend on make, model and of course, age. Singer being the most popular brand, it will be easier to find parts for a Singer machine than almost any other).
DO NOT – run the machine with the presser-foot down, and no fabric between the foot and the teeth of the feed-dogs. This will cause the teeth to scrape against the bottom of the presser-foot, and cause unnecessary wear and damage.
DO NOT – force the machine to operate when it won’t do so. Just keep oiling it.
DO NOT – operate an electrically-powered machine UNLESS you are either damn sure that the electrics are intact, or unless you’ve just had the electrics checked by a certified sewing-machine repairman, or qualified electrician. Don’t forget, these machines are about 75% metal. You don’t want to zap yourself making a quilt.
To the person who inspired this posting (I’m going to assume you know who you are), I hope this answers everything you needed to know about restoring your Singer sewing-machine. If it doesn’t, you’re welcome to post a comment or a question and I’ll do my level best to answer it.