Taking Care of Things

Speaking of taking care of things, how long has it been since you’ve

* changed your machine needle?
* changed your rotary cutter blade?
* wiped the lint and gunk off your cutting mat and table?
* wiped down your ironing board?
* cleaned your iron?
* cleaned the lint out from under the machine needle, around the bobbin case?
* had your machine serviced (if it needs that from time to time)?
* wiped off your sewing surface?
* swept or vacuumed for lint, threads, and errant pins?

This is the small stuff of maintenance. I tend to put off changing my rotary cutter blade, but I’m always glad when I go ahead. It is safer and I get better cutting. (See my post on rotary cutters for more information.) 

I love cleaning up to start a new project. Fabric from the last one gets re-stashed, and any odd notions get put away. I wipe the cutting table and vacuum the floors. Usually I wipe off my sewing surface, too, but in truth I don’t always remember. The cleared, cleaned surfaces make me feel good about beginning something new.

As to the needle, when it’s dull it needs to punch its way through fabric layers, making a popping sound. When it is sharp, it doesn’t make that noise. In addition, your machine motor needs to work a little harder with a dull needle, and you may hear the machine laboring.

Experts recommend changing the needle every 8-10 hours of sewing (machine time, not cutting, pressing, and pondering). That may not sound like a lot, but if your machine stitches 1,000 stitches per minute, that’s actually about a HALF MILLION stitches! While you’re stitching, you may sew through several layers of fabric and batting, and occasionally hit pins. (I do!) Your needle takes a lot of abuse.

Take a look at some great photos by Schmetz Needles USA of a needle that looks sharp. Once magnified with increasing power, you can see the burr on the tip. A dull needle doesn’t do your machine or your project any good.

And please dispose of your needles carefully. I use an empty yogurt cup with a hole poked through the lid. When I get rid of needles, bent pins, and dead rotary cutter blades, they go in there. And the cup is always safely out of reach of children!

Does your machine need maintenance? Last summer I had my main DSM serviced for the first time. It cost less than $100 and assured me everything is in good working order. But basic maintenance begins with you and is easy to do. (Consult your machine’s manual. If you don’t have a copy, you may be able to find it online.) As with a dull needle, a dirty machine, clogged with lint, makes the motor work harder. The extra work sounds different. You may not be able to describe the difference, but you can probably hear it.

Maintenance you can and should do includes cleaning the lint out of the works. A soft brush may have come with the machine. If not, small, soft make-up brushes work well. Cotton swabs and tweezers may come in handy, too.

Remove the foot, needle, and face plate. Take out the bobbin. You may want to remove the bobbin case, too. Again, consult your manual. Use the brush to loosen and grab lint around the bobbin case, in the feed dogs, and around other surfaces. The cotton swab and tweezers may help, depending on where and how your mess is lodged. Some manufacturers recommend using compressed air to remove built-up lint gunk. Others warn against it. Please check first.

You may wonder if and how to oil your machine. Many modern machines have self-lubricating parts and don’t need oiling. Others have simple routines recommended for oiling regularly.

Your machine’s manufacturer probably has a recommended cycle for shop maintenance. Consult your manual or dealer for advice.

How often should you clean? That will depend partly on what thread you use (some is lintier than others) and on your fabrics and/or battings. As a quilter, I rarely care what color of bobbin thread I use while piecing, and I sew until it runs out. I clean every 3-5 times I change my bobbin. If I’m changing the bobbin and the mess is evident, I clean.

(A DSM is a domestic sewing machine, as opposed to “commercial” sewing machine or long-arm.) The long-arm bobbin case gets brushed out more often, usually each time I put a fresh bobbin in, and depending on the project more often than that.

As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Taking care of things now can make your quilting more pleasurable, improve the quality of your projects, and even save you money in the long run. Seems like a pretty good investment to me!

What maintenance routines do you follow? Are there other basic routines you recommend? Let us know in the comments. And don’t be afraid to respond to each other, too. We’re all friendly here! 


22 thoughts on “Taking Care of Things

  1. jmn111

    I’m pretty good at doing all of those tasks. Always change the needle for each new project (sometimes oftener depending on how much sewing I need to do say on a quilt). I both sharpen and change rotary cutter blades regularly. I absolutely have to vacuum the carpet in my sewing room because otherwise I collect monster pins hidden in the pile and they are lethal!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I do love vacuuming my studio (not other places) for reasons I’ll never understand. I don’t usually drop pins, but that isn’t never. So yeah, that’s just one more way to take care of unseen dangers!

  2. katechiconi

    Doing all that stuff is part of my ritual when I finish a quilt. I’m lucky to have polished wooden floorboards in my sewing room, so I hear pins fall and can retrieve them, and a sweep and mop out does the trick once the project’s done. I also clean and de-lint my machine, change the needle and wipe down my cutting mat. I have a rotary cutter blade sharpener on my Christmas/birthday list, and always make sure I have a new blade ready in case the current one starts skipping threads halfway through a big cutting job. I also use a lint roller to get loose threads off my flannel design wall. I love the look of a clean, tidy room at the start of a project. It doesn’t stay that way, of course, but it helps things come clear in my head.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      One more way we’re alike: “I love the look of a clean, tidy room at the start of a project. It doesn’t stay that way, of course, but it helps things come clear in my head.” 🙂

  3. zippyquilts

    I usually do 5 things to “clean up” at the beginning of each project, and sometimes even each time I enter the studio. It doesn’t take that long and it keeps down the clutter.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      That’s a great idea, but I would probably lose count before I got to 5… But I do tend to put stuff away regularly, not just between projects. And you’re right, it doesn’t take long.

  4. Shasta

    I try to clean the machine and area every time I finish a project. That is not usually enough though, since I often work on more than one project at a time, so I do try to clean in between too. Changing the needle and rotary blade – I have to admit that I usually wait until I “need” to do it, and it usually takes me a while to get around doing it even when I know they need changing.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes, I wish I had a better habit about the blade and needle. I tend to put them off, too, despite my intentions. But as said above, I’m always glad when I go ahead.

  5. KerryCan

    Guilty, guilty, guilty! I don’t do enough of any of these things nor do I clean the lint and mess off my loom . . . Okay, maybe today’s the day . . .

  6. allisonreidnem

    Like yourself and many in the comments above, I like to do those tidy up maintenance tasks at the end of a project and enjoy starting a new project in a cleared room with sharp tools. I do use a domestic vacuum cleaner to suck out the last bits of lint from around the bobbin race – taking care to put all the loose needle plate screws etc well out of the way first!

  7. snarkyquilter

    One item I add to the clean up/maintenance ones already mentioned is to sort through fabric scraps once I finish a project, decide what to save, cut likely looking bits into squares and strips for my scrap collections, and then stow the bits in the appropriate containers. If anyone wants to come over and vacuum my studio please let me know.

  8. Andi

    I was just thinking about maintenance! My little Janome Gold is quite the workhorse. I faithfully clean lint from the bobbin case every third or fourth time I replace bobbin thread, and she has never had any other work done!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      My Elna is made by the same company (and in fact my Kenmore was, too.) I treat them well and have never had trouble. The maintenance last year on the Elna was just a basic cleanup, more preventative than anything. Thanks for commenting today.

  9. shoreacres

    And there’s the key word, in your last comment: “preventative.” We do it with our cars, my customers do it with their boats, and we do it with our health. As my quilting granny used to say, “A stitch in time saves nine.” 🙂


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