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Sewing machine maintenance (Singer 20U-53)

Alright, the wedding dress was all finished and it was time to finally start using the new sewing machine, the Singer 20U-53. I grabbed a piece of random cotton fabric and started test sewing. Oh the horror when I realized that the seam looked like crap! I cursed myself for not testing the machine better before I bought it. That time I noticed that the thread tension needed a bit of work but I honestly thought that it just needed some minor fiddling. As it turned out, no minor fiddling could fix this mess. For a week I was sure that I’d bought a (darn expensive) lemon. The worst thing wasn’t the purchase price but the fact that it’s hard to find, and very expensive to hire, a repairman for an industrial sewing machine. This was something I was aware of when I bought the “lemon” but being my usual positive self, I said to myself “what could possibly go wrong!?”. Famous last words, I know :)

The black thread is the bobbin thread and the white is the needle thread.

The black thread is the bobbin thread and the white is the needle thread.

As the first shock settled, I began diagnose the sewing machine. At a first glance, I thought that it was skipping stitches. However, a closer inspection revealed that the needle thread didn’t pull up properly from the bobbin thread side of the fabric. After browsing the Internet for some miracle cure, I put together a troubleshooting list of things that might be wrong and how to fix it.

  • Check the needle thread tension
  • Check the bobbin thread tension. It shouldn’t be too loose or too hard. When holding the thread and dropping the bobbin + case, it should slide down ~5cm.
  • Change needle. It’s best to use a needle that is appropriate for the fabric and the thread you’re using. Make sure it’s properly inserted.
  • Re-thread the machine (both needle and bobbin thread). Consult the machine manual for this.

Those are the first easy fixes. If that doesn’t do the trick, it’s time to grab your toolbox and open up the machine.

  • The needle thread tension. Pick it to pieces and clean everything. Small thread pieces and lint could be your mortal enemy.
  • The bobbin thread case. This needs to be cleaned as well.
  • Clean all the cogwheels. Remove old grease and oil. Remember to perform the cleaning with the right tools that doesn’t leave any lint behind. I found a can of 5-56 and toothpicks very useful.
  • Oil the machine using sewing machine oil. For the love of all that’s holy, do not use canola oil (it’s not good for the machine and rancid oil smells like shit). Judging by the smell when I loosened a couple of the screws, I wouldn’t be surprised if the former owner used the wrong oil for said screws… Depending on the sewing machine you’ve got, you might need to grease some of the gears. I have yet to do this but it looks like sewing machine oil works fine, at least for a while.
  • It could also be that the timing is messed up. Make sure that the needle doesn’t bump into anything on its way down. I considered changing plate and dog feeds just to make sure that this wasn’t the issue.

I don’t think the grease should have this yellow colour and be that sticky. Some 5-56 dissolved the grease enough for me to remove it with a toothpick. As a temporary solution, I applied sewing machine oil. Also notice the large piece of felt. That felt is supposed to be drenched in oil and the same goes for every piece of felt inside the machine. In my case, I think the biggest issues were the oiling and the threading. At first, I threaded the machine according to a manual for a “Singer 20U”. The problem was that it wasn’t made for the 53 model so the information was only partially accurate. I learned that even the slightest deviation from the intended threading managed to screw everything up.

New oil made a huge difference. You could easily tell the difference just by listening to the machine working. Prior to oiling it had a “clonky wonky” sound and afterwards, the sound was much lower and smoother. When I asked the prior owner about how often I should oil the machine she said “once a year maybe”. No wonder the machine was dryer than the Sahara desert under the hood!