Machine Maintenance - Eternal Vigilance

The Price of Smooth Production

 When the machine is running like a mouse in tennis shoes, it’s hard to take the time, stop production and oil and clean the machine. But, if you don’t your machine will let you know—eventually.

“How often do you change your needles?” is a question that comes up all the time in embroidery discussions. Invariably, someone will answer, “Every time they break.” Unfortunately, it isn’t always meant as a joke.

By the same token, we shouldn’t wait until a dry hook assembly is grinding in protest before we break out the oil. Negligence carries a high price, but it costs nothing to avoid paying that price.

Unless you are really into the technical aspects of your stitching buddy (and more power to you  if you are), chances are you will need help with electronic issues, pantograph adjustments, replacing a reciprocator, deep greasing and making sure motor and gears are in harmony. That’s where a yearly check-up from your favorite tech comes in (sort of like your yearly dental check-up).

But, in-between times, it pays to brush and clean and floss your production partner, which can ward off larger repairs and keep your stitching smooth and your production hours pleasant.

 Keep a Log

The fabric of your business is woven from fine designs, flawless production, ever-increasing skill and maintenance.  Whether you are running your embroidery heads at 600 or 1200 stitches per minute, we’re talking about 10 to 20 stitches per second. That’s a lot of movement.

I often tell folks that our ears are our best marketing tool. Listening to our customers is the best way to find out what they want and need…and what incentive will produce an order. Likewise, listening to our machines can be our best safeguard.. A broken needle makes a distinctive sound but, after a while, you will get to the point where you can hear the thread break or the sound a bobbin makes when it is starting to struggle in a drying hook assembly.

Make maintenance part of your daily routine by creating a logbook—a calendar will work nicely. Make a copy of the maintenance schedule and post it near the machine.

Your calendar might have a daily entry: Oil the hook, clean the trimmers (and any Velcro strip). Some oiling ports may only need to be attended to once a week. Anything that needs to be done in a month should be penciled in.  (A yearly calendar is a good idea to remind you of the things that don’t need to be addressed every month.)

Keep a record of the procedures that you perform on your machine and when they were done. This will keep any other operators up to speed. (A comprehensive maintenance log will also facilitate any trade-in or sale of your machine.)

Cleaning Steps

Clean your machine every quarter and use this activity as a reminder to call your machine company and see if there has been a update on the machine’s software.

Use an air compressor to blow dirt off the machine, especially behind the thread on the face of the machine. (This keeps the goods that you embroidery clean as well.) Place a magnetic strip across the threads to hold them before you turn on the air—and make sure you don’t blown in any direction you don’t want the dirt to go.

The top of your machine can gather dust as well as the greater-than-average lint that exists in an embroidery shop—and it can end up in the pantograph or the sewing head. It can also be carried down the machine on the thread itself.

Clean under the thread spools. If you are using canned air, hold it upright and don’t shake…prevents the formation of moisture.

Clean along the entire thread path and then clean the needle area. Pull down the needle bar to see the O-ring right above the needle clamp. Check it for dirt and make sure it is not drying out. (Replace, if necessary, with O-rings meant for oil and friction.)

Push up the needle bar to see the needle stop hole. It should be free of dirt as any accumulation here can wiggle into the opening when the needle is inserted—this can change the depth of the needle.

After you have removed all dust and ling all the way down to the bobbin area, use lint-free cheesecloth and some spray cleaner and wipe down the table and the tubular arms. Cleaning the tabletop prevents drag on the garment which can throw off your design’s registration. 

Clean the legs and frame and clean around the power box. Be sure the machine is off and wait 30 to 60 seconds before cleaning. The fans and the intake can get clogged, forming a blanket that will raise the temperature in the power box. (Make sure to ground yourself to the machine when cleaning the power box or circuit boards.)


Oil is cheaper than parts. Anything that moves on a machine needs oil. Oil holds down the heat from the friction that moving parts undergo as they work. Check your manual (or that video of your installation that I urge all embroiderers to make) for the oiling ports on your machine.

If you remove the covers on your machine, you will see where parts move against each other. (Move the machine manually; don’t run the machine with the covers off). Check any self-oiling junctions to make sure they are working well. If gears drive your machine, you need to grease the connections.

Some embroiderers prefer to oil in the evening so the oil can settle and they can clean up in the morning before stitching begins. Others prefer to oil in the morning so the action of the machine will work the oil into the running parts. Whichever you choose, protect your first garments with a bib of topping to catch any splatters. (Scheduling dark garments for the first run is a good idea, as the dark fabric is more forgiving to oil stains.)

Be careful not to over oil as too much can cause skipped stitches and thread breaks.

Remember that there are between 3000 and 5000 moving parts on a machine. Oil must be replaced as movement consumes it. If it sticks and doesn’t sew right—and is never oiled—the machine will eventually seize and die.

Check For Wear

Check take-up springs for wear and replace the when they are worn or bent. The take-up spring removes any excess loop in the thread, so it is important to have it performing correctly.

Renew the thread path by replacing the felts. Felt from your local fabric store will work—use the old felts as patterns. (Soak the felts in silicone to reduce the friction between the needles and the thread. This can increase the needle’s life.)

Check for bent needle bars, a bent presser foot and examine the needles for chips and burrs. (Remember that if a needle breaks, you need to find all the parts befire you start to stitch again. A piece of needle lodged in the hook assemble can cause the machine to seize, resulting in expensive repairs.)

Down Under

Remove the throat plate and clean the trimmers, removing all thread clippings that may have accumulated under the plate, Check that the picker moves freely into the hook assembly and then returns. Make sure there are no nicks or burrs. Check that the hook that catches the thread is not bent and that the Velcro or whiskers that hold the thread is clean.

The bobbin case must be in excellent condition for stellar stitching. Remove the case and clean it with some air and a soft brush. The curved metal piece on the outside of the bobbin case is called the leaf adjustment spring. Check for any accumulation of dust or lint under this piece as it maintains the tension on the bobbin thread. Long term build-up of debris can stretch and damage the spring. Neither the bobbin case nor the bobbin should be bent or out of round.

The rotary hook assembly where the bobbin resides should be kept free of dust and lint. Thread can wrap around the shaft and push the basket toward the needle, which can make the machine seem to have a timing problem. A daily drop of oil in the raceway of the hook assembly will help prevent heat and wear. It is important to get the oil between the hook and the basket. Use a one-drop applicator or a syringe to get it where it needs to be—which is not on the bobbin thread.

Your Machine’s Best Friend

One of the best lessons I ever learned from an auto mechanic: “Oil is an engine’s best friend—and your cheapest mechanic.”

Oil is any machine’s best friend and, considering that some embroidery equipment costs as much or more than your favorite ride (and can earn the money to pay for that vehicle) it pays to be vigilant when it comes to maintenance—especially preventive  maintenance.