What To Do When Your Sewing Machine Gets Jammed: Tips from a Tech

It’s the night before Christmas Eve and you’re frantically stitching new PJs for Jonny, or maybe it’s the day before the school play and you’re working on Little Red Riding Hood’s cape, or maybe you’re enjoying a little quiet afternoon sewing, when suddenly everything stops—the needle, the hand wheel, your heart.

You’re in a jam—or at least your project is.

Carefully, you free the needle from your strangled project, lift the presser foot, and release your project. There it is: a huge thread caterpillar on the back of your beautiful sewing.

Before you throw your bobbin case open or (as I always do) frantically call your mother—fear not, we’ve got some tips for you from our friend Rob Appell—host of Man Sewing and sewing machine repair expert.

Normally, when your machines is jammed, it’s because there’s a problem with the threading. Sometimes, it’s a tension issue. Sometimes, the thread doesn’t quite catch. Sometimes, your needle is slightly bent—and you can’t even see it. Sometimes a loose thread in your bobbin gets tangled. Sometimes, when that happens, I use expletives.

So, what should you do when things get tangled?

Repairing a sewing machine with Rob Appell
Screenshot from Rob Appell

Assess the Stitch-uation

Take a step back and make sure your machine is properly set up for the type of sewing you are doing. From free-motion quilting to a simple zig-zag, each type of sewing requires the machine to be set up a certain way. Check your thread type, tension, and holder. Check your needle and make sure it’s not bent. Check the settings on your machine and make sure you’ve got the right presser foot.

Re-thread the entire machine with the presser foot up

When the presser foot is up—the tension discs are wide open, allowing the thread to fall between the discs and taken into the proper tension when you start sewing. Threading with the presser foot up prevents the tension issues that create big knots of thread (or the dreaded thread caterpillar) on the back of your project—not the bobbin. Be sure to check out Rob’s video addressing thread tension (and all the stress that comes with it) for more information on addressing wonky stitching.

Change the needle

Changing out needles is recommended after 10 hours of active stitching or after four full bobbins. Always put in a fresh needle if you have any reason to believe that your needle hit something other than fabric or could be bent. Use the right needles for the job. If you are noticing that the machine seems to struggle when going through layers of fabric, it’s time for a new needle. Rob also recommends a new needle whenever you start a machine quilting project.

Call for help

If you aren’t sure, ask your sewing machine repair tech. A good tech will help you troubleshoot the issue. It’s important to have someone you trust service you machine. If they are familiar with it, they will be able to tell if it is a quick over-the-phone fix or if it’s time to take the machine in for a tune-up.

Don’t force the machine

Forcing doesn’t solve the problem—it makes it worse. Sewing machines function on precision. If something is off, it needs to be addressed before you keep going. If not, you run the risk of ruining your project, breaking needles, and damaging your machine.

Want more words of wisdom from the expert? Check out Rob’s tips on buying or maintaining your sewing machine.