a needle of sewing machine closeup

Tangled or knotted threads, broken needles, bunched fabric – these are just some of the all-too-common problems you might encounter when using a sewing machine. Although frustrating, these glitches can easily be solved with a little know-how.

A lot of the time such issues may be due to problems with your machine. Other times, it is a case of user error: we’ll explain how to troubleshoot both types of issues in this article. 

A quick disclaimer before we dive right in: remember to always refer to your machine’s user manual before taking advice. This should be the first place you look for solutions to your problems. But if you still have no luck, then try our troubleshooting tips below.

17 common sewing machine problems with troubleshooting tips

1. Fabric bunching while sewing

Fabric bunching can be a nasty surprise. Although the top looks ok as you’re sewing, you turn your fabric over and the fabric underneath is bunched and puckered, so you have to unpick and start again.

There are a few reasons this could be happening.

  • Thread tension may be too high. Lower the thread tension and see if this fixes the problem.
  • A dull needle can also cause bunching, especially with woven fabrics. This is because the needle is not sharp enough to puncture the fabric properly, causing it to pucker. You should make sure to change your needle regularly, at least every eight sewing hours.
  • If your thread tension is ok and your needle is nice and sharp, then the problem may be how you’re maneuvering the fabric. Pushing the fabric through your machine or pulling it from behind can cause uneven feed and puckering, among other issues. Instead, you should always let the feed dogs on your sewing machine carry the fabric through while you simply guide it.

2. Fabric not feeding

If your fabric is not feeding through your machine properly on its own, it could be that the feed dogs are in the dropped position. Check that they are in the raised position: this is usually a lever on the side of your machine. 

If you don’t know where to find the lever, consult your instruction manual!

Another common culprit for the fabric not feeding is the stitch length being accidentally set to zero. Change this back to 2.5 or so, and see if this resolves the issue.

If you have a vintage sewing machine, you will also usually have a knob on top of the machine that weakens or strengthens the pressure on the foot to lower down onto the feed dogs. If this pressure is too light the fabric will not feed properly, so try increasing the pressure by turning this knob.

3. Skipping stitches

Skipped stitches are when the machine does not sew nice, even stitches properly. This may appear as stitches that are missing, not properly sewn down, or uneven in length and can be due to a few different things.

  • If your machine is improperly threaded, this can result in it skipping stitches. Rethread your machine from top and bottom and make sure your bobbin is not in backward.
  • Another reason may be that your needle is dull and needs to be replaced. Like with fabric bunching, if the needle isn’t sharp enough, it will not pierce the fabric properly, causing it to skip stitches.
  • You may also be using the wrong type of needle entirely. Make sure you are using the correct needle for your fabric: ball-point for knits, a needle with a larger eye for topstitching with heavy thread, a denim needle for jeans, and so on.
  • Finally, skipping stitches may be a sign that the machine needs to be cleaned, as dust or lint has accumulated inside. Unthread your sewing machine, take out the bobbin and clean it well. Your machine’s instruction manual will tell you how to clean and oil it correctly.

4. Machine keeps jamming

Another common issue is your machine jamming: the threads may lock up or the machine itself locks up. The first thing to do in this situation is to rethread your machine completely. If this doesn’t work, there are a few more steps you can take.

  • Thread jamming can happen when the thread tails are too short and they are immediately drawn into the machine when you start to sew. Along with getting tangled and jamming up the machine, this can also cause your needle thread to fall out. Make sure the thread tails are at least 6 inches long each when you start sewing. It is also a good idea to hold the thread tails when you start sewing and apply light pressure to stop them getting drawn into the machine.
  • Another reason for threads jamming and machine seizing up is that the needle has pushed the fabric down into the machine. This can happen if you start sewing right on the edge of the fabric. Avoid this issue by starting your stitches at least a quarter inch from the top of the fabric. After a couple of stitches going forward, reverse back to sew to the edge.  As the thread has already locked into fabric, it won’t cause knotting at the edge or tangled threads, so the machine will not jam up.

5. Threads keep breaking or shedding

Frustratingly, the thread can sometimes break or shed as you are sewing. This is most common with the spool thread, though it can occur with the bobbin thread too, and manifests as a broken or frayed thread.

  • Often this happens because the upper thread is tangled around the machine, and may mean a bigger spool cap is needed. When this happens, unthread the top, put a bigger spool cap on, and rethread.
  • The upper thread may also be catching on a notch on the spool. Check the spool and flip it so the notch is on the opposite side to where the thread is drawn into the machine.
  • If your bobbin thread is breaking or shedding, a damaged bobbin may be to blame. Check your bobbin for rough edges that could be catching the thread and replace it with a new one if needed.

6. Bobbin problems

Common bobbin issues include tangling and knotting of the bobbin thread inside the bobbin casing, as well as incorrect bobbin tension. To address these issues, take your bobbin out and rethread it. Pull out the bobbin thread to make sure it is smooth and free of knots or bumps.

If you still have problems, it could be that you are threading the bobbin the wrong way in the casing. If the thread isn’t going the right way it will still pull through but it can’t move as easily, so may cause tension and other issues. Check your bobbin is positioned so that it unwinds in a clockwise direction.

Finally, an accumulation of lint and dust may be the cause of your bobbin problems. Clean the bobbin area with the lint brush that came with your machine. You can also use a photography brush for this, but don’t use compressed air as this will push the dust further in. 

7. Bent or broken needles

It can be quite a shock when your needle suddenly breaks or bends while sewing. However, this is not an uncommon problem.

  • One cause for this is simple wear and tear. Needles are not made to last forever – remember that you should change your sewing machine needle after around eight hours of sewing. If you do not change your needle regularly, it will become dull and will not be able to pierce the fabric properly, causing it to bend or even break.
  • Additionally, you should make sure that you are using the correct needle for your project and for the fabric you are sewing. For example, stretch fabrics require a ball-point needle. Using the wrong type of needle could also be the cause of your needle issues.

8. Threader is not working

Many modern machines come with an automatic threader, meaning you no longer need to squint and poke around, trying to get your spool thread through the needle. However, sometimes the threader fails to thread the needle, or may not get close to it at all.

  • First of all, make sure the presser foot is down. If it is in the raised position, it may be blocking the thread from threading the needle.
  • You should also check that your needle is not bent and that it is inserted correctly. Otherwise, the threader may not be able to thread it properly.

9. Unable to thread the needle

If you have a machine without a threader, you’ll have to thread it the old-fashioned way – by hand! 

This is relatively simple on most machines, but in some cases you may struggle to thread the needle, or find the thread immediately falls out again. This usually depends on your machine and the threading method you are using.

If you cannot easily get the thread into your sewing machine needle, check the needle is in the highest position. If the needle is lowered, it may be difficult or impossible to access.

10. Wavy seams in stretch fabrics

When sewing on stretch fabric you may find that your seam comes out wavy and unsightly. There are a few reasons for this, some being machine issues, while others are simply user error.

  • Firstly, if your seams are wavy on stretch fabrics, make sure you are using the correct stitch. Straight stitches don’t work on stretch fabrics: you need to use a zig-zag stitch instead. Choose a zig-zag stitch, set the length to around 2.5mm, and select middle tension.
  • You may also be causing those wavy seams yourself by the way you are sewing. It can be tempting to stretch the fabric as you sew, but this leads to seam and other problems. Remember that you should always just guide your fabric through the machine.
  • If you are still having issues with wavy seams, you can try using a twin needle, which is specifically designed to create neat, straight seams on stretch fabric. Make sure to thread the left needle first, then the one on the right, using your spool thread. If you do this correctly, the two threads will be nicely in line with no tangles, and ready to sew two perfectly straight lines of stitches.

11. Machine is running too slowly

If you find your machine is running slowly and doesn’t seem to be stitching as normal, the first question you should ask yourself is “when did I last clean my machine?”. 

Sewing machines easily accumulate dust and lint through regular use, meaning they should be cleaned regularly.

Lint or dust under the needle, in the bobbin area, or in other parts of the machine clogs things up, meaning the machine doesn’t work as fast as it should. 

Take out the brush that came with your machine and clean it thoroughly– check your user manual for advice on how to do this for the model you have.

In particular, make sure you remove lint or dust under the needle plate. You should also check the foot control is properly engaged, the speed control is in the correct setting, and that the bobbin winder is correctly engaged.

Another reason for running slow may be simple wear and tear on your motor. If you suspect this is the case, you should take your sewing machine to a professional for servicing

Check with the manufacturer of your machine for qualified technicians in your area.

12. Threads snagging on fabric

Another frustrating occurrence that is all too common is your needle snagging on your fabric. You may be sewing and all of a sudden, your needle catches on the fabric, interrupting smooth sewing. The needle may even pull threads from your fabric, with unsightly results.

  • Your needle may also be snagging on your fabric because your needle is too dull: another reminder to replace your needle regularly!

13. Needle unthreads while sewing

This can be very annoying: you thread and set up your machine, and start sewing, only to find that your needle immediately unthreads itself. You’re then left without any thread in your needle, and have to rethread and start over!

Your needle generally unthreads itself because the thread tail is not long enough, and the motion of the machine then pulls the thread out of the needle.  When you start sewing, make sure your thread tails from both your upper and bobbin threads are at least 6 inches long.

Don’t forget: you can always hold onto the tails with a little tension as you start sewing to make sure the needle doesn’t unthread.

14. Stitches are too long or too short

Sometimes you may find that your stitches are turning out longer or shorter than you want. Firstly, make sure you have selected the correct stitch length on your machine.

Generally, shorter stitch lengths are stronger and will hold the seam better. So if you want a robust stitch, you should select 1mm or even 0.5mm. Longer stitches are used for quicker sewing or basting.

If you’ve selected the correct stitch length, but your machine doesn’t respond, you’ll need to get it checked by a technician – check with your sewing machine manufacturer for recommendations.

15. Stitches are loose on the bottom of fabric

You may be happily sewing for a while before you turn your fabric over to discover that your bottom stitches are too loose. Not only does this not look so great, it also means that the seams will not hold well and could even pull apart entirely.

  • Often, loose stitches on the bottom of the fabric are caused by a problem with your bobbin thread. Take out your bobbin, clean the area well, rethread, and see if your stitches are now how they should be.
  • Tension is very important to ensure neat stitches that are not too loose. If your bottom stitches are loose, this may be because upper thread tension is too low. Set your thread tension to a medium tension and then gradually increase it, checking to see if this resolves the issue.

16. Thread knots, loosens, or tangles

Thread that is knotted, loose, or tangles as you sew is another frustratingly common occurrence. If this happens only occasionally, the cause is most likely lint or dust in your machine.

However, if this happens consistently, an underlying issue is to blame. This is usually to do with how you are threading your machine or your tension settings. 

Make sure your machine is properly threaded, and you are using the correct tension for the fabric and sewing technique you are using. If you’re not sure, remember you can always check your instruction manual!

17. Machine not releasing material

Another common problem you may encounter is that,  when you finish sewing, your machine holds on to the fabric, and you cannot easily pull it out to tie off your work.

The fabric or thread may seem jammed because the take-up lever is in the low position. This essentially means that the machine has not completed its stitch.

The thread will then be keeping your fabric close to the machine, and the needle may even still be in the fabric!

To fix this, simply wind your hand wheel forwards until the take-up lever is in the raised position. The stitch will then be complete and you can easily pull out your fabric from the machine.

Wrapping It Up

Whether user error or machine issues, most sewing machine problems can easily be fixed if you know how. 

Though not always, it often comes down to one of four things: your machine needs to be cleaned, your needle should be changed, the thread tension is incorrect, or you should rethread your machine.

Above all else, however, make sure to always check the instruction manual for your individual machine and to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Do you have a sewing machine problem you can’t fix or a handy tip that could help others? Let us know in the comments!

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