Cleaning A Sewing Machine? Complete Guide (Beginners)

It’s really important to clean your sewing machine once in a while. But how often should you do it? and how do you do it properly?

There are some really important things to consider before you start cleaning your sewing machine. If you do it the wrong way (or use the wrong tools) you might end up causing more damage than good.

Let’s get down to business and make sure your sewing machine will run smoothly again really soon!

We have a lot of different sewing machine types today. In this article, we will primarily look at your standard home sewing machine. However, almost everything we cover in this article can also be applied directly to a quilting machine or an embroidery machine.

Three things you should never do

A sewing machine is a delicate machine and there are three things we never want to do.

Remember these three tips before you start working on your machine.

1) Never use an air blower to clean your machine

This is really important to avoid pushing the dust and dirt further into your machine.

If you use an air blower the air pressure will simply push the dirt further into the machinery where it’s really hard to get out. In here it can cause real damage and we don’t want that to happen.

Instead, you can gently use a handheld vacuumer or a standard vacuumer that’s all you have. The best way to go is to use that little handheld vacuumer, like the one we often use in the kitchen when we don’t want to pull out the big vacuumer. If you use a standard vacuumer you can set it the lowest sucking level (if possible) and use a new bag (so you can find anything you might suck up by accident).

The vacuumer will drive out the dirt and lint instead of pushing it into the machine.

There’s also another reason why we don’t want to use the air blower with our machine. The air from the air blower will contain moisture.

So by using it, you will actually apply a bit of moisture to all the little parts inside your sewing machine. And we all know that moisture and metal is a very bad combination.

It will end up creating rust inside your machine which is really bad and something we should try to avoid.

You can also use the same type of sucking head you would use for a computer keyboard. They are designed to be able to reach into tight spaces like cracks and corners.

For the same reasons, you shouldn’t blow air with your mouth into the machine.

2) Avoid excessive use of oil

Another thing people struggle with is getting the right amount of oil when they are finished cleaning.

It’s (might be) important to oil your machine but it’s very important not to apply too much oil. When you use too much oil it will end up attracting dirt and lint instead of making the machine run smoothly.

You should only apply a tiny drop of oil to make sure it stays exactly where you want it.

Otherwise, we will have the oil building up inside the machine and make it the perfect place for little hair-balls and dirt. A good way is to apply a bit of oil unto the brush before you start brushing off the fine little parts. This way you will be able to remove the last pieces of dirt and lint while also giving the machine the correct amount of oil.

Please note: There are certain sewing machines that don’t need to oil at all. Especially newer sewing machines and computerized models. Check with your manual that your sewing machine does actually need you to apply oil.

3) Don’t clean your machine while it’s plugged in

Make sure to completely remove the electrical cord from the machine before you start messing around with it.

You should never open any electronic device before properly unplugging it. This is for your own safety.

We don’t want it to turn on all of a sudden. So do this to make sure you don’t end up with the needle in your finger or an electrical shock.

If you only turn it off and don’t remove the electrical cord you might accidentally turn it on all of a sudden. So make sure to always remove the electrical cord completely before you start.

2 good tips + 3 things you need

Here’s a tip to help you keep track of every part as we start working. We also want to make sure we know exactly how to put the machine back together after cleaning it.

The first tip is to take pictures as we go.

  1. Take pictures
    Be sure to take a picture before you remove anything you haven’t removed before. This is the way you will know exactly how to assemble the machine afterward. By doing so you won’t have to struggle with the bobbin case when you need to put it back into the machine (properly).
  2. Have a bowl ready for every part you take off.
    You don’t want to lose the little screws or the bobbin case etc. These are all special parts and you might not be able to find the exact same items at your local accessory store.

Before we start we also want to make sure we have the right tools.

Look inside your accessory tray to find the brush. It would probably look something like this:

Sewing machine brushes

The brush at the bottom is really great because it can be bent in order to reach all areas of the machine.

You also want to find the screwdriver that came with the machine. If you want to read more about these items you can check out this post about all the parts of the sewing machine.

The last thing you need is your manual.

(keep reading).

Start by checking your manual

Before you start cleaning your machine you should always check the manual.

Some machines work differently than others and there might be special precautions you need to take with your specific brand or model. You might find out that your machine doesn’t need you to oil it or maybe some things are done differently than you are used to.

The manual will definitely have a section about cleaning your machine. Make sure to read it. it will only take a bit of time and might save you a lot of trouble.

Otherwise, you might end up opening parts of the machine that you are not supposed to. We never want to completely disassemble our machine, we only want to open, clean, and lubricate the parts we are supposed to clean.

This is especially important if you’re working with a computerized machine.

In this case, the manual might tell you only to clean the area around the bobbin case and to dust off the exterior of the machine once in a while.

The older models (and most mechanic models) are easier and more simple to clean. Here you don’t need to be as careful.

If you have lost your manual you should try to look it up online. Most manuals can be found as PDF files online. If you cannot find it make sure to call the store with any questions (especially regarding the use of oil) or e-mail the brand’s website to get a copy of your manual. Ask your supplier if you are working on a professional or industrial model.

The step-by-step guide to cleaning your machine

Now that you have read the cleaning-sections of your manual it’s finally time to start cleaning! We will take it one step at a time and explain exactly what you need to do for step.

We start by looking at the exterior of the machine.

1) Remove the accessory tray and clean the machine externally

If you’re using a top-loaded machine (using drop-in bobbins) you’re might not remove your accessory tray too often. But if you’re working with a front-loading machine, you will have taken off the accessory tray every time you changed the bobbin thread.

We want to get the machine a good clean on the outside before we start working our way into the machine.

We do this to make sure we remove all the lint, dirt, hair, and dust we can before we open the machine to access the moving parts.

2) Clean the take-up lever and tension discs

With some machines, you might be able to remove the left part of the top cover. This is done in order to be able to access the area around the take-up lever and the tension discs.

But on most machines, this would probably not be possible.

In that case, you can use a piece of fabric and drive it up and down inside the take-up lever channel as well as the channel next to it around the tension discs.

These two channels are often quite dirty because the upper thread is constantly running inside these two channels.

You will want to set your tension discs to zero before you start doing this. By doing so you can get the piece of fabric in between the discs to give them a good clean.

Some machines will have the tension disks mounted outside (on the front of) the machine so it’s easy for you to access them and clean them. Move your take-up lever to the top position to be able to access the area.

Take a good look now and then and check for pieces of dirt that should be removed using the vacuumer. If you haven’t cleaned your machine in a long time you might have little hairballs and pieces of lint to remove.

Make sure to check the area around the needle as you clean the tension discs and the take-up lever. Pieces of lint and fabric might fall down into this area where you can pick them up and get them out of the way.

3) Clean the area around the needle

Take off the needle holder (if you can) to make better access for the brush and the vacuum head.

Now, use your brush around the needle area to collect and remove all the last bits and pieces of lint and fabric you have gotten out of the area around the take-up lever.

Remove the presser foot and the needle to be able to access the area the best you can.

Again, if you are able to remove the cover around this area you should do so (unless the manual tells you otherwise). But be careful around this area as we have many moving parts in there. So if it doesn’t feel like you should take off the cover you probably shouldn’t.

4) Cleaning the bobbin area

Now it’s time for one of the most important places to clean, and this is our area around the bobbin thread.

We have to types of machine:

  1. Top-loading machines (with drop-in bobbins)
  2. Front-loaded machines with the bobbin case area in front of you

(Actually, we also have a special kind of side-loaded sewing machines but they’re pretty rare so we won’t go into details about them.)

Let’s start by looking at the top-loaded machines.

1) The top-loaded machines

Start by removing the bobbin and the bobbin case to be able to access the area.

Now, remove the metal plate around the feet teeth.

You will normally do so by removing a couple of screws. As soon as we have this plate out of the way we can access the bobbin area from the top and you will immediately be able to look inside the machine.

Now it’s time for some brushing and sucking in order to remove all the dirt and lint. If you haven’t cleaned your machine in a while you will be really surprised when you open up into this area!

Start by getting all the lint and hairballs out.

You work your way into the machine without blowing or pushing the dirt into the machine. Remove all the parts you can and clean them with a cloth. If you are uncertain about a part, let it sit and don’t remove it.

We only want to remove the parts we are supposed to take off.

You absolutely don’t want the damp from an air blower in this area. We don’t want to use the air blower at all, but if you are going to do so anyway at least avoid using it once the bobbin case is removed. You will absolutely cause more harm than good (in the long run) by blowing the dirt into the main parts of the machine. It might block the gears or cause it to rust from the moist.

2) The front-loaded machines

On the front-loading machine, things tend to be a little easier when it comes to cleaning.

As soon as you have removed the bottom plate as well as the bobbin and the bobbin case you will have much better access to the bobbin area. This is one of the biggest differences between the two types of machines (top- vs. front-loaded machines).

When you work with your brush, you will be able to push the lint and dirt out through the front of the machine.

Make sure to always strike the brush towards you so you don’t push the dirt and lint into the machine.

5) What about oil?

When you’re done cleaning this area and you have removed all the lint and dirt it’s (maybe) time to apply a tiny bit of oil in the center below the bobbin.

But only maybe!

Again, if you’re not sure whether you should actually oil your machine, you should start by checking your manual. On many newer and computerized models you don’t need to apply oil at all. In fact, you will make things worse by doing it.

We don’t want to apply oil to all moving parts.

We only want to apply a tiny drop of oil around the center of the bobbin for most machines, while others might have another spot or two you can apply oil.

Make sure to always use the transparent and super-thin oil which is especially made for sewing machines. Any other type of oil or lubricant will not do any good for your machine. Unless specifically stated in your manual (only for old machines).

After applying the drop of oil you should wipe off any access oil before you put the bobbin case back on.

If you have an old machine (and especially if you have a very old machine) there might be a spot at the top of the machine to apply a drop of oil. In that case, you can apply one drop of oil into the hole and the machine will take care of the rest.

This is to make sure we don’t have too much oil inside our machine as it will only increase the build-up of new dirt. When you have done so, you should make sure to always start sewing with a scrap piece of fabric which you can toss out afterwards. Because it might get a bit of oil on it.

You can also continue to read this article about cleaning the bobbin area specifically.

6) Leave the machine room for the pro’s

Unless you know exactly what you’re doing you shouldn’t remove all the covers from the machine to access the motor area.

There are certain areas of the machine we only want the professional machine repair guys to work on. They will know exactly how to clean it and where to apply oil. The area around the engine is not a place for amateurs to poke around.

This is also something you should be able to check with your manual.

Here you can read about which areas you can clean yourself and when it’s time to call in the professionals. If you are in doubt you should call your local sewing machine repair center to get their advice before you proceed.

After you’re done cleaning…

Make sure to change the needle everytime you clean the machine, unless you just did so.

Some people only change the needle once it breaks, but you should change it regularly in order to make the machine run as smoothly as possible.

By doing so you give it the best conditions and you make sure the needle doesn’t get too old. Otherwise, it might bend and hit your bobbin case and create a mess. 

Now it’s time to power your machine back up and give it a good first run.

Make sure to start out with a scrap piece of fabric which you can get rid of afterward. Especially if you have been applying oil on your machine. This is to make sure your next sewing project won’t get oil on it from the teeth of the machine.

Do a few trial runs with the scrap piece of fabric just to make sure that the machine is working as it should and that the teeth are working properly.

If the machine will not feed the fabric properly you might have missed a big piece of lint-junk inside the machine.

How often should I clean my sewing machine?

This depends on a number of things:

  • How often do you use your sewing machine?

If your machine is locked away in the cabinet most of the year you probably don’t have to clean it more than once per year. But even though you don’t use it too often it will still collect dust over time and dirt will find its way into the machine.

So make sure to take it out and clean it at least once a year.

If you are using the machine regularly you should aim for a clean every second time you change the bobbin thread. That’s a good rule of thumb.

By doing so you make sure that lint and dirt don’t get too far into the machine. Otherwise, it might start building up and get pushed into the machine as you continue using it.

  • Where do you sew?

If you are using your sewing machine in a dusty environment you will have to clean it properly more often.

Some people will sew in the garage on the basement where they do not clean as often as in your living room. Make sure the room you choose for sewing is as clean as possible.

If you’re taking your sewing machine to class or you have been traveling with it, you might also want to clean it more often. Make sure to use a good travel bag for your machine, this way you will limit the amount of dust and dirt that gets into it.

  • How are you using your machine?

It also matters how are you are using your sewing machine.

Let’s say you’re primarily working with leather, vinyl, and other types of fabric that don’t produce a lot of lint. In that case, you won’t have to clean your machine as often.

Make sure to open the bobbin case and take off the metal plate below the needle (around the feed teeth) to make sure it’s not collecting too much dirt.

On most machines, the metal plate below the needle will be mounted with two big screws. You probably won’t be able to get your screwdriver into the area so you can often have better luck with a quarter coin or something like that shape. On other machines (typically front-loaded machines) the plate will not be fastened with screws, so you can remove it by pressing a little “button”.

If you’re doing a lot of quilting or embroidery work you might want to clean your machine a little more often.

With these types of work, you’re moving the fabric around all the time and you’re also starting and stopping the sewing machine more often. This might get more lint and dirt into the machine.

Use a cover to protect your machine from dirt

If you haven’t got a good cover for your machine you might consider creating one as your next sewing project.

By covering up your machine you help to keep dirt and dust out.

Many people will only cover the machine whenever they take it outdoors. For example when they bring it over to visit a friend or for the sewing class. But you should always put on the cover even if you place the machine inside a cabinet.

Dust and dirt get in everywhere and even when you’re not using the machine, some dust will find its way into the inner parts of your machine. So make it a habit to always put a cover over your machine when you are finished sewing.

This is especially important if you don’t use the machine very often.

How to store your sewing machine long-term

If you’re putting your sewing machine away for a longer period of time you want to find the best place to put it.

Preferably we want to put it in a place without too much dust and moisture.

Remember that the sewing machine is made of metal and has a lot of moving parts on the inside. This means that the different parts of it will eventually rust if the sewing machine is placed in a moist environment.

It’s much better to find a permanent place for the machine inside the house than putting it in the attic. You might be able to find other things inside your house which will be a better fit for getting stored in the attic.

If your sewing machine is stored in your attic or somewhere else you need to cover it up more carefully. These places often have more dust and dirt than your normal living space so you should wrap your machine in plastic outside the cover.

Frequently asked questions

Where do I apply oil to my sewing machine? This depends entirely on the type of sewing machine you have. Older sewing machines can be oiled at the top of the machine and with the newer machine you should do it inside the bobbin case. Always check your manual as you might not have to oil it at all.

What can I use to clean and oil my sewing machine? You can use the brush that came with your machine or a standard paint brush. You can also use a vacuumer. You can never use an air blower to clean your sewing machine as it will blow the dirt and lint further into the machine.