It’s one of the most common problems in sewing: skipped stitches. But it can have many different causes and so may require different remedies. So let’s take a closer look!
- Needle and thread
- Special needles
- Thread tension
- The right needle plate
- The right foot
- The right foot pressure
- Mechanical issues
Needle and thread
Of course you know it: the first thing to do in pretty much any bad situation is to swap out the needle. But how often do you forget to do it and proceed straight to overthinking? I know I don’t want to answer this question… 😉
The needle needs to be straight, smooth and sharp, and strong enough to penetrate the fabric without breaking – that much is clear.
But the needle must also match the thread you are using it with, and this is a lot less clear!
Every self-respecting sewing machine manual has a table listing the needle sizes to be used with different fabrics with the corresponding thread sizes.
Needle sizes and types of fabric are all still pretty much there, but thread sizes have all but disappeared from our shops. Oh, threads still come in many different weights, thicknesses, densities and twists (which all together make up the size), but the manufacturers no longer bother printing any numbers on the bobbin! 😐 Plus, with the advent of global trade, we are now faced with many contradictory thread size identification systems… So, what to do?
First, don’t panic. 🙂 Take a closer look at a sewing machine needle.
It has a groove all along its shaft – the thread must fit into it and form one with the needle, or stitches won’t be formed. Thicker needles have deeper and wider grooves for thicker thread to hide in.
Does your thread lie flat in the groove? No? Then:
The needle being too thin for the thread is one of the most common causes of skipped stitches.
If you are using special thread like metallic, embroidery or top stitch, you also need to use a special needle because their eye is adapted for the thread. Using metallic thread with a universal needle for example, will have you run out of swear words in no time: the eye is too small and too sharp for the lurex – it will break the lurex and you’ll be sewing with the naked core.
Similarly, it is also best to use special needles for special jobs:
Embroidery needles have a finer point especially made for putting stitches close together, so use it even with regular thread.
Quilting needles are made especially for sewing through multiple layers of soft material. I find that universal needles work fine in most cases but sometimes quilting needles can make a difference.
Ball point, jersey and stretch needles have a rounded point, it comes in different degrees of roundness: fine, medium and large. Medium is most common, the needles are called “ball point” or “jersey”. They are good for sewing ordinary jersey and knitwear of medium to heavy weights. Universal needles will often skip stitches on jersey, and sometimes even make holes in the material! 😮 Needles with a fine ball point are called “stretch”. It is for sewing micro-knits – very densely knitted jersey, usually microfibre or nanotex, but also excellent on viscose. Don’t confuse these with “super stretch” – those are for overlockers! Although they fit into sewing machines, they don’t work very well. I think I liked it better when overlockers took different needles altogether. 😐
Leather needles are for sewing leather, vinyl and PVC. They have a flat blade at the tip and slice the material as they go in. This leaves very neat little holes in leather, real or fake, but will ruin any regular fabric.
Denim needles are in theory made of stronger stuff, especially for sewing dense materials like denim or sailing canvas. I don’t usually bother with them though because I find that thick universal needles work just fine.
If thread tension is too high, stitches cannot be formed properly – this goes for both upper and lower tension.
Start by checking that the machine is threaded correctly, that the thread is not wrapped around the spool pin accidentally and not stuck on anything else. Check that it passes between the tensioner disks properly, that the disks themselves are smooth and don’t catch the thread, that the spool rotates freely and is not too heavy. On machines with vertical spool pins use a separate spool stand for larger spools.
Check also the bobbin setting – when was the last time you cleaned and oiled the hook race? May be the bobbin catches on lint and cannot rotate properly. May be the bobbin itself is dodgy or has rough surfaces.
When was the last time you cleaned under the spring of the bobbin case? Never? Then it’s time. 🙂 Take a picture of how it all fits together so you’d know where everything goes! Be watchful with those little screws and carefully remove the spring(s) to clean underneath. Scrape off sticky old lint and polish the bobbin case and the spring if required, use a fine grade sandpaper (5000 or higher), a piece of cork or some wool yarn for polishing (that’s sheep’s wool, not steel!).
If everything looks in order but the machine still skips stitches, adjust the thread tension.
If this makes the overall tension too loose, set the bottom tension to medium, then increase the upper tension to match.
Alternatively, you could take the guesswork out of it with this fancy gauge:
The right needle plate
The fabric must be firmly held down when the needle is going through it, both down and up. If it drags the fabric along, stitches will be skipped, and in the worst case the fabric will get into the bobbin mechanism.
Ever since the invention of a sewing machine, needle plates have needle holes in different sizes, although now-a-days you only see it in industrial machines. Old machines up until 1900s or so came with two straight stitch needle plates: for regular sewing and for fine materials like voile or organza (organza was made of finest silk before the invention of polyester). The hole in the needle plate for fine fabrics was smaller, and would only work with a thin needle and fine thread, but then again, you’re sewing spiderweb silk for God’s sake, what other needle and thread would you use if not the finest?
But after a while this practice stopped. May be no one was sewing spiderweb silk any more, I don’t know. However, when zig-zag got invented, the long hole appeared too large for the fine materials – the fabric was being dragged by the needle. So sewing machines now came with a separate needle plate for straight stitch (the one with the little hole).
You don’t need it in most cases, but remember it when working with spiderweb silk, sticky materials (e.g., foiled, coated or impregnated) or jersey. Needless to say – it only works for straight stitch!
The right foot
Similarly to the needle plate, the foot must be right for the job of pressing down the fabric and preventing it from being dragged up and down with the needle (it’s called a presser foot for a reason 😉 ).
The larger the opening in the foot, the less effective it is in doing its job. That is why older zig-zag machines always included a straight stitch foot.
If your modern machine doesn’t come with one, you can buy it and save yourself trouble with skipped stitches. Using it alone with a zig-zag plate will already be enough in most situations, but in particularly stubborn cases use it together with a straight stitch plate for maximum effect.
But what if you want to do zig-zag and need to see where you are going, such as with monogramming or appliqué? Naturally, you would use an open toe foot.
Sometimes this foot does not provide enough pressure to keep the fabric taught under the needle, and sometimes you would rather like to use a zipper foot instead so that the whole side would be unobstracted.
That spring mounted around the needle is actually a vintage darning foot – I haven’t seen any modern counterparts. It’s brilliant because it’s so simple and fits every machine regardless of the foot fitting because it does not use the foot fitting. Which means that nothing is stopping you from using it with another foot!
The zipper foot here engages the feed dogs and keeps the work in place and moving as required. The hopping foot provides the necessary pressure right around the needle allowing you to stitch well away from the zipper foot and still form stitches. Win-win! :-D
The right foot pressure
Once you’ve got the right foot, also look at the foot pressure. There is no single right answer here. However, there is a rule:
On delicate materials, you generally need a little more pressure to grip the fabric, but if the pressure is too high, the fabric might be damaged by the teeth. You’ll need to lower the feed dogs a little to avoid that, if your machine is capable of altering feed dog height. If not, you may have to sew through tissue paper, but it’s far from ideal.
On heavy materials, you need a little less pressure to avoid the upper layer slipping with respect to the lower layer. But if the material is fluffy, you will need to compress the fluff, so will require more pressure… Use a walking foot here – it allows to raise the pressure, yet avoid the slipping.
On leather and suede, real and synthetic, if you are sewing face down, the teeth will generally damage it. So you’ll need to sew through tissue paper, or lower the dogs and use the walking foot to move the material with the upper feed. It is clumsy work though. If you do it often, you’ll be better off with a specialised leather sewing machine with a roller feed.
Staying with a regular machine, sew your leather face up and use a roller foot because a regular foot, even teflon, will stick to the material, drag it and cause skipped stitches, among other unpleasantness. Do not use a walking foot because it’s got teeth and will damage the face of your leather in exactly the same way as the feed dogs would damage it if sewing face down.
By the way, if your machine uses high shank feet, you are in luck because this is the standard for industrial machines, and you can buy various weird and wonderful specialised feet that do marvels for your sewing. 😉
If none of the above remedies help and the machine keeps skipping stitches on different fabrics and with different thread, the problem may be more fundamental – something could be wrong with the mechanism. However, this section should be your very last resort! Have you tried swapping out the needle? Well, try that again!
What, still here? Ok then, may be your machine is indeed a little broken.
First off, have you broken a needle recently? Even if not, the best place to start is to check for rough edges in and around the needle plate and the bobbin assembly. Polish out as necessary.
If that doesn’t help, I can think of two things that may cause skipped stitches: timing being slightly off and gears being damaged. But there may be still something else going on, this here is a blog, not a gospel. 😉
Correct timing means that the hook meets the needle just above the eye when the needle is going up. It has to be quite precise and varies slightly from machine to machine. It’s the sort of fine adjustment that you do by trial and error. If it is not quite right, every now and again the hook will miss the thread skipping the stitch.
If the machine is skipping stitches in a regular fashion, for example every 8th stitch, this is not a good sign. Suspect damaged gears, in particular if they are plastic. The offending gear is most likely one of the hook driving gears. Depending on the type of the hook, the design will be a bit different, but anyhow start looking in the viscinity of the bobbin assembly. Remove any cover plates or lids, as the gears are often protected from dirt and covered in grease.
This is a gear set for a forward-facing vertical oscillator. Obviously, these gears are metal and are not likely to chip (although it happens sometimes!). But plastic gears here often become damaged. So turn the balance wheel slowly and check for missing teeth. Spot some? 😦 You’ll have to replace the gear. Or the machine. :-P