10 reasons for skipped stitches

One common question I get is in regards to seam formation, specifically skipped stitches or breaking threads. So why are stitches skipped? I’ve included the basics below but do feel free to jump in with your experiences (I think Gigi is our resident in-house thread/needle expert so this may end up being a multi-part post). Other places to get help are the thread companies. American and Efird has a nice selection of technical support documents. One such document from their site is Minimizing Thread Breakage & Skipped Stitches which you may find useful; it includes a nice sketch of the basics of seam formation.

Below is my list of the most common reasons for stitch skipping and breaking, organized according to the most common reasons with an eye towards helping you prioritize troubleshooting. The list in order of most common occurrence:

  1. Improper threading.
  2. Poor clamping or insufficient pressure (flagging).
  3. The needle needs replacing.
  4. Wrong size needle.
  5. Wrong type of needle for the material.
  6. Lubrication.
  7. Wrong thread for the application.
  8. Poor quality thread.
  9. Needle size and thread weight are mismatched.
  10. Worn thread guides, paths or eyelets (burrs).

A note regarding 9 and 10: these are most common if the machine has seen a lot of use. If the machine is new, it could mean the above are defective. I’ve rarely found defects like these in new machines and I wouldn’t expect you would find these either unless you’ve bought a home machine from those traveling salesmen who sell out of hotel rooms on weekends. Have you ever bought one of those? I did, a Riccar, many years ago. Ugh.

Item #1, Improper threading is the most common reason for skipped stitches or breaking threads. There are so many factors involved with improper threading that this alone could be it’s own post. In order, these are the most common reasons related to improper threading:

  • The needle is threaded from the wrong side.
  • Machine or bobbin tension is too high.
  • The needle is set incorrectly.
  • The machines needs adjustment.
  • The material is fed improperly, either owing to mechanism, material or operator although the latter is less common.

Feel free to submit your questions and comments so I’ll know what -or whether- to cover next.

10 reasons for skipped stitches pt.2

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  1. Esther says:

    I was planning a blog similar to this in relation to my hemstitching machine. I would add to the list needle orientation and using different weight threads in the needle and bobbin. The hemstitcher is more sensitive and must have the same weight thread in both the needle and bobbin.

  2. Babette says:

    Closely linked to all of this is frequently breaking thread. Are the list of reasons the same? Could you run throught these too and the common causes?

    After working in a technical school, I think I’ve seen all the ways a machine can be misthreaded. One popular one was to put the bobbin in back to front so that the thread comes off at the wrong direction. Often the machine will appear to sew ok from the top thread but a huge knot of thread forms underneath and eventually it breaks.

  3. La BellaDonna says:

    Good to see the site back, Kathleen!

    I have a question related to #8, Poor Quality Thread: what brand(s) of thread do you recommend? Once upon a time, back when the world was young and dinosaurs roamed the Earth, Coats & Clark was a a safe bet – either cotton, or poly-wrapped cotton. You saw the name, you knew you had a reliable product, unlike the Mystery Threads that would show up, five spools for a dollar, at the local fabric store. Unfortunately, I don’t feel as if I can say that with the same confidence these days; I’ve picked up spools of Coats and Clark which, while expensive ($4 at least for a standard large spool!), seemed just as fragile, and as coarsely and unevenly spun, as the Mystery Threads of Yore (Yore Tough Luck, that is). Guterman’s I eye with suspicion; they seem to offer a cotton OR a poly, but not a blend. And that’s not even addressing the issue of finding dependable serger thread!! In terms of both serger and standard thread, what do you use and like? What do your legions of readers use and like?

    Back to skipped and broken threads. I have found, even in an ordinary sewing machine, as opposed to a hemstitcher, that different weight threads in the bobbin and the upper can cause a machine to throw a hissy (as well as a great big clot of threads). I have also discovered that, 90% of the time, no matter what’s going wrong with my sewing machine, it never hurts to re-thread the bobbin (so much so, it’s been my own personal version of “rebooting” – that is, whatever’s happening, go back to the beginning, and start again).

    I would also like to share a discovery I made, which seems counterintuitive, on the surface: I found that, often, if I’m dealing with a heavy fabric, with several layers, I’m better off using a smaller needle than usual. Yes, that’s right; instead of taking a great big needle and trying to hammer it through multiple layers of denim or canvas, sometimes it’s actually easier for a smaller needle to slide through the fabric; it’s pretty amazing to watch (especially after you’ve snapped a few size 18 needles). It’s also helpful to take a nice solid hammer to the seam allowance, before stitching – but of course, that’s not a practical manufacturing procedure! (Or at least, I don’t think it would be. It can be a dandy help at home, however.)

    Babette, I’ve often found that broken stitches means there’s a problem with the tension. How can you tell (besides the obvious, such as puckering along the seam)? Make make a test seam, and take it off the machine. Hold the seam with one end in each hand; now pull the ends away from each other, gently but firmly. If the thread breaks on one side of the fabric, your tension is uneven; the thread which broke is the tighter of the two.

    Oh, and if your thread is breaking, check to see if the broken end is significantly frayed; I have found that sometimes the needle’s eye itself may be so sharp that it’s causing the thread to fray! I’m sorry to say that this has been a significant problem with my handsewing needles these last few years, and not just my machine needles.

  4. J C Sprowls says:

    The AE site provides a excellent information about thread testing and thread product. The Gutermann site also supplies ongoing education, too. The link will take you directly to their Seams leaflet which discusses how the thread technology advances as a result of fibre, textile, and needle technology.

    LaBellaDonna, the Gutermann threads that are available to manufacturers differs from those you typically find in the retail market space. They do have 100% cotton; but, the majority of their threads are spun polyester which create a fine seam. Plus, the 1000m spools are significantly cheaper than the [shudder] Coats & Clark you mentioned.

  5. Esther says:

    I can see using a smaller needle for thick layers possibly working. Rather, I think the difference is a sharp versus a ballpoint needle. As Kathleen states, you need the right type of needle for the fabric. Generally speaking, a ballpoint is for knits, sharp for a woven. Yet, most sewing machine needles available in a fabric store are ballpoint or universal. I have to keep a sharp eye out when I enter the fabric store. I have grabbed the wrong kind for a project more times than I can count.

    I have noticed quality issues with my Coats & Clark cone thread too. Not all cones are “bad”, but it is annoying to see a slub or knot along the thread while topstitching.

  6. J C Sprowls says:

    Another reason why I like my parts guy…

    I ordered needles, recently. He remembered that I mentioned I was working on shirts (from a previous order). He asked me if I was working with a particular grade of cotton. I thought it was just casual chit-chat and brain-picking. It ended up that he recommended another size needle that wasn’t on my list. I tested his recommendation and liked the results.

    You really don’t get that level of service in a fabric store, anymore. Heck, the won’t even open the cabinets to see if they have something you specifically ask for. For the price and the service, I whole-heartedly recommend my parts guy. Plus, considering that I’m getting needles at $0.17 per piece, instead of the typical $.38 or $1.xx, I’m more than willing to shift my money over to someone who love what they do.

  7. La BellaDonna says:

    Esther, the problem for me is never a question of “ballpoint needle (or universal) vs. sharp;” it’s been more than a decade (possibly more than two) since I bought ballpoint needles. I buy my needles in packs of 25, and like JC, I buy them from a parts store, and not a fabric store – so my experience has been specifically in terms of different sizes of sharp needles.

    OK, I’ve looked, and I give up. JC, what do you mean by “the AE site?” I would love to see what they have to say about thread testing and thread product [and if the answer to my question is really obvious, I’ll be embarrassed, but still grateful]. You obviously find no merit in what Coats & Clark currently produces (and they should be ashamed of themselves); is Guterman really the only alternative for those of us who generally buy our thread retail? Most of the time, I work with natural fibers, and I’ve been really dubious about working with the Guterman threads; I don’t know how they’ll react to a lot of steam and/or pressing. Also, since you recommend him, who is your parts guy? Thanks!

  8. J C Sprowls says:

    AE = American & Efird. Kathleen has supplied a link to their site in the text of her post. AE also produces Mettler, which is their retail market-facing brand that competes with Gutermann.

    I happen to be a fan of Gutermann. Perhaps it was all those years I lived in Europe. In any event, they have broad range of thread types and what I consider to be low minimums (e.g. 1 spool of 5000m). The low minimums is what turned me onto them in the early 90s.

    The reason you don’t see the full range of Gutermann on a retail level is that most retailers buy the pre-merchandized packages. Those are categorized for crafting, embroidery, or garment making; and, can be found on their site under the ‘retail’ section. They (i.e. retailers) rarely dig into the full offering because it’s easier to re-stock the display units (keeping the area neat is probably a strong incentive).

    If I were to open a supply house, I would hand-pick the products I offer. But, that’s because I’m accustomed to never finding what I need without tremendous effort. The retail marketplace is generally unkind to tailors. But, then, a supply house looks drastically different than a retail space. It isn’t aesthetically appealing to walk-in traffic; and, the consumer must *know* what he/she is looking for.

    My parts guy: is Brett at Sewing Machine Exchange in Anaheim, CA. I also work with others; but, Brett’s shop is the most personable and reasonably priced. If you’d do me the favor of telling him that ‘J at Declan Steed’ referred you, I’d appreciate it.

  9. La BellaDonna says:

    D’oh. I said I’d be embarrassed, and I am. SL & OW = me. But grateful nonetheless. I did take the time to check out the Guterman site and get all annoyed that more of their retail offerings aren’t generally … offered.

    If I’m fortunate enough to be in California to use Brett, I will certainly mention you, with much appreciation; since I’m in Philadelphia, I usually deal with the nice folks at George A. Schaper & Co., Inc. (where I once saw, no lie, someone try to buy one sewing machine needle. Who buys one machine needle?? And why???), who hunted up esoteric parts for my elderly machine back in the days before the Internet.

  10. La BellaDonna says:

    JC, I’m concerned about the spun polyester thread; I’m afraid that pressing at a high heat will cause the thread to melt. (I actually watched polyester serger thread thread being melted as a seam was being pressed – and the heat wasn’t that durned high, either. It was just ordinary serger thread, too – not something weird and wooly.) There’s also the possibility of the machine heating up enough to melt the thread at the needle, if there’s no cotton wrapping (there’s always a chance I’ll be doing that many stitches per minute). Have you had of those problems with the Guterman spun poly?

  11. Amanda Rodriguez says:

    We had an interesting discovery during our last production run. We DO use that “wierd and wooly” thread (Wooly Nylon) on our knitwear. WE couldn’t figure out WHAT was happening.. we kept changing needles, using silicone, and any other thing we could think of.. then we figured out it was STATIC ELECTRICITY that was causing out problems! The static was opening the thread and flipping the thread off the loopers. We now keep cans of static guard by the machines. We spray the cones every now and then and it works great!

  12. J C Sprowls says:

    Good call, Amanda. I forgot about static guard. I only saw it used once in the costume shop in college during the dry winter. I’m glad that it worked for you. I’ve added it to my next shopping list.


    The overlock thread I use 90% of the time is Gutermann “E” thread. It’s a fine wooly (they call it: texturized) poly, and it’s versatile. I use it to overlock seam allowances on trousers or flatlock/coverstitch underwear. It’s soft on the skin and is a very nice finish.

    I do special order “A” thread in a finer tex weight (i.e. 20), when I’m coverstitching sweatshirts simply because I like the appearance of it. But, in my shop, I basically stick with “A”, which is a core spun poly, in 25 tex for general sewing, “E” in 12 tex for overlocking, and “Skala” in 8 tex for blindstitching, felling, and padstitching. I also use Mara in 40 tex for hand-worked buttonholes; but, a heavier weight of “A” (i.e. 30 tex) does just fine for machine-worked buttonholes.

    Now, as you mention about some threads with inferior poly or high nylon/dacron content do melt. I had one serger thread (I think it was MaxiLock by Coats & Clark) that did that just that. Fortunately, it happened on a pair of trouser for me, so I didn’t have to risk losing a client over it. But, the Gutermann “E” is rated (I believe) at 400F degrees with less than 2% thermal shrinkage.

    I can say with certainty that I’ve never experienced shrinkage or melting of the Gutermann products I have used – which is why I endorse them so heavily. However, this problem is the very reason I stopped using Coats & Clark. Since I iron shirts around the 400F mark, I can attest that Gutermann products hold up to their claims.

    I use these threads in my household machine (1300 SPM) and my industrial machines (3500 – 5000 SPM); and, I’ve never had an issue of them melting in the needle due to friction. I suspect the biggest issue might be breakage of a 15 tex core spun in a high-speed coverstitch machine w/out lubricant. But, I’ve had excellent results with 12 tex in a high-speed overlock at darn close to full bore (i.e. 5000 SPM).

  13. La BellaDonna says:

    JC, thank you; it’s very helpful to me to know what you use on your household machine. Amanada, thank you also; I should apologise, both for not closing the bold, and for the imprecise language; by “weird and wooly,” I actually meant cheap, untried, or off-brand serger thread, as opposed to Wooly Nylon, which I have read about, but not yet used. To my knowledge, there was nothing unusual about that particular serger thread … until it melted. And the fabric being pressed was a metallic brocade, so it wasn’t being pressed at any great heat, either. I didn’t use a presscloth, so perhaps it was a case of my bad, but I didn’t know if I was going to have to use a press cloth every time I used a Guterman thread. I was afraid of using it to tailor wool, going to press it, and having all the thread melt away, like a horrible practical joke. I’d normally use silk or cotton with wool, or, once upon a time, in a pinch, Coats & Clark cotton-covered poly thread. From what you write, though, it seems as if I could proceed with Guterman threads with a little more confidence than I had.

    Amanda, I’ve also found my threads get less staticky if I just wipe down the cone with a dryer fabric softener or antistatic sheet (not a bad thing to remember if you run out of spray unexpectedly.

  14. Zoë says:

    Thanks, Kathleen, for these tips. Had lots of skipped stitches sewing some leather bootees yesterday. I’ll try some of your tips next time round.


  15. Dianne says:

    Just came across your site as my machine was breaking the thread at the needle in a recent sewing project. I did all the usual to remedy – changed the needle, rethreaded, checked the bobbin, etc. What I did not know was one should also check UNDER the bobbin area for lint problems. It meant turning my machine on its side to access the underside to remove the bottom piece. (MIne was secured with a screw). It was shocking to see the buildup and how clogged the gears were that moved together when the needle goes up & down. while I can’t be certain this cleaning was the cure, my machine runs well without the thread breaking or skipping stitches now.

  16. Debbie says:

    I am very frustrated with trying to do appliqué using zigzag stitches. The stitches skip, and yes, I changed the needle, removed dust from bobbin case, even used different thread. The project has foam and the use of iron on fusible, double sided, to attach the appliqué. Any ideas of what to try?? The same problem existed on both of my babylock machines…
    help please, Debbie

    • Avatar photo

      I can’t help, it has been so long since I’ve used a home machine that I feel like an idiot. The only thing that comes to mind is the possibility that with the foam, there isn’t enough foot pressure to compress the goods sufficiently to allow the machine to form a stitch. Can you increase the foot pressure at all?

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