Solving sewing problems by testing your machines

A seating manufacturer who recently added sewn cushions to his product line had a vexing problem. The stitcher kept stapling pieces together prior to stitching and she was very slow. She stapled because she could not pin -the material is vinyl. The consensus in the shop was that she did it because she had never sewn in a factory and wasn’t comfortable with industrial equipment. The customer wanted me to work with her to reduce pre-work and hopefully pass along a few tips since I have extensive experience working with heavier materials.

Otherwise motivated people (as this lady is) aren’t stupid and they aren’t crazy. If they’re pinning, it’s for a reason. The first step is to figure out why they are doing it, fix that thing and then they stop having to correct for an upstream problem. As I’ve explained before, the way you troubleshoot in an organized way is according to the 4 M’s -Man, Method, Machine and Materials.

The first thing I analyzed was Man. The operator was pleasant and motivated with appropriate skills for the task (she had several industrial machines at home). She was -frankly, this is a rarity- very happy the company had hired someone to give her pointers.

The second thing I looked at was Method. I gauged her handling of work pieces which was quite good under the circumstances (workstation was a problem but a story for another day) and I could not see how her handling was contributing to problems. I asked her why she was stapling seams. She said it was because the cut pieces would not join smoothly and had suggested previously that it was a pattern problem. For expediency’s sake, deleted from this recitation was the elimination of the pattern as a problem so that just left all fingers pointing at the operator.

The next step was to look at the Machine -the point of today’s entry in case I’ve lost you- which annoyed the boss because he did his research to buy a brand spanking new, top of the line upholstery machine. It’s a great machine, exactly the one they needed and one (confirmation bias noted) I’ve had my eye on to buy for my shop. But continuing on with structured troubleshooting, you test it anyway.

The cut to the chase summary is that the machine was mis-feeding quite a bit.  The problem wasn’t Man or Method, it was Machine. The boss was really annoyed then and thought it was a bum machine but it wasn’t and that is yet another story I’ll skip for now.

Incredibly lengthy preambled dispensed with, this is how you test a lockstitch machine:

Cut two strips of fabric you intend to use 4″ wide by 36″. It can be longer or shorter but anything under 24″ may not be as helpful. The math is easier if the figure is divisible by 8 (just my opinion). The lengths can be either cross grain or length of grain, it makes no difference.

Then sew a basic seam as you would normally so you can assess it.

There are two basic types of feeding problems you can have. One is where both edges join evenly for the length of goods but the sewn edge does not match the original cut length. This means thread tensions may be too tight. You should make a note of how much shorter the seam side is.

The second feeding problem is if one piece ends up longer than the other. This is usually the top side. This indicates a feeding problem. Either the pressure is too high, you have the wrong feed dogs, they need adjusting or whatever. The correction of feeding isn’t the intent of this post, only the means to recognize you have a problem.

In short, that was the problem this company was having. Their Man was fine. Their Method was fine. Their Machine wasn’t. The stitcher wasn’t going to be able to sew faster because she did need to staple seams to have them come out evenly.

Since the company was new to sewing, they were unaware that frequent machine adjustments are necessary for varying materials. My suggestion was that they hire a mechanic to come in to teach them about machine adjustment.

It is a good idea to document machines settings for tension and the like for various fabric types as you come across them. If you change materials frequently, it may be good to create a form with clock dials to document settings. Remember to cut a swatch of fabric and affix it to the form and save these sheets in a folder or notebook. Stu has been doing this for a long time, hopefully he will comment with useful suggestions.

How to sew faster pt.2
Deconstructing a sewing class
How to solve any problem
How to solve any problem 2

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  1. Theresa in Tucson says:

    Good points to remember for us home sewers as well. My serger feeds just fine if it is overlocking two seams together but the needle threads pull up when overlocking a single edge, a fact I am always having to relearn. The sample book is a great idea and thanks for the suggestion.

  2. sfriedberg says:

    Stu here.

    I test out the stitching on my lockstitch (Juki DDL-8700 industrial) every time I change materials (fabric or thread), seam type or stitch length. I save scraps from the cutting table so I can run test seams. However, I don’t record samples from the lockstitch because diagnosing and fixing any issues is relatively easy.

    I [i]do[/i] keep a library of samples from my overlock (Juki MO-654 domestic). With five tensions, two (near) needle positions, stitch length, differential feed, and knife position to choose, plus the impact of stitch type and material, it is not “easy” to dial in a perfect stitch. If you just arbitrarily spin dials, you may never find the right settings. With the use of a methodical approach (perhaps the subject of another blog entry), you can reliably arrive at the right settings. Once I’ve got a good looking stitch, I cut off about a 2 or 3 inch square of the test material, write all the dial readings (5 tensions, length, diff.feed and knife) on the fabric, and file it away. If I ever need to sew that stitch on that material again, I can set it up in 15 seconds instead of methodically figuring it out over several minutes.

  3. Lisa Blank says:

    Very interesting to read (again) your approach to problem-solving.

    You imply that if a lockstitch feeds correctly, the two layers will be the same length after sewing. I can’t remember hearing this before. I’ve always thought the layer against the feed dogs would come out shorter just because it was against the feed dogs.

    How does handling factor in? When I near the end of a seam, I align the ends and hold them firmly against the table so that the two layers stay together. Needless to say, I want to try the test on my lockstitch and evaluate the results.

  4. Sabine says:

    Lisa…holding them firmly against the table will basically pull on the material.
    I have found that if I hold anything tight (the way I got taught by a lady from Salvador who used to be the head seamstress of a company there), things stretch. I found that really noticeable on stretch and things cut on bias.
    When i let the (well adjusted industrial) machine feed in the fabric and I just gently guide it with my hands, not only are my shoulders and hands happier, the fabric pieces also retain the shape of the pattern pieces.
    Of course, on the crappy, little domestic I have for use right now, I am back to sometimes manipulating fabric full force while feeding it through.

  5. Quincunx says:

    I recently found that you can’t skimp on the width of the test strip either, at least not with a home machine that will innocently appear to sew the narrow scraps together just fine, and then pucker the life out of the garment seam. (And, as I picked out stitches ((and the occasional snag)) in the fabric along the length of the seam while following the American & Efird seam diagnostic guide, I reflected that on this on all projects, the thread and the fabric may as well come out of the same dye lot, the match was so perfect.)

    There’s got to be a better way to quantify the presser foot pressure than just lowering it onto your fingertip, though. :P

  6. Barb says:

    I love this post today, thankyou. I agree with Sabine 100% on her use of industrials, especially in pointing out it makes the stitcher more comfortable as well.
    For those who have no option other than a home machines when an industrial is needed, the best solution I have found is pressing the material against the feed dogs to keep consistent pressure there. This still allows the machine to regulate the stitch length and it does not damage the machine the way pushing and pulling does.

  7. Lisa Blank says:

    Sabine, perhaps I shouldn’t have used the word “firmly”. I didn’t mean that I stretch or pull the fabric tightly. I just meant that once there is only enough fabric left to sew that it fits on the table, I stop, match the ends, and hold them down with my finger until they are sewn.

    I’ve got a deadline to meet right now, but I definitely want to test my machine and see how it feeds two layers without trying to hold them together. I expect the bottom layer to wind up shorter than the top. We’ll see.

  8. Theresa in Tucson says:

    On my domestic machines the lower layer very definitely ends up shorter than the top unless I’m very careful. When making curtains for the rentals I would resort to a work-around on long seams by stopping a foot or two from the end and then restarting from the other end.

  9. Paul says:

    Thanks Kathleen. Doing the documentation of tension for different materials, seam thickness, etc. is incredibly time consuming and tedious, which is the reason I (and others, I presume) don’t do it as often as we should. It is worse for those like me who work on one machine for all operations. There are just so many different combinations of fabric type/weight and quantity of fabric layers coupled with at least four other variables: upper tension, lower tension, thread/needle combination, and foot pressure. And you really need to have some baseline reference setting for tensions that all other settings are benchmarked to. I use at least five different weights/types of fabric in varying number of layers, plus velcro (wreaks havoc on tension) several different weights/layers of nylon webbing, zippers, and two different thread weights ….

    Another approach might be to document the right settings for each seam type or operation that is performed in the production of an item, and include those settings in the “industrial sewing instruction” document associated with that item. I think there would be a very short payback on this time investment in a production setting. I’ve read in other forums, on a completely different topic, one person saying “I know this is a good thing to do but I just don’t have the time”. What? You don’t have the time to do it right and save yourself time?

    All that said, I ‘usually’ can go with one tension setting for nearly everything with acceptable results most of the time. For ‘real’ production I will use more machines, but there is still some double/triple-duty that must happen.

  10. Sandy Peterson says:

    Thanks for this post Kathleen, you make everything seem so simple but in reality it’s not.  It takes a lot time to be able to think so simply and logically.

    It’s funny how, as much as I want, and am excited to go out and get my first industrial machine, AND I am able to go get it today if I wanted to, something is holding me back and “I can’t quite explain it”. 

    About 15 years ago, I purchased a Bosch mixer and a grain mill – for making whole wheat bread from wheat berries.  The mixer has the capacity to mix enough dough at one time for making 6 loaves of bread at once.  And as much as I loved making bread by hand, I thought this would be perfect for us since our family was growing quickly.  Although even though I wasn’t quite ready to give up what I had been doing by hand, I thought this would be a great help to me for “everyday” bread and I could save the handwork for “special occasion bread”.

    I had had my eye on the machines for over a year and I was so excited to finally get them.  After I brought them home, I think they sat in the box for almost a month before I opened them because for that “I can’t quite explain it” thing.  I don’t think that I was so much afraid to use them, as I think I was afraid to fail at making bread.  How silly is that?!?  I had been making bread, by hand, for about 10 years before I bought these two machines.

    Finally, the day came when I unboxed and unwrapped the two machines and began my journey into the “unknown”, thanks to my husband constantly reminding me about the almost $700 that I, oops, that we spent on this new venture.

    To make a long story short, I learned to make bread in a new way, and not just any bread – wonderful bread (at least that’s what other people were telling me).  So I started milling, mixing, baking, selling, and delivering my bread.  I enjoyed the fruit of my labor by selling bread weekly and all of that “practice” prepared me for an order that I received for 100 loaves of wheat bread for a special Christmas dinner, which I baked and sliced and delivered, AND I even arrived earlier then expected. 

    So what does all this have to do with industrial sewing machines?  Well, I’m in the same situation all over again, and it just hit me – I’m beginning to see a pattern here.  After reading this post by Kathleen, it made me think about…………well…………………lots of things, as usual.

    I’ve been sewing since the 4th grade (almost 37 years ago now) and no, I’m NOT ONE OF THOSE WHO CAN’T BE RE-TRAINED.  I CAN!  And I would love to spend a year or whatever it would take, under Kathleen to learn all over again if I could.  But I can’t.  So I have to do my best and not only learn from her through her blog and others on the forum, but actually put what I’ve learned into practice.  And then I will be able to help others.

    At this time, coincidentally, I am reading Stephen Covey’s book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, and one thing that I have learned so far is that I could possibly be/am a forever student.  So now, I MUST BREAK FREE FROM MY CONSTANT READING AND DREAMING AND START DOING!!  Another pattern I’m beginning to see. 

    Before reading this post I thought that industrial sewing machines were just “plug in and all will be great”.  Well, as I just learned, it’s not necessarily the case.  I guess I can’t just assume that the machines will comes from the factory “perfect”, although I now wish that they would.  But then again, something could come up in the future and it’s best to be aware of that.  Understanding this information that Kathleen just wrote about will hopefully save me from possible frustration later on. 

    In a way I am sorry (and in a way I’m not) for the long reply to this post, but if anyone reads this I hope it will be an encouragement to them by some of the things that I have noticed in my life.  And that they will do what it takes to change the things in their life that have been a road block to themselves, and become all that they can be.

    For now, I am going to go and get a new machine or two and jump right in, although still a little nervous!!  BUT, there shouldn’t be anything for me to be afraid of, right?  Especially having been to the Texprocess Show in Atlanta this past April.  The show was intimidating at first but then on the second day after we all met for lunch, Kathleen took us around to see different things which broke the ice for me and that was wonderful!! – THANKS KATHLEEN!!  Being at the show was so fun and educational and also having met Kathleen and others from the forum and putting faces with names now makes it that much more personal and real.  We had a great group!
    It’s hard to be so transparent, but if it helps others who might have the same issues, then it was worth it.  I know just writing down some of the things that are in my mind, has helped me.   And isn’t that the first step to recovery, admitting that I have a problem?  Have a great day, reading, designing, and DOING!

  11. louise says:

    “For those who have no option other than a home machines when an industrial is needed, the best solution I have found is pressing the material against the feed dogs to keep consistent pressure there. This still allows the machine to regulate the stitch length and it does not damage the machine the way pushing and pulling does.”

    Hi Barb, please can you explain how you manage to do this? On my machine the feed dogs are pretty much directly under the presser foot – no space for even my dainty fingers under there!

  12. Margaret Islander, who taught industrial methods adapted to home machines, recommended compensating for the pull of feed dogs on the bottom layer by using the right hand’s position. You hold the fabric with your thumb underneath, fingers on top, and roll your hand up so your thumb is facing you. This keeps the layers aligned and puts slightly more tension on the bottom.

  13. louise says:

    Carol, that is fantastic. Thank you so much!

    I used to do that sometimes when I was just beginning to learn how to sew as I noticed by accident that it worked – but I thought I was “cheating”.

  14. theresa in tucson says:

    Carol, thanks for the picture and description of Margaret’s method. I will have to practice that.

  15. Sandy wrote (since deleted at her request)

    Kathleen, can you or someone delete my first post up there?!?!?!? The one at 1:01pm, it’s a draft!!!!!!

    I’ve been away and couldn’t attend to it until now.

    There must be something in the post you’re adding that the form doesn’t like. Sometimes the tags of whatever are messed up so it reads a blank. Try posting your content again and I will amend your post so it flows. Alternatively, you can email it to me and I can amend from the back end.

  16. Barb says:


    Placing your finger right next to the presser foot does help, even if the feed dogs are not directly under your finger. It just keeps the fabric flat against the table and more likely to maintain even contact. I may have also put my fingernail under the edge on occasions…and YES, I have sewn through my nail before…so maybe Kathleen will want to add a dsiclaimer or remove this suggestion. There were years when I sewed with a lot of buckram, foam, and leathers & before i bought my first industrial. This really helped. Since then i have also found it sometimes helpful in preventing delicate fabrics from stretching or slipping.

  17. Louise says:

    Thanks, Barb, that’s useful to know – I am fighting with some wriggly voile at the moment so I shall definitely give it a try.

    Maybe we could make sewn-through fingernails a cult beauty trend, like those nail piercings people get!

  18. Karen Cook says:

    I’m almost ready to start testing how evenly my home machines feed, as well as the new serger I’ve had my eye on for over a year. Oh how I’d love to have an industrial machine (or 2 or 3…) but I’m limited by my small sewing room with insufficient wiring.

    I loved Sandy’s comment. I think I’m in a similar place – time to start dreaming and start doing. I’m just not sure what it is I should do. This website has really helped me narrow down and define my interests. I’m still a long way from having a firm plan, but at least I feel like I’m looking in the right direction.

  19. Great method, Kathleen. We recently hired a mechanic to come in and address a laundry list of issues…then he found issues we didn’t know we had! Including differential feed issues. It was money very well spent.

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