Does My Sewing Machine Need Oiled?

There are some topics in the sewing and quilting world that are hot button topics. "Should I pre-wash my fabrics?" is one of them and no matter your viewpoint on that, people can make a valid case for answers of yes, no, and sometimes. But another surprising topic, at least to me, is "Does my sewing machine need oiled?"

In the last few years when I'm popping in and out of various sewing machine and quilting groups on Facebook, I've seen this topic come up quite often, and honestly, there is a right and wrong answer. It's very important to the life of your machine to understand that it does need oiling even if you have been told not to oil it.

First, who am I and how do I know the answer? I'm a Janome dealer, machine instructor, and my husband is my Janome certified machine tech. Hubby is also quite a gear head, which means he loves all sorts of machines, modified autos, tractors, etc. He knows his way around mechanical systems.

Yes, your sewing machine needs oiling!

Your embroidery machine and serger too. In fact ALL mechanical systems need lubrication of some sort.

The better question is, "Does my machine need lubricating and is there any of that I can do myself?"

Here's a video on the best form of cleaning and possible lubrication that we can do on our own machines and why. If you check you comments, you'll see plenty of folks who think their machines do not need oiled, including users of the very same machine in the video.

Think about it like that of a vehicle. Most of us know that a car needs oil. Many of us currently even know where to check the oil. But they also need greasing from time to time. When is the last time you lubed your car's chassis? Heck, most people don't even change their own oil these days.

And unlike cars, our machines do not have an oil pan to hold a reservoir of oil. (Some industrial sewing machines do have an oil pan, but that's a different rabbit trail for another time.) Nor are our cars getting a frequent dose of cotton fibers added to that oil. A couple of decades ago, it was more common for the owner of a vehicle, or dad, husband, etc. to spend part of a day changing the oil of their own car. 

But as cars got more complex, with more body panels and electronic components, not to mention fewer family members with mechanical know-how or tools, the rise of oil change businesses boomed.

It's very much the same with our sewing machines.

If you are sewing with a functional antique, there's a good chance you can take care of the oiling if you are so inclined. I define those machines as the all metal machines, most made before the late 1950's or with a similar design. Think of the black bodied Singers and several copycat type machines. In fact you really better learn how to oil it if you don't already, as these machines need frequent oiling. You'll likely want someone else to take care of periodic re-greasing of gears and doing the minor adjustments to the various systems to keep it running as long as possible.

Machines got more complex around the 60's. Think of  the Singer Touch and Sew in its many versions. Machines around this period started using plastic gearing which was seen as so wonderful as it quieted down the chattering of all metal gearing, especially those which weren't lubricated enough and/or didn't get their gears adjusted as they began to wear. While many owners of these machines were told it would last forever, the care or lack of care those machines get are really starting to show and parts for 60-70 year old machines are hard to source.

Then we start to see the addition of plastic body panels and electronics and the idea of the average user oiling and maintaining their own machines started to give way to the periodic servicing by a sewing machine technician. When a sewist or quilter says they were told that they their machine doesn't need oiling, what likely should have been explained is that the regular servicing or preventative maintenance that should be done takes care of the need to oil by the user.

We also started to see a larger range of features and styles in the sewing machine market as the industry began to transition away from "A sewing machine in every home." Just like we were seeing in the workplace, and family composition, machines stretched across the spectrum of basic, functional machines for clothing and mending to the first computerized home sewing machine (a Janome) with more features for both function and fun, and then to the home embroidery machine (also a Janome). As more electronics were used, and I LOVE my electronic features, the industry did not want someone oiling areas that didn't need oil, or breaking something while getting the covers off. This may be what gave rise to the idea that the machines didn't need oiled, when in fact, they do need lubrication from a trained professional as part of an annual service.

As the insides of machines began to vary more, there were fewer owners who knew exactly how to service their machines. Even as the internet has sprouted all sorts of DIY tutorials, there are still plenty of things that just can't be taught via video or at least via a free video. That's assuming that the 'teacher' actually knows what they are doing. We spend thousands of dollars each year to get training on current models with Janome.

This range of not only function but also machine models made for various price-points across this spectrum  affects manufacturing and machine design. Which in turn affects the method and frequency of needed maintenance. Not to mention, like cars, we are less likely to do the rather nasty work of removing old icky grease and replacing it with fresh grease. Seriously, some of the filth we've seen inside machines would shock you.

Here's an example of a neglected machine.

This comes down to whether bushings or bearings were used, the presence or absence of wicks, and to some extent the types of materials used in the making of these machines.

Wherever two pieces of metal rub together, lubrication is needed to prevent wear/friction and/or to remove dirt and such that would interfere with the turning of the gears together. The common points for this in a sewing machine are gears and the places where shafts are held in position so they can spin (turning a gear) or slide to and fro (a lateral or vertical motion versus spinning) like the needle bar going up and down, and in some cases, both.

I almost wish I didn't have my husband Eric to ask about these things. The answers get a lot more complex! Did you know that often in sewing machines, the lubricating of gears isn't for the sole reason of two parts rubbing together? Nope. Gear grease (especially when composite gears are used) is used primarily to help remove dirt and debris from between the teeth of the gears. If the grease isn't removed and replaced with fresh grease periodically, the debris (primarily lint and dust) will begin to form a crusty putty-like substance that will slow down and eventually stop your machine.

At the places where a shaft is held in place while it turns or slides, there are 3 methods used to prevent wear and only one of them doesn't need replenishment of lubrication. These 3 are: the use of oil or grease on a bushing, use of a material that is porous (also on a bushing) and holds onto oil, and finally the use of sealed ball bearings.

Essentially, it comes down to the use of bushings or bearings. Sealed ball bearings do not need lubrication as long as they are in the correct position and remain sealed. They are the best way to protect shafts from friction on high speed, higher end machines. We see these routinely in Janome's Professional series machines like the 6700P, 6600P, the HD9 straight stitch machines, as well as in the new Continental M7 and M17 machines and 15000, etc. This is also the more expensive method, so we don't see this on lower end or economy model machines, no matter the brand. Many of these models will have bushings in less important or lower speed/pressure areas.

Unlike bearings, bushings are essentially a cradle or collar for the shaft to keep it in place while the shaft moves. We see plain bushings the most in classic functional antique machines. The bushings in these old machines need regular oiling and are typically easy to get to for oiling. They may be exposed (like the gears underneath an old machine in a wooden base), or have holes in the metal casing above these points for oiling.

For bushings in more modern machines, an oil absorbing material is used. The price point and brand typically dictate the type of material used. For mid range and higher machines where bushings are often used, many brands use felt 'wicks' to slowly deposit oil onto the bushing area.

For a few brands, a special porous metal (silica bronze) is used especially in their higher end models. For many low end machines, a type of powdered Aluminum is used in the bushing area. This powder is formed into a metal using high pressure and then loaded with oil. For machines using silica bronze, a strong metal, eventually they will need to be re-loaded with oil by a service person. For machines using the cheaper powdered aluminum method, ideally they would need re-loading of oil, but often the models this method is used on have other wear issues and a price point similar to the cost of the service. 

Most modern (post 1950's models) domestic sewing machines no longer need extensive oiling by the user, though if the machine has a wick under the bobbin case, it's a great place to check if oil could be added. Almost all (I can't speak to other brands or lower end machines sold by the big box stores) Janome drop-in bobbin machines have a wick under the bobbin case area that can be oiled with sewing machine oil occasionally. If it looks white and dry, a drop or two is all it needs. (See the above video)

When machines are properly serviced, they get oiled (Many Janome machines have multiple wicks that the service person will load with oil), the old gear grease gets removed and replaced with new grease-type lubrication. The longevity of your machine is mostly determined by how well is it kept clean and lubricated. Long term lack of lubrication will result in wear of shafts and gears that are expensive to replace. 

We recommend you clean under the bobbin case every few bobbins, add a drop or two of oil to the wick under the bobbin case if it looks dry and a good servicing annually for your machine as a rule of thumb. Those who run a cottage industry or sew daily may want to have their machine serviced more frequently. For the average hobbyist, the machine won't need oil between services.

Servicing is more than cleaning and lubrication. It also includes testing and adjusting several of the mechanical systems for best performance. Some of these adjustments include:

  • Hook timing
  • Feed dog timing
  • Height of feed dogs
  • Gear lash
  • Needle centering
  • Needle to hook clearance
  • Needle bar height
  • Shaft alignment
  • Belt tightening or replacement
  • Stitch width centering
  • Stitch balance
  • and of course, tension adjustment!

Whew! A long answer to what seems a simple question.

Additionally, if a machine sits for a few years or more, it should get a service before it gets used again. The oil used in sewing machines is very light and the lint and dust can soak it all up.