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How To Time A Vintage Sewing Machine At Home

Hello everyone, today we are going to delve into the magic that makes a sewing machine form stitches. Regardless of the age of the sewing machine, vintage or modern if it uses a rotating hook the principle is the same so the process will also be the same. The proper description of the topic of the day is sewing machine hook and needle timing. Our goal is to show how we decide if we have a timing issue and what course of action we need to take to correct the problem.

how to time vintage sewing machines

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The symptom for a timing issue is skipping stitches. But before we tear a machine apart to set the timing we first need to go through a short checklist to eliminate some of the more common causes for missed, skipped, or dropped stitches. The very first thing we need to know if there was some event that could have caused the timing to be moved. The two most prominent events are needle strikes and bird nests or snarls around the bobbin. If we start experiencing skipped stitches but didn’t suffer from one of these events then the chances of the timing being bad are pretty slim. Not impossible, especially if we are sewing heavy materials, but there are other causes that need to be checked before we jump conclusions. Do we have a good needle in the machine? If in doubt change needles, if we have already changed needles then we need to look and be sure we didn’t install it wrong. Did we changed bobbins or re-thread the machine right before the stitches started skipping? If so then we need to check and be sure we properly threaded the machine and that our bobbin is properly installed. Yes, I know we all know better than to improperly thread our machines or to put a needle in wrong, but it happens to us all at one point or another and sometimes repeatedly. I have a mental check list that I go to every time one of my daily user machines acts up. I start simple and work my way towards the more difficult until I achieve a solution. Most of my problems are solved within the first three checks on the list. If you want a copy of my check list subscribe to our newsletter below.

When the check list fails to achieve the desired results then it is time to start getting more in-depth with our check list. At this stage, I remove the bobbin, take off the needle plate and sometimes remove the feed dogs so I can see the point of the hook and the relationship between it and the eye of the needle as I slowly rotate the hand wheel in the direction of normal travel. The first thing I am looking at is the distance between the needle shaft and hook. The hook should be set so it barely clears the needle shaft without hitting it.  If I am satisfied with the clearance then the next step is where we actually start working with the timing of the machine.

machine out of time
Out of time machine
There are two important factors to be considered when timing a sewing machine, the needle height and the rotation of the hook. The hook rotation needs to place the point of the hook behind the needle while the needle is on its upwards travel. Not only does the needle need to be lifting when the point passes it. It must be set to the proper height to place the eye of the needle adjacent to the point of the hook so the hook can catch the loop of thread behind the needle. This loop is pulled larger as the point goes down and the needle goes up. When the loop reaches its release point it will be large enough to wrap over the bobbin case where it catches the bobbin thread, thus making the stitch as the needle finishes it’s up-stroke. The take-up spring has removed any excess thread from the formation process and we are ready to start another stitch.

Now that we know what we need to happen so a stitch gets formed I will explain the process I use to ensure that the hook point and the needle eye intersect at the proper location for consistent stitch formation. Or easier said, this is how I time a sewing machine.

I start the actual timing process by locating the needle bar clamp or set screw and the hook timing adjustment clamp or set screw. The needle bar clamp is usually self-explanatory and will be located along the needle bar shaft in the front end of the machine. The hook adjustment is a different story, It varies depending upon the type of hook. Vertical hooks and horizontal hooks do not have the adjustments in a standard location. They will all have a means of loosening a set screw or clamp so the hook can be rotated without turning the main shaft with the hand wheel and raising the needle. Depending upon the model and the manufacturer of the machine the locking screw will usually be located at the hook drive gears (horizontal hook) or the hook drive shaft (vertical hook). The mechanics will always be the same but the locations will differ so it is impossible for me to tell you generically exactly which clamp or set screw(s) to loosen for your specific machine. The one thing I can say with certainty is if the set screw tightens down onto a flat side of a round shaft then it is not the set screw that adjusts the position of the shaft. If it tightens down onto the round sides of a shaft then the adjustment can be made there. Also, there will usually be two set screws holding the gear to the shaft and they will usually be 90 degrees offset from each other and neither set screw will tighten down on a flat surface on the shaft.   Once we are familiar with the locations of the adjustments we set the machine back upon its feet as if we are going to sew. We still have the feed dogs, presser foot, bobbin and bobbin plate removed.

We rotate the handwheel in the normal direction of travel until our needle is at BDC (bottom dead center). It's ok to rock the handwheel the opposite direction while locating BDC. Once we have located BDC we can either mark a place on the shaft with a pencil or we can use the needle set screw or thread guide as a positioner to measure to or from. Anything that moves with the needle and can be measured precisely to a stationary position above or below our positioner.

We want to raise the needle 3/32 of an inch from BDC. I like to use a micrometer whenever possible so 3/32 = .093 inches or for those who are more comfortable with the metric system it will measure 2.36-2.38mm. If our stationary point of measure is above our positioner then what ever our measurement is from our stationary point to the positioner at BDC will decrease as our needle goes up so we would subtract our desired lift (.093) from that measurement. If our stationary point is below our positioner, for instance, the bed of the machine, then the distance will increase as the needle goes up. All we need is an accurate way to measure when our needle has risen .093 from BDC.

If our machine is properly timed when our needle has risen .093 inches or 2.36 mm, the point of the hook should be meeting the needle slightly above the eye of the needle when we rotate the handwheel in the normal operating direction. If the hook point is at the intersection when the needle is raised but the eye of the needle is not, then we need to adjust the needle bar height. We do this by loosening the needle bar clamp and sliding the needle bar up or down accordingly be sure to keep the needle orientation correct so the thread still enters the eye from the proper side when it is being threaded.  Once set tighten the needle bar clamp and check the intersection. If the point of the hook is meeting the needle just above the eye then timing is good.

proper needle hook position
Proper needle and hook position

If the hook point is not meeting the needle when it has risen .093 from BDC then we need to adjust the hook rotation so the point of the hook meets the needle slightly above the eye. We do this by loosening the set screws under the bed of the machine and moving the hook while keeping the needle from moving up or down. We set the point of the hook properly at the intersection and tighten the set screws or clamps whichever is the case. Once we have everything tightened we rotate the hand wheel a few times letting the needle travel its normal course then we re-check our intersection if the hook and needle eye are intersecting properly then our machine is once again in time and should have no problems picking up stitches flawlessly. Put the machine all back together and thread it up.

This process works very well for all straight stitch machines or with ZZ (zigzag) machines with a dedicated center needle position. When dealing with a left homing needle we should always check the hook and needle intersection at the widest point of the ZZ after we have timed the machine. This will be on the right side of the ZZ stitch and the point of the hook must still intersect the needle at the upper portion of the eye, sometimes the needle bar height needs to be re-adjusted just a hair for the right side ZZ to catch the thread. It may take a couple times adjusting the height to get the hook to catch the thread at the extreme ends of its widest ZZ. The wider the ZZ the more crucial the accuracy of the measurements.

This excludes the Italian made Necchi machines with exception of setting the needle height.

I hope this helps to bring happiness back to your sewing, I wish you all the best of luck and the smallest of headaches with your machines. We can always be reached here at the Quilting room with Mel and we welcome your questions and comments.   Until next time enjoy your machines your way and may you be blessed with stress-free sewing.

timing a vintage sewing machine

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  1. I'm dizzy with numbers! Lol. Is it possible for you to do a video?