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Sewing Challenge: Fluttering

flutter1
Insert size 12 universal needle, skipped stitches. Insert size 14 universal needle, skipped stitches. Insert size 12 ballpoint needle, skipped stitches. Insert size 14 ballpoint needle, can you guess? Skipped stitches.

I sat in front of my two sewing machines, my Juki DDL 5500 and my Singer Brilliance, and no needle, thread, tension setting, or presser foot was preventing skipped zig zag stitches on an orange stretch lace fabric I was sewing. The stitch formed on the right side of the stitch but when the needle shifted to the left and pierced through the fabric, the top thread wasn’t catching the bobbin thread and the entire stitch line ended up looking like a straight stitch.

“What would Jesus do?” I questioned. “Jesus would ask Google.”

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Google did not answer my question as easily as Jesus would, not as prophetic either, and I had to probe the sewing forums to find a solution. Nestled in one of them (too cliche?), a seamstress fretted about how her new Bernina was skipping stitches while attaching elastic. Just like me, no thread, tension setting, needle, or presser foot was solving the problem. She was extra steamy because this was a new machine and her old machine, a Viking, never skipped stitches. Another seamstress commented that the cause of her problem might be the placement of the needle. She bet that on her old machine, the needle was closer to edge of the opening on the throat plate, which was preventing the fabric from “fluttering” and the stitches from skipping. In other words, the placement of her needle when sewing a zigzag stitch on her new machine was more in the middle of the throat plate opening, which made it easier for the fabric, especially a flimsy one, to “flap” up and down with the motion of the needle.

What is fluttering? Related to sewing, I had no idea, which made me dig deeper into the confines of Google and learn a lesson in stitch formation (okay, that was definitely cliche). My answer came from the book Beyond the Pattern: Great Sewing Techniques for Clothing: From Threads, to which Google gave me a snapshot of a couple of its pages.

A stitch is formed when the needle is lowered into the shuttle race, “the mechanism that surrounds the bobbin and holds it in place,” and the top thread forms a loop around the bobbin. The loop catches the bobbin thread and brings it up to the fabric, where it locks with the top thread and forms a stitch. If for any reason the loop does not form or the loop misses catching the bobbin thread, the stitch gets skipped (a diagram of how a stitch is formed is provided in the link above).

As the needle and thread move up and down, the fabric naturally tries to move with it and if the fabric moves with the needle enough, the loop doesn’t form and the stitch gets skipped. This is why it’s hard to stitch close to an edge – because the fabric gets sucked into the bobbin.

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I could be completely wrong in my thinking but it makes sense to say that fluttering caused my skipped stitches. It explains why the right stitch of my zig zag, the one closer to the edge of my throat plate, forms while the left zigzag, the one more in the middle of my throat plate, skips. It also explains why when I put an index card/tissue paper underneath the fabric while sewing, no stitches skip, and why when I reduce the speed of my sewing, skipped stitches do not form (the faster the machine moves, the more fabric flutters). So, can I conclude that in addition to type of needle, thread, presser foot, and tension setting, the position of the needle must be considered too (I still had to use a ballpoint/stretch needle when sewing the stretch orange lace)? Is the solution to skipped stitches the right combination of needle position, needle type, thread, presser foot, and tension setting? Boy, there’s a lot that goes into that equation but I think that’s the only way to get the right answer.

22 Comments

  1. Reply

    anonsewer

    Size 65/9 sharp SHARP. Microtex if you have it. It sounds counter intuative but a thinner sharper needle provides less resistance so the fabric doesn’t get pushed into the throat of the plate where is has no chance of getting out of. A teflon foot is a plus too and cheap for a Juki.

    This works both for the denser spandex knit fabrics and leather both places where the traditional advice is a big honking needle or a special this or that. If your bobbin case has a finger try threading that through and see how it goes but honestly I rarely switch from the above needle combo. For me bigger needle only when using a bigger thread. Changing thread weight/needle size change the tension slightly too.

    Good luck.

    • Reply

      Maddie Flanigan

      I tried a size 9 sharp – skipped stitches. I literally tried every single kind of needle. Grrr…

      • Reply

        anonsewer

        Half motor perhaps if you have the option. It’s hard to say with seeing it but essentially it sounds like the needle is bouncing off the fabric. It tries to go through pushes the fabric into the throat plate then gives up and says never mind I can’t be bothered onto the next stitch. Or it gets through but the needle does go down far enough to form a lock stitch.

        If you hand walk it through does it stitch ok. I would scold your machine and threaten to replace it with a machine that complies. Sometimes that works.

        Again good luck sometimes fabrics just want to mess with us.

  2. Reply

    hannah

    I don’t think I’ve ever had this issue, although sometimes my fabric can get pulled into the bobbin area and get jammed. I actually use a pretty cheap Brother sewing machine, the Project Runway edition one, and I’ve been fairly happy with it (and frankly, I got it because my $80 Brother wireless printer is still holding up perfectly after 5 years). In any case, I agree with anonsewer, using a sharper needle seems like the best solution (but I don’t really know if that would translate well to using ballpoint needles).

    • Reply

      Maddie Flanigan

      I had never heard of fluttering before I read the comment and I was afraid to post about it because I thought I might be ostracized for suggesting such an “out there” but it kind of makes sense. Just something to think about in addition to needle, thread, tension, and presser foot.

  3. Reply

    Scared Stitchless

    I had this exact same problem today! It was a bit of a lightbulb moment reading this post so I’ll be really interested in reading any comments or explanations on this.

  4. Reply

    Meghan

    I was going to mention that this is also why there are different presser feet for straight and zig zag stitches and edge-finishing (and all the many others available) but she does mention that in the book. This is an interesting concept for sure and I will keep it in mind the next time I have this problem. I’ll have to look at the book a bit more, what’s available for viewing. May be worth investing in for someone like me who has lots of learning to do and is trying to advance her sewing skills 🙂

  5. Reply

    Carlee McTavish

    Thanks Maddie! I had this problem in December and got so frustrated that I put my project aside since then!

  6. Reply

    Joanne

    I also had this problem a couple of times. Simply enough, What it came down to was my machine needed a good cleaning of all the lint, especially between the feed dog and around the bobbin case. Craftsy has a great class called machine 911 that explains when and how to clean your machine. Good luck!

  7. Reply

    Maggie Smith

    Huh! This is really interesting and does make sense since when you used tissue paper it didn’t skip! Also great to see what other have to say on the matter. Thanks Maddie!

  8. Reply

    Angela

    The last time I had this problem changing the needle to a ball point did the trick. You are right, it is a tricky balance, glad you were able to solve your problem!

  9. Reply

    kriston lion

    ahhh so crazy! my machine was up to monkey business this weekend too!

  10. Reply

    Gabriella

    I’ve had this problem. I solved it with putting a bit of tape over the hole in the plate. This trick I’ve also used when the macine ate my thin fabric due to too big of a hole in the plate.

    • Reply

      Cami

      I thought tape would be the option, but on the fabric and not the plate, but tried it on the plate and it helped. The first couple werent great but it improved

  11. Reply

    gracekelle

    i realize how not-crafty I am compared to you and your readers – but still love your blog 🙂

  12. Reply

    Andrea

    Ahh, I hate that!

  13. Reply

    Amy

    I like your last sentence–so true. Last time that happened (just a month ago) I took apart the front of my machine. I wanted to SEE how the rotary hook was moving. It’s super frustrating. Get this–there was a tiny, I mean tiny, thread caught in the side of the hook that was just causing the needle to shift as it went into the bobbin. One more silly thing in the equation!

  14. Reply

    Wai Fong Lai

    Thank you! My sanity has been restored! I’d nearly given up sewing project after changing to a walking foot, tension, etc.

  15. Reply

    andrea

    Ready to tear my machine apart tonight and clean it…. put in a new ballpoint this afternoon, attached the walking foot… and same issues with skipping on the zig zag… no matter what tension or length or width or speed I try…..
    First time in a long time I’m hoping something is dirty … so I can clean it… so it works better!

  16. Reply

    Laura

    I tried all the suggestions (sharp needle, different tension settings, putting tissue under my fabric, slowing down my speed) and my zig zag stitch is still not catching on the left side! I’m sewing together two fairly thick braids made of polyester. My machine will zig zag perfectly on any other combination of fabrics. I opened of the machine and walked it through the stitches to see what was happening, and the thread looped around the bobbin on the right side of the stitch, but the loop isn’t forming on the left. I seem to be out of solutions. Any other suggestions?

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