Spotlight: Bernie Tobisch, Sewing Machine Expert

Bernie Tobisch inside a drop in bobbin case

Spotlight: Bernie Tobisch, Sewing Machine Expert

If you sew, your sewing machine is probably your most important tool. And it may well be the largest investment in your sewing studio. So it makes sense to know the TLC you can provide to give you the greatest success. Bernie Tobisch has learned a thing or two from the 60,000 machines he has serviced. He has compiled that wisdom in an easy-to-use format so that you can troubleshoot most performance issues yourself between your machine’s spa appointments.

Bernie Tobisch headshot

Can you tell us a bit about your career, what made you write your books?

I started in the sewing machine business in the mid 70’s. It’s hard to believe that so many years have gone by. In that time, I estimate that I have serviced about 60,000 sewing machines. The technology has changed so much over those years. We’ve gone from mechanical machines to sewing computers. In the mid 90’s, I had to make a decision to embrace the new tech, or get left behind. I’m glad I chose to move forward, as I found I love to work on the computerized machines.

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After about 10 years in the business, I realized that sewists have a relationship with their machines that is much more personal than with other appliances, like let’s say their toaster or the mixmaster. A sewing machine allows you to express your creativity. This relationship can be kind of a love-hate thing. I started to see myself as not just a technician, but sort of a counsellor.

Sewing Machine Reference Tool book cover by Bernie Tobisch

About 25 years ago, I started to teach a class called “Build a Better Relationship With Your Sewing Machine”. It was all about how to get the best out of the machine and to understand what it was trying to communicate when it was acting up. We addressed the “Tension Issues in the Relationship”. It ended up being a fun and successful class and became the foundation for my books, You and Your Sewing Machine and Sewing Machine Reference Tool. These books are guides to understanding your machine and troubleshooting issues. They are not service manuals. I wanted them to be understandable and usable by non-technicians.

You and Your Sewing Machine book cover by Bernie Tobisch

Why are there so many different types of sewing machine needles? Are there a few basics that will cover most of my sewing needs? Does brand matter? How do I pick the right needle for my project?

I look at a properly adjusted sewing machine as the constant. Then we throw the variables at it. Those are thread and fabric. The needle you choose helps to maintain the constant. If you change thread size, you need to change the needle size. If you change the fabric type, then you might need to change the needle style.

Your needle inventory should reflect your type of sewing. If you sew knits, then Stretch and Ball-point needles will be right for you. If you sew with natural wovens, then Sharps will be better. There are also needles that work better for specialty threads, such as metalics and monofilaments.

The important thing to remember is that needle size relates to thread thickness and needle style relates to fabric type. It’s also wise to stick with the well known names as far as brand is concerned.

How important is thread choice? How do I know which kind of thread to use for a project? Does it make a difference if I use the horizontal or vertical spool pin on my machine?

Thread choice is a variable that can make your stitching look good or bad. For example, when you are piecing a quilt, you will get the nicest result using a supple 50/2 cotton thread. However, that thread might not be strong enough for garment construction, where you might want a more robust thread. Here’s where it can be a bit difficult choosing, as not all 50 weight threads are the same. Some are strong enough for garment sewing, but too stiff to get a nice result for piecing. You might want to test different types to see which give the best results for your task.

Using a horizontal spool pin can result in twisted threads. The spool turns when you use the vertical spool pin and this stops that twist. That can be very important when using specialty threads. The size, weight and shape of the spool can complicate this a bit. For me, the rule is, if you can use the vertical pin with the type of spool you have, then it is the best option.

What is tension, and how do I know if it isn’t right? Do I need a technician to fix it? What tension adjustments can I make myself and how?

Tension is the balance between the top and bobbin thread. Each one has an adjustment to control how much drag is placed on it. A perfectly balanced tension will have the knot that is formed by the two threads right in the middle of the fabric. Look at it like it’s a tug of war between top and bottom thread. You want the two teams to be the same strength. The fabrics should be held together securely, with no puckering. I encourage everyone to learn to how to calibrate and adjust their tension.

In my books, I devote a chapter to this subject. Tension is not a black art. It is much more simple than you might imagine, and it’s something that you can deal with. Many sewists have been told, “never touch the tension”. If this was true, then there wouldn’t be the wide range of adjustment available. The picture here shows what proper tension looks like when viewed from the side. It would require much more space than I have here to describe how to do the calibration, but here’s a clue on how to adjust: to raise the knot raise the number of the top tension. To lower the knot, lower the number.

Even tension sample
Balanced tension
Uneven tension sample by Bernie Tobisch
Unbalanced tension. In this example, lower top tension

What should I do when my sewing machine is missing or skipping stitches? What if my thread keeps breaking while I sew?

Skipped or missed stitches can be a sign of simply having a slightly bent needle. It can also mean that you are using the wrong needle. For example: you might have switched to sewing a knit fabric from a woven. This would require that you also change the needle from a Sharp to a Ball-point or even a Stretch needle. Sometimes a knit might be very stretchy and want to push down into the opening of the needle plate. There, a straight stitch plate can help stop skipping.

If none of these solutions help, then it is possible that the timing or even the hook to needle distance is out on the machine. At that point it will require a trip to the shop.

How (and how often) should I oil my sewing machine? What kind of oil should I use? Can sewing machine oil go bad?

How often you oil your machine will depend on the manufacturer’s instructions. The various sewing systems have different requirements. Here it is best to follow your user manual for the best result. Some models will use special oil. It is important that you use this specifically. Again, your manual is your best guide. I would definitely not use oil that has turned dark or has sediment in the bottom of the container. If you still have oil from you grandmother’s treadle, I would keep it for the sentimental value, but it might be time to buy some new oil for your current machine.

Bernie Tobisch inside a drop in bobbin case
A very important oiling location

I have two sewing machines. Are the bobbins interchangeable? (If I already have a full bobbin of black thread, why do I have to fill a new one?)

There many types of sewing systems. This means that there are also different styles of bobbins, some of which look the same. If your machines are the same brand, the bobbins may well be the same, but if you are not sure, I think it’s wise to be safe and use the same bobbin that came with your machine. If your machine came with a plastic bobbin, then I wouldn’t use a metal one, even if it fit. Many of the drop-in bobbin machines have a magnet under the bobbin case. The bottom of that bobbin case will be metal. This helps hold the case down on the hook to create less rattle. If you use a metal bobbin in this scenario, then the magnet can affect the bobbin, which can affect the tension.

Bernie Tobisch Quote

Which accessories, feet and/or attachments should I consider for my sewing machine?

Accessories are very task specific and there so many of them! If you are a quilter, a walking foot and a good solid ¼” foot can be invaluable. For a garment maker, maybe some of the narrow hemmers and an edge stitch foot. If you love to embellish fabrics, then couching and pin tucking feet may be on the menu. There are so many feet to choose from. Gathering, ruffling, piping, free motion and more. All do the job they were designed for. Whatever your sewing interest, there are feet to make the task simpler and the result better.

Interview with Bernie Tobisch posted October 2020.


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