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Kenmore Sewing Machine Troubleshooting and Repair Guide

Vintage Kenmore sewing machines often last forever, given proper care. Learning how to troubleshoot your machine will keep it running for many decades to come! To get help, check out this Kenmore sewing machine troubleshooting and repair guide.

Kenmore sewing machine troubleshooting involves applying oil and untangling the thread path. Other common issues include a machine that won’t sew or will only sew in reverse. Kenmore machines may also encounter feed dog issues, zigzag trouble, or tension problems.

In this article, you will learn to troubleshoot ten issues on your Kenmore sewing machine. You will also find out how to get a Kenmore manual. Finally, you will find tips to keep your sewing machine from jamming.

Kenmore Sewing Machine Troubleshooting

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What to Know About Kenmore Sewing Machines

Kenmore sewing machines had many different manufacturers but were all sold by Sears Roebuck, the iconic American company that introduced the mail-order catalog to the nation. Sears applied the Kenmore brand to many “badged” appliances that it bought pre-made from various manufacturers around the world.

American consumers knew and trusted Sears and valued the Kenmore brand because of that. That said, Kenmore sewing machines have varied in quality over the years, depending on what manufacturer produced a given model. Sears introduced sewing machines to its catalog way back in 1913 and continued to sell Kenmore-branded sewing machines until 2013!

In general, vintage Kenmore models have a decent reputation as budget sewing machines that run pretty well and last a long time. Any models made after 1970 may contain plastic or computerized parts that often do not hold up as well over time, though.

Though it’s difficult to find a complete inventory of every Kenmore model ever made, you can easily find information on the general timeline of manufacturers.

A company called White made most of the earliest Kenmore models. Then from 1950 through the 60s, Sears purchased machines made in Japan.

In the 1970s, Singer made a few badged Kenmore models. From that point on, a prominent Japanese company called Janome took over and manufactured Kenmore machines until 2013.

Sadly, Sears went bankrupt after 2013 and ended its sewing machine sales entirely. You can find many vintage Kenmore machines for sale today, but you will no longer see any new Kenmore sewing machines on store shelves!

Kenmore Sewing Machine Troubleshooting: 10 Easy Fixes

Because most Kenmore sewing machines fall into the vintage category today, you will need to focus on vintage sewing machine troubleshooting techniques to keep these classics up and running.

Of course, Kenmore machines made by Janome between 1970 and 2013 may have more modern features as well. However, most sewers tend to gravitate to the solid-metal vintage Kenmores that still have a decent reputation as durable machines.

Though not all Kenmore machines have the same level of quality, it is true that most of the time, you can make simple fixes yourself! These vintage machines will not have that many big mechanical or electrical issues. That said, if you do open up your old Kenmore to find dilapidated wiring, you should probably take that as a sign that it’s time to seek professional help.

One more thing to keep in mind as you poke around inside your Kenmore machine is that, by and large, these models do not cost a lot. For that reason, you may feel safer risking making repairs yourself. If you break something, at least you did not ruin an expensive machine!

Nine times out of ten, though, you can apply one of these ten easy fixes yourself to solve the problem!

1. Sewing Machine Not Sewing

Your Kenmore sewing machine could refuse to sew for several different reasons. Go down this handy checklist and you can cross off possible causes one by one!

  1. Check the power cord. Maybe a fuse blew in your house, or perhaps the power cord wiggled free from the sewing machine! Try plugging your machine into a different outlet and firmly inserting the cord into the machine.
  2. Check the foot pedal. Some of the older Kenmore machines tend to rattle and vibrate a lot while sewing, and this can easily jiggle the foot pedal cord loose as you sew!
  3. You can also easily purchase a replacement power cord or foot pedal if you suspect an old cord has gone bad.
  4. If your sewing machine turns on but will not sew, you may need to replace the needle or deal with a thread jam. For more info on that, see the next section!
  5. This final option does not happen as often, but you may have a wiring issue or a blown motor inside your machine. In this case, you probably want to visit a vintage sewing machine repair shop unless you have a background in electrical work.

2. Tangled Thread

Incorrect threading will often cause the thread to tangle up beneath the fabric as you sew. This issue sometimes referred to as jamming or bird’s-nesting, will stall out your sewing machine!

This happens to all sewing machines and all sewers on occasion and is not an issue unique to Kenmore machines. The good news is, you can easily resolve the issue following these steps!

  1. Snip through the thread close to the spool. Then snip again above the needle, and pull down on the thread tail to remove it from the tension discs and thread paths.
  2. Use your fingers, a seam ripper, or sharp scissors to remove the tangle and the fabric from beneath the presser foot.
  3. You need to clean out any lint that may have crammed itself into the bobbin area or the upper thread path. If a small brush came with your machine, use that. Otherwise, you can use a clean makeup brush to dust with.
  4. At this point, you can safely re-thread your machine. Not every Kenmore model looks the same, of course, but you can generally follow the clear markings that lead from one hook to another between the spool of thread and the needle!
  5. Do make sure you raise the presser foot before threading, though. This opens the tensions discs, allowing the upper thread to insert itself correctly.
  6. Finally, thread the needle! Some models may have an automatic needle threader. To make sure that works correctly, raise the needle as far as it will go using the handwheel before you try to thread it.

3. Broken Thread

Thread can break while you sew for multiple different reasons. You will find the most likely causes listed at the top of this checklist. If the common cures don’t work, keep reading down the list to the less likely but still possible options!

  1. The most likely culprit for a broken thread is incorrect threading. As a first step, turn off your machine, remove the old thread correctly, and then rethread the upper thread path! Please take care to clean out any thread fragments from the tension discs, as this could cause the thread to jam up and snap as you sew as well.
  2. Too-tight tension could cause the upper thread to snap as you sew. To find out how to adjust the tension on your Kenmore machine, check out the “tension trouble” section later in this article!
  3. Rough areas on the needle plate or bobbin case could tear the thread as you sew. Carefully inspect your sewing machine for any scratches or damages, just in case!
  4. A bent needle might strike metal as it comes down, possibly also breaking the thread. Replace your needle often to avoid this issue.
  5. If you notice the bobbin thread breaking repeatedly, you may need to adjust the tension on the bobbin case. You can do this by loosening the small screw on the case. You may also need to thoroughly clean the bobbin area, as lint or old oil could have jammed the works down there!
  6. A cheap or old thread will often snap as you sew. Likewise, a thread that does not fit well with your fabric–such as polyester thread sewn into silk fabric–may snap or break as you sew.

4. Troubleshooting Bobbin Thread

Once again, you may find a variety of different causes for trouble with your bobbin thread.

  1. First, did you just wind the bobbin? Many Kenmore models have an external bobbin-winding spindle that can slide between winding and “off” positions. You need to push the spindle back to “off,” or your machine will not move the needle to take up the bobbin thread!
  2. How long has it been since you cleaned the whole bobbin area well? You should even use a screwdriver to remove the needle plate and make sure you get at any lingering lint! The bobbin collects more dirt and dust than any other part of the sewing machine, and the accumulated mess will eventually keep it from working correctly.
  3. Once in a while, you might forget to put the presser foot down before you start to sew! This often causes the bobbin thread to tangle up. To fix this, remove the tangle, re-insert the bobbin, and start over again with the presser foot down.
  4. Another common issue with vintage sewing machines is using the wrong size or shape of the bobbin. Your manual will tell you what type of bobbin your particular Kenmore uses. Many vintage Kenmore models will take a class 15 bobbin.

5. Tension Repair

Learning how to adjust tension settings on a vintage sewing machine may seem scary, but actually, it’s often easier than fixing tension on a modern machine! That said, zeroing in on just the right tension for each project often takes a bit of trial and error.

First of all, what exactly is sewing machine tension?

In simple terms, tension is the amount of pressure placed on the upper thread as it moves from the spool to the needle. Your sewing machine uses discs inside the arm of the machine to exert this force.

Higher tension adds more pressure on the thread and allows less thread through, creating tighter stitches. Lower tension allows the thread to flow more freely and makes looser stitches.

If you’re wondering what number should the tension be on your Kenmore sewing machine, there is no one right answer! The middle numbers–typically four and five–offer the average tension setting that usually works on cotton and midweight material.

That said, your machine will handle every type of fabric and thread in a slightly different manner. This means you may need a tighter or looser upper thread for each project you sew!

To narrow in on that number as you start a project, follow these simple steps:

  1. Sew a few inches of a straight stitch on a scrap of fabric.
  2. Remove the fabric from the machine and look at the top of the fabric. Do you see any loose, skipped, or skewed stitches?
  3. If you see puckered stitches or notice loops of thread on this side of the material, you need to lower the tension. Try one number lower, and stitch again!
  4. Flip the fabric over and look at the underside of the stitching. Once again, do you see a tangled thread, skipped stitches, or baggy stitches?
  5. If you see the tangled thread, you either have an incorrectly threaded machine, or you need to tighten the tension to a higher number. This is true if you see the upper thread poking through onto the underside of the material as well.
  6. Try adjusting the tension setting one number at a time. Each time, sew a few inches of stitching again and inspect it.
  7. When the top and bottom thread looks perfectly blanched and you see neat, even stitches on both sides, you have found the correct tension setting!

As a pro tip, you should also thoroughly clean the thread path and tensions discs by running a clean piece of thread through to make sure a bit of old thread or dust is not causing your tension trouble!

6. Feed Dog Troubleshooting

If you bought an old Kenmore sewing machine, you will very likely need to clean up the feed dogs to get them moving correctly. Feed dogs look like small metal teeth that slide the fabric beneath the needle.

You may encounter several different feed dog problems.

  • If the feed dogs seem frozen and do not move, you should first give your machine a thorough cleaning and oiling. If you have a newer model with varying stitch lengths, make sure the length is not set to zero.
  • If you’re working with silky or sheer fabric, the old feed dogs may have trouble gripping it. In this case, use your hand to gently guide the material through. Or you can use many different kinds of fabric stabilizers to help this sewing process along.
  • Finally, in rare instances, you may find that the timing of the feed dogs does not match the timing of the needle as it rises and falls. This is a mechanical problem that you could potentially fix yourself, but it’s so complex that you probably prefer to take your machine to a shop for this one!

7. Reverse Problems

Even quite old Kenmore sewing machines usually have a reverse function. In some instances, your machine may refuse to stitch in reverse. You could also find that the reverse lever or button gets stuck, and your machine will only sew backward!

This is an issue you mostly see in vintage machines, and even then, it tends to happen in machines that have not received proper care and maintenance rather than well-oiled, carefully cleaned models.

If this happens to your Kenmore, you can try a couple of fixes before taking it into a shop.

First, remove the reverse button or lever and find the spring behind it. If the spring looks jammed down so that the coils all contract, see if you can wiggle it loose or reposition it.

Second, take off the cover of the machine and clean the gears behind the reverse lever. Sometimes old grease or gunk gets in there and solidifies, freezing all the moving parts!

8. ZigZag Trouble

You may also run into trouble when trying to zigzag stitch on your Kenmore machine.

Not all vintage Kenmore models will have a zigzag stitch option. Midcentury models will probably have zigzag and other stitching options but may require you to insert plastic discs called cams to make these stitches. Of course, more modern machines have automated zigzag stitches!

But what do you do if the machine will not zigzag?

  1. Read the manual. You need to determine what settings or special devices you may need to tell your machine to make a zigzag stitch.
  2. Clean and oil your machine in case one of the hooks that lift the thread just needs lubrication. Check out the section later on in this article about oil!
  3. If your Kenmore has seen heavy use over the years, a worn-down gear inside might prevent the zigzag operation. If the teeth on a gear get too worn down, you will need to replace it.
  4. Finally, timing issues can also impact zigzag stitching, as well as other stitching patterns. In this case, you may want to seek professional help.

9. Loose Stitches

Several issues can lead to loose stitches as you use your Kenmore sewing machine.

  1. As always, your first port of call should be to check the thread path! Simply rethread the machine and see if that corrects the issue. If the thread slipped free of a hook or came out of the tension discs, it will not have enough tension on it to form tight, precise stitching.
  2. You should also check the bobbin thread. Your Kenmore might have either a front-loading or drop-in bobbin. Front-loading bobbins can sometimes sit loosely in the bobbin case and cause problems.
  3. Make sure you match the type and weight of thread to the type and weight of the fabric. Thick cotton thread probably will not sew well in fine silk, for example!
  4. Finally, tension trouble can also cause loose stitching. See the section earlier in this article on how to adjust your upper tension to correct this issue!

10. Oil Issues

Most vintage Kenmore sewing machines have lots of moving metal parts inside that require regular lubrication.

As a word of caution, please read your sewing machine manual before embarking on this mission! The manual will tell you exactly what to oil. Also, make sure you always use sewing machine oil, not any other kind of lubricant!

Sometimes you will also need to read your owner’s manual to figure out how to get to the insides of the machine. For example, many Japanese-made 385 models have a hinge that opens up the casing on the end of the arm. This allows you to oil the gears and the tension disc area.

As a general rule of thumb, you will need to regularly apply a tiny drop of sewing machine oil to any moving part in your vintage machine!

Why Does My Kenmore Sewing Machine Keep Jamming?

The most common cause for jamming in a Kenmore sewing machine is incorrect threading. After that, the second most likely culprit is incorrect upper tension settings.

In some rare instances, you might find that the motor has died or stalled and that is why your machine seems jammed. Or you might have an issue with the handwheel. Sometimes old grease will solidify inside the handwheel gears, preventing it from turning.

Then again, really simple issues such as a bent needle or the wrong type of needle can also make your sewing machine jam up and refuse to sew!

Anytime you hear a loud noise or a grinding sound, stop sewing. Remove any stuck fabric or thread tangles from beneath the presser foot.

Then turn off your machine, rethread it, and replace the needle for good measure. Quite often, that will take care of the jam!

Kenmore Sewing Machine Model 385 Troubleshooting

You can use many basic sewing machine troubleshooting techniques on a Kenmore 385 model.

Kenmore sewing machines that have a model number starting with “385” were made by Janome anytime between 1965 and 2013. The famous 12 stitch model probably came from the 1990s.

Some of these models have a great reputation, especially the earlier ones that still contain solid metal parts! Later models made in the 1980s and 90s tend to use cheap plastic parts or computer components that we now consider antiquated.

All of that goes to say that troubleshooting a Kenmore 385 model can vary wildly depending on when the machine was made. As explained earlier in this article, most 385 models will experience the occasional problem with threading, tension, or bobbins.

If you do find an earlier computerized Kenmore, you may want to pass on it. These models will not hold up as well over time and will require expert knowledge of wiring and old computer boards to keep them running!

Kenmore Sewing Machine Repair Manual Free

Your Kenmore sewing machine originally came with an owner’s manual that offered setup and repair tips for the user. Since many Kenmore machines have reached a ripe old age, they might not all have that original document! There’s good news and bad news on finding a manual for your Kenmore sewing machine.

First, Sears does not offer them for free through the company website. You can find this limited “repair guide” for free, though!

However, if you specifically need, say, a Kenmore 385 sewing machine manual, you can try two different tactics.

First, you can purchase pretty much any sewing machine manual online these days. Try Etsy or You can also purchase some booklets from Sears here.

Second, if you want to track down a free manual, try joining an online sewing forum. The sewers who join to discuss old sewing machines often post manuals they come across. Sewers love to help each other out!

Kenmore Sewing Machine Parts

Finding replacement parts and accessories for vintage Kenmore models grows more difficult each year. You can still often find parts online through Etsy and eBay. Sometimes a vintage sewing machine repair shop near you might have the parts in stock, as well.

That said, when Sears stopped selling Kenmore sewing machines, they started to fade away. Some sewing enthusiasts make it a habit to snatch up old Kenmore sewing machines found at yard sales or flea markets just to get the parts out of them!

Since Kenmore machines never became collectible and didn’t usually rank as high-end models, they sell cheaply. You can often find vintage Kenmore sewing machines for sale for under $100.


Sears sold sewing machines under the Kenmore brand for many years but no longer offers new Kenmore models. Because most Kenmore models are now quite old, you will have to use vintage sewing machine techniques to troubleshoot them. These techniques include knowing how to oil your machine and finding appropriate parts and bobbins.

Using any sewing machine also means troubleshooting common issues such as tension settings and thread tangles. You may also need to adjust the feed dogs or fix the bobbin thread.

Do you have an old Kenmore sewing machine? What kind of sewing have you done on it? Leave a comment below to let us know!

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Monday 15th of May 2023

Thank you for your in depth tips and tricks. They are well explained. I will review again as I move along with the issues I’m having on this vintage 148-121. It’s probably more me, than the machine.