401A - second timing line

Perfect Timing (Updated with video!)

Part 2 of the timing series.  How to check your sewing machine’s hook timing.  This is a simple check that I have heard of shops charging money for.  Once you’ve done it a couple of times, it can be done in 30 seconds or less. Hopefully, after reading this, you’ll never pay for someone to check your timing again.

On a properly timed machine, when the needle is down, the hook is just about behind the eye of the needle, but not quite. To be timed right, the needle will be on its upswing as the hook ends up behind the eye to catch the needle thread.

This goes back to what I talked about in the last post: Excuse me, do you have the time?  When the needle is on the down swing, the thread is tight against the needle.  As it begins to swing up, the thread bows away from the needle, forming a loop.

This is when the hook needs to come along and grab the thread.  At any other time, the hook will not grab the thread, and worse, more than likely the needle is going to collide with the hook assembly.

This is going to cause a smashed needle, and possibly as the needle collides with the hook assembly, it may damage the hook or the hook gears.  This is usually in the form of a dent or a scrape (deep or shallow) and a burr. The dent or scrape isn’t a huge deal, but it’s undesirable.    The burr however, will likely catch the thread, and break it or weaken it.

Think of it like a tiny version of someone cutting a rope.  Even if the knife (burr) doesn’t get through it on the first cut, it’s still weakened it, and it may break somewhere else at another time.   If the needle makes a burr, it needs to be filed off, so there’s no protrusion at all that can break or abrade the thread anymore.

The hook gears are also a bad thing to damage.  They control the timing and your machine’s ability to sew.  It’s very rare to damage the gears on a machine that has metal gears.  In more recent years, roughly the 1970s and newer, we started to see “plastic” and “rubber” gears show up.  These gears can smash or tear when the machine comes to a sudden stop due to some sort of mechanical problem.  Once these gears are damaged, the timing is off, and the gears must be replaced before the timing can be set again. To have a shop do this can be very costly.

On some machines, Singers especially, there are “timing lines” on the needlebar to help you time it.  If you remove the faceplate on the machine, and turn the handwheel so that the needlebar is in the fully down position, you’ll see 2 lines on the needlebar somewhere.  In the photo below, you can see the lines I’m talking about.

Timing lines on a Singer 401A
Timing lines on a Singer 401A

On the model above, if you turn the handwheel further, top line has just about disappeared up into the body of the sewing machine like in the photo below, the needle should be at its very lowest point.

Singer 401A - Top timing line, needle is at its lowest point.
Singer 401A – Top timing line, needle is at its lowest point.

Notice that there’s a little space above the timing line?  That shouldn’t technically happen if the needle is bottomed, right?   In a perfect world, that would be true.  The timing lines are a guideline.  Sometimes they’re a little off, but they will help you get the timing right enough to sew every time in my experience.

The second timing line is the one we’re most interested in now.  When you turn the handwheel so that the second line is in line with the bottom of the body, like so:

401A - second timing line
401A – second timing line

When you look at where the hook is, it should be behind the needle’s eye and a little past it.  You’ll notice in these photos that the machine is threaded.  This makes it easier to check that the hook and needle are timed correctly.  When the second timing line is at the body of the machine, the hook will have picked up the thread, like in the photo below. See the point of the hook between the two pieces of thread?

Singer 401A - Good timing
Singer 401A – Good timing, but not perfect.

Note: This machine’s timing is ever so slightly advanced. Normally, you would want the hook point to be exactly behind the eye of the needle at the point where the second timing line is in place on the needlebar.  We will address the timing of this machine in the next installment in this series.

If we look at the timing on a 201, this is a little clearer.  I have removed the bobbin retainer, and the feed dogs for illustration only:

Note that the tip of the hook (red arrow) is directly in front of (or behind in relation to the front of the needle) and the eye of the needle (blue arrow) is a little below the hook.  This is “perfect timing”. timing


If it’s further ahead or behind than that, this means the timing is off, and you may find that it starts to stitch weird – skipped stitches that can’t be fixed with tension changes, it won’t pick up the bobbin thread, etc.

If it’s a lot further off than that, the needle may start to hit the hook and break.  At some point in between the two scenarios, it may just deflect, and you’ll hear a weird sliding or scraping noise every time the needle goes down or more likely when it’s coming back up, and there’s a good chance that your thread may break as well.

If you’ve done this check, and it looks like the timing is a problem, please check in with me in the next couple of days and I’ll show you how to adjust the timing on your machine so that it will sew again.

Edit: March 18, 2014 I’ve just made a video that may make this process a little easier to understand.  As you can see in the video, even with explaining the how and the why, it takes less than 5 minutes to check timing.


In the next few months, as I get more machines with timing issues, I will post pictures of how to fix those machines specifically, because while the principles are the same, the way the parts look can be different from machine to machine which makes the method differ slightly from machine to machine.

This post has become longer than I intended, I will address things that look like timing problems, or things that timing is often blamed for, and feed dog timing in another post.

How about it?  Is this something you’d take a machine to a shop for?  Have you?  Let’s hear about it below.

20 thoughts on “Perfect Timing (Updated with video!)”

  1. Thanks you for sharing. I’m forwarding to hubby as my needle keeps hitting and I’m not mechanical, so not sure how to follow what you’re saying. 🙂

  2. Oh, hey, fantastic walk through. My gosh, this nailed it! So the timing is correct. What distance should the hook to needle be, if you can tell us. Would love to know for my 201, … which normally sews well, … now, not so much.

    1. That measurement will vary from model to model.

      For the 201, Singer says the top of the eye of the needle should be “about 1/16th inch below the point of the rotating hook”. Yes, it actually says “about” in the service manual!

      The measurement I learned was 5/64ths – which is a smidgen bigger than the 1/16″ in the 201 manual – so maybe that’s why they say “about”. 1/16″ is a fair bit easier to measure than 5/64″ without really accurate tools.

      That said, unless you’ve struck something hard – the most common reason for the 201 to not stitch is that the needle is in backwards or threaded wrong.

    1. It sounds like your needlebar height is too low. You’ll need to address that and then look at the hook timing again afterwards because they’re tied to each other.

      You’ll probably need a service manual to determine the bar height unless it’s a Singer with the markings on the needlebar itself.

  3. Thank you so much! We have another problem with our Singer 201-2. The needle is hitting the needle plate just slightly. We have replaced the needle bar and shaft, but that didn’t help. We tried the needle plate on our other working 201-2, but it still hits it. Would you happen to know the fix for this? Thanks.

    1. Assuming that the needle isn’t in backwards (flat to the….?), I’d need to see something like that. The most common troubleshooting would say you’d need to go up the chain to the next item that could be bent and after the needle bar, it’s basically frame/body/bushing. No way I could diagnose something like that from afar though.

  4. This was a great article and the pictures were worth a thousand words. I had spent 3 hours fussing with the timing on my machine, but had made it worse rather than better. This explained everything all the other sites I found didn’t! Thank you!

  5. Sorry it took me a little while to figure out how to get back to this question. I’m not too swift at all this blog stuff. I just checked this out doing stitch lenght at 2.5 and middle position for the needle. Then I took the stitching out.The holes are not in a straight line. I then put needle in far right position and same thing happened. Stitch quality is okay but not great. Then I did the far left position and tension is off and when I pulled the swatch out of the machine the fabric somewhat gathered.The stitches on the back were really off. One slanted stitch then one straight stitch that looked smaller. However the stitches seemed like they were laying along the top of the fabric. I could feel them like both sides were raised. I used to use all 3 positions of the needle but now I only seem to be able to get the best stitches from far right. By the way I used a straight edge after ripping out the stitches to tell. It’s very visible about 1/2mm off. Every other hole aligns.

    1. Hi Bonnie, Stitch timing (the hook, needlebar and feed dog timing) wouldn’t have anything to do with the needlebar swing. It sounds to me like there’s either something stuck that’s making the machine think it’s supposed to zig zag or else there’s maybe something wrong with an adjustment related to the camstack and its followers. Not really something I could walk through via a blog or email or such. This is really one that should be seen in person/on bench.

  6. I thought your timing explanation was very clear. Would timing be the cause of my straight stitch looking like a very shallow (left to right) zigzag? The stitches aren’t in a straight line. I have a White Jeans Machine. I’m at a lose for what the problem is.

    1. Hey Bonnie! Thanks!
      Let me ask a question first: Are the holes that the needle makes in a straight line but the thread is zig zaggy or do the holes wander back and forth? Use a straight edge to tell, it’s an optical illusion in one case and a possible adjustment required in the other. If the answer is the first one – this is probably “normal”. You’re seeing the twist of the threads making the stitch – it tends to be especially prevalent if your fabrics are thin (quilt cotton, for instance). If the answer is the second one, it may be that there’s too much play in the needlebar bushing, the cams are mistimed so that when you have it on straight stitch, it thinks it’s still on a tiny zig zag, or something else. It’s also possible that it’s just the “slop” that comes with a swing needle. We really did lose a lot of “perfection” in the straight stitch when we went to machines that could zig zag.

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