Do You Feel the Tension?

We’ve covered a lot of quilting ground this year.  By now, I hope you’re changing up quilt patterns to suit your tastes or better yet, designing your own quilts.  You’re fearlessly “mathing” the borders and setting triangles and doing all kinds of things that six months ago you never dreamed of.

I can imagine quite a few of you out there are like me.  You work full-time.  As much as you’re dreaming about either A) retiring or B) somehow creating a successful, income-driven profession fueled by quilting, neither of those are happening right now.  Most days I’m doing really well if I can come home, throw something on the table that resembles dinner, do laundry/dishes/some housework, and then spend at least a half an hour in my quilt studio.  That time is something I look forward to all day.

And then my sewing machine decides that it wants to audition for a role in The Exorcist.


You know what I mean…it doesn’t want to sew right, it keeps coming unthreaded, or the stitches are just awful.  When you have a limited amount of time to sew, and your machine is acting like a spoiled brat, it can eat up not only fabric and thread, but minutes of your time.

Yes, I have multiple machines and the easiest thing to do would be to move my chair from one machine to another, but that doesn’t eliminate the problem – one of my sewing machines is still acting possessed.  So, what I want to do with this blog is deal with sewing machine tension and other issues that can seriously impede your quilting time.

The first thing I check if Big Red (my primary machine) gives me issues is the thread path.  Is she threaded correctly?  I’ve sewn on her so long, I can practically thread her in the dark and may have a time or two, but still I check this first because if I don’t set the thread cleanly in the thread take up, it will slide out and cause issues.  Nine times out of ten, this is the problem.  A quick re-thread and we’re ready to go again.  Also, be sure to thread your machine with the presser foot up.  This opens the tension disks you maneuver the thread through.   When the presser foot is lowered, these disks close around the thread, keeping it in place.

If the thread take-up or the tension disks aren’t the issue, I examine the needle.  The needle should be checked for two things.  First, are you using the right needle for the job?  Jersey and knits use one type of needle.  Denim another.  And 100% cotton fabrics another.  Make sure the type of needle used is the right one for the job.  And then check to make sure the needle is in good shape.  Sometimes a burr or a bend is visible to the naked eye and that is the problem.  Sometimes it’s not.  Change your needle (and safely dispose of the old one).  This may solve the issue, especially if the issue is skipped stitches.  An old, dull needle or a needle with a bend or burr can’t penetrate the fabric completely and that will result in skipped stitches.  And FYI, you should be changing that needle after eight hours of sewing, unless you’re using titanium needles, then you can double the time.


If Big Red is still giving me problems, I check the bobbin and bobbin case.  My Janome has a built-in bobbin case with a drop-in bobbin.  I’ve only had issues with my bobbin case once in the 10 years I’ve had Big Red.  But if you use a machine with an insertable metal bobbin case, examine the case – especially if it’s been dropped on a hard surface.  The case could be damaged.  If the case is fine, check the bobbin.  Again, if you’re using a metal bobbin, and it’s been dropped on a hard surface, it could be damaged, so try a different bobbin.  If you use the clear, plastic bobbins like I do, make sure they’re not cracked or chipped.  And with both types of bobbins, make sure the bobbin is wound correctly and evenly.

Use the same weight of thread in the bobbin and on top of your machine.  It can be different colors … even different brands… but sometimes that can be the issue.  The only time I can get away with using a different weight in my bobbin than on top of my machine is if I’m using Superior Threads Bottom Line.  That thread tends to play well with everyone – even Loretta the long arm.  If you’re using cheap thread, try a different brand.  Some machines (well, all of mine) do not like cheap thread.  I can use a spool of one of the brands that’s found at big box discount stores, and all of my machines reject it.  Go for a long, staple cotton or high-quality polyester.  Cheap thread has caused many a machine hiccup.

Next, clean your machine.  Follow your sewing machine manual and clean the bobbin area and any other area that the instruction book directs you to do.  Oil it as directed and then try again.  Also…let me throw in here that when you clean your machine, there’s only so much you can do.  If you’re using your machine several times a week, then at least once a year you should make an appointment with a machine tech who knows how to deep clean and oil your machine.  Sewing machines are like cars – the more attentive you are at maintenance, the few problems you’re going to have and the longer it will last.

But what if you check all of the above and you still have issues?  What if the seam looks puckered or there are these horrible clumps of thread on the back of the fabric?  If either of those are the case, then your machine (and probably you, too) are having trouble with tension.

Balanced Tension

Above is an illustration of balanced seam tension.  The bobbin thread is not seen on the front of the seam and the top thread is not seen on the back of the seam.  Both threads meet and interlock in the middle.  If you’re not sure if the tension is correct on your machine, here’s an idea that I use.  I wind my bobbin with one color thread and use a different colored thread on the top of the machine – anything but white in either one.  Then I place two squares of white material, right sides together, and sew a seam.  By using the two colors of thread, I can readily see if my tension is okay.  No bobbin thread seen on the top?  The bobbin tension is good.  No top thread seen on the back?  Top tension is good.  My machine is working fine.

But what if it looks like this:

loose top tension tight bobbin tension

In this case, either A) the top tension is too loose or B) the bobbin tension is too tight.  When you purchase your sewing machine, the top thread tension and the bobbin case tension are preset by the factory. Most of the time that pre-set tension will work just fine with whatever you’re creating.  But if you’re working with some funky thread or you’re sewing several thicknesses together, this tension issue can happen.  Always try to adjust the top tension first because that’s the easiest.  The higher numbers on the tension dial or LED screen tension screen indicated higher (tighter) tension.  Increase that number a little at a time and try sewing a seam.

If you do this and you still can’t get balanced tension, reset the thread tension back to normal and have a look at your bobbin case (and this is only for the machines that have a front-loading bobbin case).  Remove the bobbin case and make sure it’s threaded correctly.  Holding the thread, release the bobbin case release the case over a padded surface.  If it falls a couple of inches, the bobbin tension is fine.  If it doesn’t fall at all, then the bobbin tension is too tight.  On the side of the case is a tiny screw.  Using a screw driver, turn the screw about a quarter-turn to the left to loosen it.  Reinsert the case and try another seam.

Depending on what fabric and thread you’re sewing with, this may be all that needs to be done.  Sometimes it’s a combination of fine-tuning both the top tension and the bobbin tension to make the seam balanced.


Now….what do you do if your seam looks like this?

tight top tension loose bobbin tension

In this case, the top tension is too tight, and the bottom tension is too loose.  If this is the situation, again, adjust the top tension first.  But this time instead of turning the tension dial or LED tension screen to a higher number, move it to a lower one and try a seam.

If that doesn’t work, try holding the bobbin case by the thread again.  If the bobbin case falls several inches, then the tension needs to be tightened.  Take the screw driver and turn the screw on the side of the case a quarter-turn to the right.  Do a test seam.  And again, you may have to play with both the top tension and the bobbin tension to make everything balanced.


There are a couple of things to remember at this point.  First, if you’ve tried and tried to get a balanced seam and can’t it’s time to take the machine to see the tech.  There are adjustments the tech can make that you can’t.  And secondly, if you have to adjust the top tension or the bobbin tension or both, remember to reset them to the factory settings when you’re through.


Throwing in an FYI here – the times I have to play with the tension the most is if I’m sewing on a densely woven fabric (such as a batik), a loosely woven fabric (such as homespun), or I’m quilting on my domestic machine – batting can add drag to the top tension, depending on the loft of the batting as well as the batting content.  Cotton batting tends to “grab” the thread more than polyester or a blend.


I know I can’t relieve all of the tension in your life, but I at least hope I’ve helped with your sewing machine tension.  To me there is nothing more frustrating than looking forward to spending time in my studio and then my machine starts auditioning for The Exorcist. 


Until next week … Quilt with Excellence!


Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


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