So let's cover tension today.
You know, that nice little knob on the front of your machine that you never dare touch because it's sure to be a secret button that triggers the end of the world?
Well it's time to get over it and turn that dial!
That little knob is actually the secret key to beautiful stitches.
No, the world will not come to an end if you adjust your tension!
No, the sewing machine police will not come arrest you for fiddling with that dial!
but YES! You will see an immediate difference and improvement in your stitches if you start adjusting your tension regularly.
And by regularly - I mean every time you sit down to quilt, change thread, change needles, or change fabric.
Why so often?
Because ALL of these things can affect your tension!
- Thicker thread needs less tension than thin thread.
- Different needles can radically change your stitch quality.
- And some fabrics (batiks!) simply stitch weird until your tension is adjusted.
So here's Adjusting Your Tension 101:
1. Thread red thread in the top of your machine and blue thread in the bobbin.
Please note: the difference in thread color here is just to help you see any tension issues and make adjustments. When you do this exercise before quilting your quilt, only use the threads and fabrics that you're actually quilting with, otherwise your tension could be different.
2. Take a 6" quilt sandwich and stitch a straight line for around 3" and then do a "U" turn and stitch a wiggly line all the way back.
3. Break your threads and look at your stitches on the back and the front.
- If you see red thread on the back, this means your top tension is too loose - the bobbin threads are pulling your top thread to the back.
Tighten your top tension by 1/2 a number on your tension dial and stitch your straight line/wiggly line test again.
- If you see blue thread on the top, that means your top tension is too tight - the top thread is pulling your bobbin threads up through the quilt top.
Loosen your top tension by 1/2 a number on your tension dial and stitch your straight line/wiggly line test again.
Continue to stitch the test, adjust, and stitch again until you see no loops of red on the back and no loops of blue on the top.
Also before you're done adjusting your tension, make sure to run your finger over your stitches once to feel them.
This may sound weird, but tension issues will often cause the thread to sit slightly higher on the fabric. If you run your fingertips over the top or back and the stitches feel particularly rough and knobbly, you might want to continue to play with your tension a bit.
I'm sure you're wondering - What About the Bobbin???
The bobbin area gets a lot of attention when it comes to tension issues and I'm not sure that it's really the main culprit.
Think about it: your top thread has to go through at least 3-10 guides, tension discs, a needle, and then gets repeatedly stabbed into your fabric.
The bobbin thread on the other hand is simply picked up and fed through the bobbin casing.
It makes sense that the place more likely to have tension problems is going to be your top thread.
But just in case you fear your bobbin is the ultimate source for all your tension woes, try this Yo-Yo Test (note: this is for machines with side loading bobbins that are inserted into cases).
1. Insert your bobbin into the case (if you use bobbin washers, leave them inside the case too).
2. Holding the bobbin thread, dangle the bobbin case and gently tug the thread in an upward motion.
- If your bobbin case immediately spins out of control to the floor, you might want to tighten the screw on your bobbin case to increase the tension.
- If your bobbin case doesn't move, even when you jerk it hard enough to pull some teeth out, you might want to loosen the tension on the bobbin case.
In both cases, remeber the golden rule of screws: lefty loosey, righty tighty!
Honestly, I maybe check my bobbin tension around every 3 months because it very rarely changes. Like I said before, I truly believe that most tension issues come from the top thread, not the bobbin.
So here's a million dollar question that even I wrangle with sometimes:
But What About the LITTLE DOTS???
When I say little dots, I mean very tiny glimmers of the opposite color thread.
If you run your fingers over the stitching, it feels smooth and soft and the little dots are only located where the needle has pierced the quilt.
Here's my slightly unsatisfactory answer:
We can't do anything about the little dots.
We can't do anything about the little dots.
If you read my post on Quilting Machine Conundrum, you'll know that I've owned 7 machines in 5 years and not one of those machines had perfect, spot on tension every day.
What I mean by perfect tension is a machine that produces stitches so perfectly that not even the irritating dot phenomenon happens.
The closest to perfect tension was the old Bernina 830 (not to be confused with the new 830s, this one was built back in 1960).
On most days, the tension was so perfect that you never saw a glimmer of the top thread on the back or the bobbin thread on the top.
But some days the alignment of the planets, humidity in the air, or simply the irascibility of my mechanical device would conspire to make the tension slightly off and the dots would yet again appear.
Soooo...rather than continue to adjust and readjust tension until you turn blue, the better option is just to always and forever....
MATCH YOUR THREAD!
So many tension problems are caused by mismatching thread.
Yes, I know that it's very easy to want to pick a cheaper thread for your bobbin. It's the back of your quilt after all and who is ever going to care if you spent half the price for the bargain bin thread?
I understand. I used to do it myself.
I also used to struggle with tension problems, break thread constantly, curse and tear my hair, and end up in tears at the end of it all when my blasted quilt didn't turn out the way that I wanted it to.
Save yourself 4 years of misery and struggle: Always match your threads!
And by "matching" I mean match the color, brand, weight, EVERYTHING!
Pretty much go into any quilt ready to use the exact same thread on the top as you do on the bobbin.
For me, this would be straight up impossible if I didn't use Isacord thread. I love this stuff and will swear by it until the day I die, it's that good.
Isacord is a super thin, polyester thread that comes in 1000 meter spools for around $5.
That is about as cheap as you can get for a super high quality thread that will definitely cover an average sized quilt top if you're not hyperquilting it.
And of course, the one final thing that can truly help your tension more than anything else is Bobbin Washers.
These little teflon discs of love help your bobbin glide smoothly and evenly with no hangups or hiccups, less breakage, and better tension. I can't think of anything more multi-tasking and useful, except maybe a sewing machine/cappuccino maker combo, which has not been invented yet.
Okay, I think that just about covers thread tension!
Let's go quilt (after checking your tension)!