The Free Motion Quilting Project: Tension Tangles

Friday, December 11, 2009

Tension Tangles

Sorry ladies, but I'm on a roll with these basic information posts! I feel like I've just gotta get them out of my system all in one go.

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 after trying for the last 2 hours to shoot a video or pictures of how to adjust tension, I've decided to just explain how to do this in writing.

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.

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....


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)!

Leah Day


  1. thanks for those tips.
    I will try the two different colored threads when I practice quilting again to see how things go.

  2. Thank you so much for this VERY useful and easy-to-understand explanation!

    I am currently experiencing the most annoying issue with my Pfaff Quilt Express, which is exactly 1 year today: the tread keeps on snapping for every 2 inches and I am about to explode... Until now, it has served me well.

    Bobbin washers: check
    Quality thread: check
    Tension: better check now!!

    Thanks again and keep up the good work. IT has inspired me so much!

    Kind regards
    Ann, Denmark

  3. What do you do when you're using variegated thread to quilt with, do you use that on the back also? Or what if a heavier thread is used for quilting, like Sulky 12 wt?

  4. Great information, Leah, thank you for all the reminders! One question about isacord thread....if you are not doing dense quilting, only open or line quilting, is the isacord strong enough for less dense work?

  5. Hi Leah, Thanks for this-it's always good to get more info on the dreaded tension! I recently read that any tension adjustments should be made while the foot is down? I had not heard that before , so I thought I'd ask. The advice about matching the thread makes me glad-I have been wondering why it would make sense to use bobbin thread instead of the top thread, and this also makes my decision easier.

  6. I just want to add that batting choice is a big factor in tension issues!! There are many types and qualities of batting. Generally the thicker the loft the better chance you can balance your thread tension and the dots!! If you use cheap thin batting then you will get dots. Batting like Quilters Dream Blend or Cotton Deluxe that produce a beautiful midloft look are great and no dots as the threads lock in the batting. I rarely use the same thread on top and bottom once I understood all the factors that affect tension and can quilt with brown on top and beige in the bobbin no dots. That just comes with experience and that is the great thing about quilting....always something to learn. Your advise is good for beginners but be open to the next step in your quilting journey...trying two different thread colors. :)

  7. Ann - Check your needle too! If you suddenly start snapping threads, chances are it's a bent needle that's causing the problem.

    Eileen - Sorry, but I HATE variegated threads with a passion. It's just a personal thing, do don't mind me.

    If I was to use them on a quilt, I'd again match the same thread in top and bobbin. T

    his is probably why I hate them so much - there's no way to control the colors and make them stitch the right color in the right place.

    I don't use heavier weight threads because of the amount of traveling my style of quilting requires. You're just going to have to play with it and develop your own way of judging tension with heavy threads.

    Debbie - Isacord polyester thread is used not just for embroidery and quilting, but also to stitch medical scrubs.

    It resists all wear, even after being boiled and treated with chlorine. I think that's strong enough to withstand quilt wear and tear!

    Kathy - Very true about batting. I pretty much stick with Quilters Dream poly and cotton, but still see the dots occasionally.

    I think this is one issue that's different for every quilter, and some people may also not be as picky as I am when it comes to the little dot monsters.

    My type A personality just can't handle it, so I always match thread! It's been the easiest way to resolve an issue that used to make me go crazy.

    Keep in mind ALWAYS that these are my opinions, but my opinions are always changing as my style and quilting develops.

    Let's go quilt!


  8. Leah,
    I learned to use matching thread when I learned to sew, and have never thought of using different threads. If you want to use different weight threads use the same colour at least. And adjust the tension!
    Hope you don't mind that I have added a link to this post to my Links to Lessons page to spread the word.
    Thank you.
    Judy B

  9. PS I hate variegated threads too, but they make interesting tassels.
    Judy B

  10. Between thread tension and fabric tension, I'm feeling a little tension! Then I remember that testing and practice take less time in the long run than just "going for it" on my project.

    Happy Holidays,
    WendyB @ That Seams Fun

  11. Thanks so much for this information on tension adjustments Leah. I have two questions though . . .
    First, I have been a quilter for fifteen years and always heard not to use polyester thread on my cotten quilts. (Something about it being stronger and would eventually cut through my fabric or some such thing.) I would actually love the option to use the Isacord thread. My quilts are almost all utility quilts, moderatley quilted, that are used and washed on a regular basis. Is this still in your opinion a good thread choice for me?
    And second do you have any bobbin tension adjustmant advice for those of us with drop in bobbins?

    Thanks Leah - you are a treasure trove of knowledge and a sweetie to share it so generously with us.

  12. Hi Sue - Yep, I've heard this wild rumor as well that polyester thread will shred through the delicate cotton of our quilt tops and backs.

    While this may be true of Cotton covered polyester threads (bleh!), it's not true of Isacord.

    Like I said before, it's used in sewing medical scrubs and other industrial uses. If it can withstand this type of wear and tear, I'm sure it can survive on a bed quilt.

    But don't take my word for it! If you're skeptical, try it out on a baby quilt and wash every other week for a year.

    At the end of the year, if the threads are not wearing as well as you would like, stop using it.

    It's always good to go with your gut and personal experience. I share what works for me, but it may not work for you!

    Always try it yourself.

    Leah Day

  13. cool thanks for that! I must say I'm using a brother at the moment with auto tension and that's fine for sewing and working well but once I start quilting the auto tension goes out the window!

    very helpful info!

  14. Hey! Thanks for sharing the info! I, too, took years to give up buying cheap thread. I've had success with the big cones of Gutermann 100$ cotton thread. It's fairly lightweight.
    I had to share your post here:

  15. Great article, thanks for sharing. Love your site. I posted a link on my site for others to find this article and you. You are an inspiration to those of us who have been afraid to venture out of the box with free motion quilting.

  16. You may not even be getting theses posts since they are over 2-3 yrs. old. I just discovered your posts/website. So informative to a new machine quilter. Thanks
    Gmama jane


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