Trouble-Shooting Tension

Correct tension between the upper and lower threads is the basis for great-looking machine quilting. Learn how to adjust tension on a long-arm quilting machine and see examples of tension problems and how to fix them.

"When you're in the mood to quilt, you want to do just that. Start quilting now. So nothing is more frustrating then a machine that isn't cooperating. Hi, I'm Elizabeth Tisinger, editor of American Patchwork & Quilting, and I'm joined today by Vicki Hoth, education coordinator with Handi Quilter quilting machines. Welcome, Vicki." "Thank you. I'm glad to be here." "To get quilting as quickly as possible, just pay attention to three simple things: thread, needle, and tension." "A dynamite way to remember those three things is TNT." "And as quilters, most of us know what to do with the first two letters of TNT. We know that we need to use the proper size needle with proper size thread. So if I'm using a heavier thread, I'm going to use a bigger needle. But what stumps most of us or some of us is that last T. Tension. Can you help us know why it's so important in quilting?" "Well, with tension and quilting, we have thread. The top thread sinks into the fabric, the bottom thread sinks into the fabric and they meet in the center. That's where the ideal tension is, so that they meet in the center of your fabric, kind of like a tug-of-war." "But where neither side is winning." "That's correct." "Ok, well that makes sense. So where do we start?" "First of all, we start with the bobbin. It's the foundation of our tension, I should say. And so we start with the bobbin tension. And you know we were taught, or at least our grandmothers were taught that they should never touch that tension screw? Well, you know, with the HQ 16, we give them license to touch that screw. They need to adjust each thread as they place it into their bobbin." "So they can get the perfect tension." "That's right." "So how do we adjust the bobbin tension on this machine?" "Well, this little tiny screw right here with a screwdriver. Righty tighty, lefty loosey. So if it's too loose as this one is (I can't even lift it off with my hand), that's too loose so we need to tighten that tension. Ideal tension is I lift this off and it slides out. That's perfect tension." "So I've got my bobbin tension just where I want it. Where do I go next?" "Well the next step is we move to the top tension guide, making sure that our thread is flossed in the tension disc, then we turn to the knob." "And it's righty tighty, lefty loosey." "That's correct. So we adjust this knob to get the correct tension." "Ok, well this all sounds pretty simply and I think I've got it. When machine quilting, most of us have one time or another experienced a tension headache." "That's right. Either our thread is breaking because it's too loose or it's causing the fabric to draw in because it's too tight." "So let's look at some examples that might be painfully obvious to some of you. And we'll learn how to fix them. Now on this first sampler I can see that the top thread is just kind of laying on top of the fabric. Why is that happening?" "Well, if we've set our bobbin tension correctly, the top thread, the tension is too tight. So it's pulling the bobbin thread up. On our second example, can you see the loop? That means that our top thread is too loose. And if we turn this over, we can really see the eyelashes (that's what we call that), that means our top thread is too loose. That's right. So we need to tighten our top thread. Now on this one, you can see a lot of loops. You can feel how loose that is. And if I turn this over, that's a nightmare, so we need to tighten our top thread. Or possibly this could mean that the thread is not even flossed in the tension discs." "Ok, which you showed us before." "Yes. Do you like the difference in thread color?" "That's interesting. Easy way to tell what's going on." "That's right. You wouldn't normally do that for a quilt. You would want to match up your thread colors, but it's a nice way to be able to adjust your thread tension and see which one is the problem." "And I should do this kind of test before I stitch on any quilt, right?" "That's right. And off to the side of your quilt you can do a test sample and test your tension to make sure that it's proper." "Don't let tension throw you for a loop. Just remember these easy tips and you'll know how to diagnose and remedy all your tension headaches." "Happy quilting."