I think most of us forget: It's okay to touch our tension dial! We have permission to make tension adjustments to create a balanced stitch. It's not super hard to make tension adjustments, but often we need to check the following list of things first:
If this is a new sewing project, it’s always a good idea to replace the needle. It is the cheapest, simplest thing to fix, and yet the easiest thing to overlook. Did you know a damaged or bent needle effects stitch quality? I keep a post-it note by my machine with the needle size, type and date I changed it. Make sure your needle is both seated properly and securely screwed-in to the machine. Don’t ask me how I know this important!
First things first - remember to lift the presser foot up before threading. Having the presser foot in the up position opens the machine thread tension guides. It is important to lay the thread in between these guides when threading to achieve proper tension and make any adjustments. If you’re not in the guides, who knows where your thread may end up!
Just refer to your instruction manual if you don't know where these disks are located. I keep a soft brush and Q-tips nearby to keep these clean. Always pull thread forward through the tension disks, never backwards. The small amount of thread you save is not worth the headaches!
Think of tension as a great tug of war! Only, in this war, we want no winners between stitches! We want a perfectly matched top and bottom team! We want complete equality! Our stitches will look beautiful and we win!
Locate the sewing machine tension gauge on your machine. Sometimes it’s a knob, button or dial. Computerized machines may have the tension adjustment within the touch screen. Some machines have auto-tension settings that adjust for you as you change your stitch. Don’t be afraid of your tension dial or changing the settings. The machine manufacturer has this feature on your machine for your use. It’s a good idea to be familiar with your owner’s manual and the section on machine tension. Improper machine tension adjustments fall into two categories; it is either too loose or too tight.
This means your needle thread is too loose or your bobbin thread is too tight.
This means either your needle thread is too tight or your bobbin thread is too loose.
Threads like monofilament, polyester, rayon or holographic threads have stretch in them. It’s easy to see this stretch for yourself. Take a length of monofilament or rayon thread and give it a pull. You can feel the stretch. Now try the same with a length of cotton thread. Don’t you feel the difference?
Many decorative threads are thicker than the 50 wt. cotton that we using for piecing our quilts (lower numbers are heavier threads). When using these thicker threads be prepared to reduce your tension. A larger, thicker thread also creates tension as it winds its way through your machine. Reduce the settings and test until you've arrived at the balanced stitch you desire. I do not advise using your machine needle-threader with heavy weight threads or small needles.
Because of the weight and composition of metallic threads, expect to lower your upper thread tension. Test, adjust, and test again until you've achieved a balanced stitch. Use the right needle too!
After establishing a balanced tension for the combination of quilt sandwich and thread you've chosen, you can still have “eye-lashing” on the back of your quilt. This is almost always due to the quilter pulling the fabric too fast while going around a curve. It’s an eye-hand coordination issue.
No! While it is possible that your bobbin tension is the problem, most of the time adjustments to your needle tension will fix the issue. Quilters find bobbin adjustments most necessary when quilting with very large threads in their bobbins for bobbin work. You may want to have a special, separate bobbin for these heavy threads in the bobbin. This will ensure you have a bobbin for regular threads and a bobbin for heavier threads. I use a Sharpie marker to denote my bobbin case for heavy threads. I also believe it is reasonable to expect to purchase a new bobbin case every couple years for horizontal rotary machines. An extra bobbin case is approximately $30 -$60 depending on your make or model.
To adjust bobbin tension, refer to your sewing machine manual. Locate the bobbin case and bobbin tension screw. This is a very small screw without a lot of threads on it. If necessary, adjust by making very small-micro turns (less than a quarter, closer to an eighth) of the screw following the “right-tighty, lefty-loosey” rhyme. It maybe helpful to make a mark on the bobbin case itself where your original tension was set so that you can return to it without difficulty. Some machines have a special ratchet tool to change the bobbin tension setting. Always refer to your manual first.