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I love all things sewing!  It's all about the creative journey.  All my blog posts are letters to my sewing alter-ego - Lola!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Tension - The Great Tug of War!

Dear Lola,
Sewing is fun.  You have heard me say it a million times.  It helps relieve the tension in my life.  That being said - every once in a while, my sewing machine tension goes wacky and I get tense just thinking about how to correct the tug of war problem of sewing machine tension! In fact, this is what my mind looks like when I start thinking about correcting tension issues:

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:
Have you replaced your needle?
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!
I think it’s a good idea to keep plenty of extra needles on hand!  Go ahead and stock up when they are on sale. A new needle is often the fastest way to correct the most aggravating stitch quality problems.

Have you rethreaded your sewing machine?
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!
It’s always a good idea to check to make sure the bobbin thread is not out of its tension spring in the bobbin case. Rethreading this can also seem like a miracle fix!  As we pull the thread up at the end of a seam, we can sometimes disengage the thread from the proper alignment in the bobbin area.  Make sure you are using the correct bobbins for your machine!  Size matters!
Another good thing to check is that the thread is flowing off the spool and isn't catching anywhere.  I recommend using mesh thread nets if necessary for slick threads and keeping your spool area clean of adhesives from the labels found on thread spools.  Adhesives can sometimes keep the thread from feeding into the machine at the proper rate and cause tension issues.
Are you using good quality thread?
Thread quality makes a difference.  Use the best quality, long staple thread you can.  Different spool types can also make a difference on some machines.  The size of the spool can also impact how the thread flows into the machine.  If you suspect the thread is not flowing correctly from your spool pin, try an auxiliary thread stand.  Old thread can be brittle and cause issues, so try to avoid the "heirloom" thread you find in Grandma's old sewing box.  My favorite thread is Aurifil.  I truly can't imagine sewing without it!

Are your tension disks and thread path clear of lint and debris?
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!
Make sure you haven’t missed any of the threading steps.  Most machines have numbered thread paths. Be sure your thread is properly threaded within all areas of the thread path.  In other words - no short cuts!
After you have checked all of the above, if your stitches still don't look the way you would like, then you can start adjusting the tension settings. 

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!

Find your machine's tension adjustment.
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.
Use the diagram above to help you identify the symptoms and the very simple remedies:
Does your needle thread show on the backing?
This means your needle thread is too loose or your bobbin thread is too tight.
Increase your needle tension by a single digit. Test by stitching several inches on your small practice quilt sandwich. Keep increasing the tension setting until the needle thread is not visible on the backing.
Does the bobbin thread show on the top?
This means either your needle thread is too tight or your bobbin thread is too loose.
First check that your bobbin thread hasn't slipped out of its tension spring in the bobbin case.  Inspect bobbin case for wear and tear and needle strikes.  Keep bobbin area clean.
If the bobbin thread is correctly threaded through the tension spring, then decrease your needle tension by a single digit. Test by stitching several inches on your small practice quilt sandwich. Keep decreasing the tension until the needle thread is not visible on the top.
If sewing machine tension problems occur during the middle of a sewing project, review the checklist. Once you're satisfied that your sewing machine is threaded properly and your needle is not bent and in need of replacement, revisit the steps above.  
Specialty Threads Tension Considerations
Be aware there are special considerations for working with speciality threads.  These threads can be a bit challenging, but the results can be stunning!  Don't be shy, remember you have permission to adjust your settings!
How do I use threads with stretch?
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?
Threads with stretch create their own tension or resistance as they flow from the spool through all the various guides until they reach the needle. That is why if you wind a bobbin with monofilament/stretchy thread, it is recommended that you wind your bobbin at a slower speed. That way you won't stretch the thread as it's being wound onto the bobbin. This avoids thread distortion.
For my sewing machine, when stitching with monofilament thread in the needle and a 50 wt. cotton in the bobbin, I reduce my preset tension by 2 numbers. Then test on a small quilt sandwich. I like to fine-tune the adjustments until I'm satisfied that I have a balanced stitch.
How do I use decorative, heavier threads?
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. 
How do I use metallic threads?
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!
How do I make tension adjustments 
for free motion quilting?
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.
If there have been no other problems with your tension settings up to this point, then go back to your small practice quilt sandwich. Practice the type of stitching pattern where the “eye lashing” occurred. Slow down your hand speed.  Practice! Practice!
Is it against the law to adjust bobbin tension?
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.
So how do I adjust the bobbin tension?
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.
I recommend that under normal circumstances, adjustments to the bobbin tension be your last resort, because they are so rarely needed. 
Lola, with practice and a keen eye, it's very easy to see when your sewing machine tension is balanced. The best stitch is formed within the layers of the of the fabric or quilt sandwich; no needle thread shows on the bac; and no bobbin thread shows on the top. Make balanced stitches your goal.  You can be the winner in this tug of war!


Sunday, September 14, 2014

God Has Other Plans

Dear Lola,

I'm back to blogging.  Hope that you missed me as much as I missed you while I was gone.  I was feeling guilty about putting you last in my life, especially since posting here is therapeutic and helps me get my creative juices flowing.  Even if absolutely no one but me reads these posts, I enjoy them.

During my hiatus from blogging, my life has been busy and hectic and happy.  My kids are great and my family and friends make me feel loved and appreciated.  Oh there have been those moments when I get exasperated - like the dog has an accident right after I mop the floor or I make the same sewing mistake multiple times in a row and I become intimately involved with my seam ripper on the same seam too many times!  But all in all, the good outweighs the negative by 100 to 1!

I loved my job at my local quilt shop and helping many customers buy fabrics, new sewing machines and notions.  I helped launch a very successful new sewing machine department including a service department.    I designed lots of fun and very popular Facebook posts that continue to be seen across social media all the time. I was the leader of a wonderful Block of the Month Program and made lots of wonderful sewing sisters.

It was a wonderful experience, but God had been sending me little messages that I was missing.  I had my priorities confused.  I wasn't putting the important things in life first.  It was time to get off the "gerbil-wheel" that experiences, jobs and relationships sometimes become.

The good news - I was able to start spending more time in my little sewing space; and you started to whisper wise words into my ear, Lola.  You asked me:  "Are there lessons in all of this?"  I answered,  "Oh yes, for sure."
  1. Focus on who you love and what you love.  
  2. Change is good. 
  3. Time is the greatest gift.
  4. Just keep sewing.

As my alter-ego, Lola, you are wise and patient.   And because of your whispers in my ear, I know that I can move on and still do more great things.  Yes, a chapter is over - but amazing things happened.  I was responsible for changing things for the better!  The experiences I had also changed me for the better.  I'm taking my lessons with me to the next chapter.  I also know - it's okay to make it up as I go along.  Long term plans don't always play out the way we hope - but if everything was predictable - where's the fun?

I'll focus on what I love - God, my family, life and sewing.  I'll also focus on chatting with you Lola.  You don't judge me; you inspire me to be creative; and you find a way to look on the bright side of things always.  For that, I am truly grateful.