Balance your sewing machine tension to create beautiful stitches and have a seam-ripper free quilting experience! Truly, this is a foundational, sanity-saving skill for free motion quilting, so take a few minutes with me to learn how to do it well!
(This post contains affiliate links)
TENSION. When all is well, tension helps us sew beautiful stitches, but when something goes wrong, nothing brings out the sailor in me quite like tension problems. UGH. In fact, one recent fiasco that started with an hour of happy quilting resulted in four hours of frustrated unpicking. That fiasco made me passionate about proper tension, and I'm going to share this information today because it is absolutely critical to your quilty success.
A brief note: I am adjusting the TOP TENSION at all times during this video and throughout the post. Bobbin tension is a totally different thing that is usually managed by your service technician unless you are working on a longarm or industrial machine and is beyond the scope of what I’m talking about here. In nearly all cases, tension troubles for free motion quilting can be solved with the steps and tips I will outline below and adjusting the top tension only. The buttons and knobs on your machine indicated as tension adjustment per your manual are for the top tension— use those as you work with me today. Remember, a larger number means tighter top tension, and a smaller number means a looser top tension.
When Should I Check My Tension:
1) Anytime you start quilting a new quilt
2) Anytime you start a new bobbin or a new thread color or new needle
3) Anytime you are returning to quilting after turning your machine off and back on
I know this sometimes means a thread break where we wouldn't otherwise have one (taking a quilt out from under the needle to test tension), but it's worth it. Burying a thread only takes moments, but unpicking can be hours.
When testing tension, be sure to do some loops and zig zags because tension issues show up best on curves and at points.
If you fiddle with your tension, but can't seem to get it quite right, make sure you have a fresh needle in your machine, that it is threaded properly, and your bobbin housing and machine bed are well cleaned (learn about machine care and cleaning here).
When most people think of poor quilting tension, eye lashing jumps to mind. There are three causes for eyelashes: First, make sure your presser foot is properly and completely down before you start quilting. Leaving it up will make nasty nests on the back of your quilt (ask me how I know!). Second, eyelashes on the top of your quilt (less common) is caused by your top tension being too tight and pulling the bobbin thread through. Finally, eyelashes on the back of the quilt (most common) are caused by your top tension being too loose and pulling to the back. Too often we don’t catch these eyelashes because our tension looks great on the front of the quilt. Always, always, always, take a second to flip your quilt over and double (triple, quadruple) check your tension on the back after you start quilting.
Floaters are threads that sit at the surface of the fabric and can be harder to spot than eyelashes. They’re just as problematic because they can easily snag and break, but they look less awful. Essentially, a proper stitch puts the “twist” of the bobbin and top threads squarely in the middle of the batting out of sight, making gorgeous stitches on both the top and the bottom. Eyelashes pull that twist all the way to one side of the quilt making it obvious that the tension is off. Floaters are sneaky, though. When a thread is floating, the twist is just above or just beneath the fabric, but not properly in the batting. If the top thread is floating, loosen your tension. If the back thread is floating, tighten it.