Embroidery Blog

10 Tips for Taming the Tension Monster

Machine tension is paramount to beautiful sewing, quilting and embroidery, but it is such a vicious beast at times. Good tension, nobody notices. Bad tension, nobody forgets. 

basting stitches

Photos via Debbie Henry

Few things are more frustrating than sitting down to stitch and having a myriad of thread problems. Most of the time, the issue is really about tension. Even simple tasks can be easily sidelined when tension runs amok.

Here are 10 tips for taming the tension monster:

birdnest

1. Bird nest? Check the thread path

Sometimes the thread can slip off of the take-up arm, which leads to an ugly bird’s nest under the fabric. Thread nests can become so embedded that you end up ruining your fabric. It is just one more reason to never walk away from your machine while it is stitching.

When nesting occurs, re-thread the machine. If the problem continues, try another solution.

2. Check the needle

Needles can become dull or damaged and produce a burr that tears stabilizer, fabric and thread. Use the sharpest needle for the project and change needles often.

bernina jumbo bobbin

Photo via Bernina

3. Bobbin bunnies

Bobbins adjust bottom tension. If the bobbin is not threaded properly, it can create tension problems. Clean your bobbin area regularly as even the most minute fleck of lint can hang up bobbin thread in the case.

Most machines come with a brush for cleaning around the bobbin case. Use a vacuum instead of blowing dust with canned air, which only relocates it to wreak havoc in another area.

If you are brave enough to adjust the bobbin tension screw, buy a spare bobbin case and use a permanent marker to mark the original screw position. Make slight adjustments until you have the desired result.

always front back

4. Loops or speckles? Adjust upper tension

If thread is looping on top of the fabric, upper tension is too loose. If bobbin thread is showing on top, upper tension is too tight. Experiment with settings on a test stitch-out and record what works with certain designs and fabric weights. Ideally, tension on the back of embroidery should be one-third bobbin and two-thirds spool thread.

5. Thread weight

Most embroidery designs are digitized for 40-weight thread. Using heavier or lighter threads makes a difference how the design stitches out and you many have to adjust the tension accordingly.

You can use the same thread in the bobbin as that with which you are stitching but, for the most part, use bobbin thread. It is finer than standard embroidery thread and has less drag.

large spool upright

6. Location, location, location

Where your thread is located is often as important as the type and weight of thread used. Some brands prefer to pull off of the spool in a clockwise fashion, while others may work better pulling counter-clockwise. Some threads work better on a vertical peg. Larger spools may need placed on a thread stand.

7. Consider the fabric type

The materials you sew on determine how tension reacts. Always test stitch your design on the same or similar fabric to evaluate the combination of thread, tension and stabilizer. Even though many modern embroidery and sewing machines adjust tension automatically, they often need adjustment for optimal results.

wonderful front back
Designs are digitized to an average, typically a medium-weight woven fabric. Lighter weight fabrics stitched with designs that contain heavier fills or satin stitching may pucker even with heavy stabilizer and reduced tension.

8. Slow down!

Sometimes just slowing down the machine will help alleviate issues with tension.

9. Stabilize properly

Adhesive stabilizers and heavy cut-away stabilizers create more drag on the thread, which may affect tension. Use only stabilizers recommended for embroidery as they are manufactured specifically with that in mind.

10. Quilting? Loosen up!

If quilting or stitching on several layers of fabric and stabilizers, thread tension may need to be reduced to compensate for the layers

Sometimes, getting the right combination takes some experimentation but it is well worth the effort in the future.

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32 Comments

mary

How do I join this club?

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Debbie Henry

Mary, you can subscribe for FREE to receive emails with regular posts like this. Just fill out the form at the top of this post and submit it!

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Patricia

I appreciate your periodic tips and hints.

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Debbie Henry

Thanks, Patricia. I’m learning every day!

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Yvonne Joseph

Thanks for the tips

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Debbie Henry

You are quite welcome, Yvonne. Thanks for reading!

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Yvonne Joseph

Thanks for the tip

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Helen and

Thanks. This information is very important and helpful.

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Debbie Henry

Thanks, Helen!

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Heather McMillan

Thank You so much for all these wonderful hints and tips . As someone who has never sewn in their Life till now I really find them a great help .

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Debbie Henry

You are quite welcome, Heather. Always makes me happy that someone can benefit from my disasters, ha, ha!

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Lynette

Great tips, thank you for sharing your knowledge. I have learnt how to sew from selfless, wonderful people like you who take the time to teach.

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Debbie Henry

You are quite welcome, Lynette. I’m still learning too!

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Vera Khule

Thank you for this information. I had trouble earlier this week with bird’s nests! I printed out all your good information and will keep it with my sewing machine. I really appreciate this help.

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Debbie Henry

Hope it helps, Vera!

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Master Machine Tension Without Feeling Tense

[…] Check the needle frequently to make sure it isn’t dull or damaged from regular use. A burr on the needle can tear stabilizer, fabric, and thread. Clean your bobbin area regularly as even a hint of lint can cause the bobbin thread to hang and create tension problems. Lastly, even slowing down your machine can simply alleviate tension issues. For a full article on this topic with additional tension fix-it tips, click here:: 10 Tips for Taming the Tension Monster […]

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Anne Donovan

I have a Kenmore, (made by Janome) sewing machine and I love it. It is a real work horse, but in the past few months the thread gets hung up in the little object you guide your thread under before taking it down and around and threading the needle.. It causes havoc. The machine is about 5/6 years old and never had this problem before. Very annoying to say the least. I’ve run dental floss through it hoping to clear any old thread that might be under there. Doesn’t seem to help though. Any suggestions from anyone. Thanks.

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Debbie Henry

The tension disc, Anne?

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Sheila Deaville-Lockhart

Thank you for this, i have been having these problems and the machine guides just didn’t give enough information

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Debbie Henry

Hope it helps, Sheila!

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Janet

Debbie,
Thank you so much for all of the good information!
Sometimes we may know the issues, but reading it again just reminds us of what the issues can be when some of us doesn’t sew everyday.
Thank you so very much!

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Debbie Henry

I benefit from a reminder myself. Glad it was helpful, Janet!

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Rudy Sebastiano

I have a very old but good sewing machine singer 78-1 and lately it is driveing me crazy with the bird nests underneath the fabric I sew marine canvas as a hobby and enjoy sewing on this old navy signal flag machine, I have a newer sailrite machjne but like the old one better . I just hate whan it bunches up any help would be greatly appreciated… thnx Rudy

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Debbie Henry

Rudy, did you change the needle and re-thread the machine?

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Mary

Hi! Thank you for the tips.
I have a question I hope you can help me.
I’m embroidering on Dry fit shirt. And it has puckered. I already try double or triple backing and it doesn’t help. I put solvy on top and it’s not helping.
Please help!!! I still have 20 shirts and have no idea what to do.
Thank you so much.

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Debbie Henry

Hope this helps, Mary. I recently read this on an Applique Fanatics Facebook post by Andrea Davison Wade: “I emb dri fit shirts for lots of local businesses. To me, the key is dream weave (you can use the generic brand) you have to iron a piece of it down in the inside of the shirt first. This is a must so the shirt doesn’t stretch. Then I line it on perfect stick, if you hoop it, it will distort the shirt since it’s stretchy. Then I float 2 layers of med tear away.” Give it a try – do a test stitch on the shirt that is puckered. And let me know how it works!

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Cheryl Peterson

Thank you for the tension tips! Tension is something that has always frustrated me even though I have been sewing for 45 years. I am starting a new quilt and plan to take the time to maintenance my machine before starting using your tips!!!

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Ashley Smith

The tension on sewing machines has always confused me! Usually I just leave it alone, so I don’t mess up anything while I am sewing. Maybe I have been using the wrong thread weight, like you mentioned. I’ll be sure to buy 40-weight for my next project. http://www.sewing.net/shop/category/sewing-machines/

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Sue connolly

Is it still true that you should only adjust the tension with the foot. Down, or is that just on older machines? Ps if you are getting nests, look for a burr on your bobbin discount, happens when a needle breaks and takes a chunk out of the case, it will make you want to throw your machine out but is easy to fix with emory paper. Love your tips!!

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Sue connolly

I meant to type disc, not discount. Sorry. I’m a sewer not a typist. Lol

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Tracey Thomson

If the tension is wrong and something has been sewn in an area that will be a stress point for carrying something. Would the wrong tension make the stitch unsafe?

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Debbie

Tracey, it could make the area too loose or so tight that it tears.

Reply

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