Tackling Tension – The Mini-Series

Free Motion Quilted FootballGood Morning, Quilters!

You’ve managed to find twenty minutes to do a little quilting.  You RUN up to your sewing room,  flip on the lights and the machine, take a sip of your tea and settle in for a little happy creativity…

You begin stitching…and your serenity is shattered by terrible looking stitches…

Sound familiar?

Free Motion Quilted FootballIt happens to ALL of us.

It doesn’t matter if your machine is old or new, computerized or treadle…

TENSION issues are a part of everyone’s sewing life!

Last week, in our QUILT ESSENTIALS:  Know Your Sewing Machine, we watched two videos demonstrating how a sewing machine creates a lockstitch.  These excellent videos demonstrate the precision required to create a perfect stitch.  There are many factors that can lead to poor tension and a poor stitch quality.

For the next several Thursdays we will tackle tension and put YOU back in control of your machine by:

  • Discussing the eight factors that influence tension
  • Create a troubleshooting checklist
  • Demonstrate how to test your bobbin tension
  • Demonstrate how to test YOUR sewing machine
  • Provide links to articles and useful information
  • Provide Tips and Tricks for adjusting your tension for Free Motion Quilting
  • Offering an Open Line Discussion on how to get help from your service person and dealer…

So let’s get started:


Poor Quality Quilting, Tension Issues

I chose the football photos as an example of IMPROPER TENSION–(how did this get past me?!!!)

The top tension is too tight and there is a “railroading effect”.  The top or needle thread is pulled tight and the bobbin thread shows on top.

Poor Quality Quilting, Tension Issues

Another problem is “whiskers”.  This can happen on either the front of the quilt (Needle thread too tight) or on the back of the quilt (Bobbin thread too tight.)


“Tension is a tug of war between the bobbin thread and the needle thread and you don’t want any winners.” –Paula Reid

In proper tension the bobbin and needle threads are in balance.  The Needle thread does not show on the back and the Bobbin thread does not show on top.  Ideally, the knot is buried in the quilt sandwich and does not show at all.

This graphic was taken from Superior Thread.  Read more HERE.

Sewing Machine Tension Tug of War

The following three photos are examples of better tension:

  • Individual stitches can be seen.
  • No bobbin thread is showing on top

Tying a Quilt001


Happy Blossoms-A Free Motion Quilt Tutorial

The Feathered Leaf Free Motion Quilt Tutorial



Examine your free motion quilting on quilts and on practice pieces:

  • Do you like the look of the stitch on top?
  • How does the stitch look on the back?
  • Any “railroading” or “whiskers”?
  • Do the stitches look perfect in some parts of the motif, but not perfect in other parts of the same quilt or motif?


To get started, try changing just one aspect of your tension this week–the upper tension dial…(Check your owner’s manual!)

  • Increase the top tension (higher number) if you see any top thread pulled to the back.
  • Lower the top tension if you see any bobbin thread pulled to the top of the quilt.

Adjust the tension slowly, 1/2 step at a time.


The Eight Factors that Influence Tension

Happy (Stress Free) Stitching,


PS…All tutorials, images, and information are the property of Lori Kennedy at The Inbox Jaunt and are intended for personal use only.  Feel free to re-blog, pin or share with attribution to The Inbox Jaunt.  For all other purposes, please contact me at lckennedy@hotmail.com.  Thanks!


19 thoughts on “Tackling Tension – The Mini-Series

  1. I have worked on all the tension issues you cite and finally have, I think a balanced stitch. The problem I now have is that my stitches are so small when practicing the zig zag stitch -yes, I’m still trying to master that stitch. Thanks Lori for this quilt along – I may get behind for the need of practice but I’ll get there.

  2. Excellent information, I have finally figured this out and now have no problem but your graphic is wonderful and would of helped me greatly earlier on. Thanks for sharing your great knowledge.

  3. Ok. I’m a little dense here but when you say “higher” number, do you mean 5,6,7 or 3,2,1? Larger # or smaller#?

  4. Rosemary B here:
    This is super great Lori.
    I do not have a computerized machine, so playing with the tension is pretty easy,
    These are perfect examples.
    This tension problem and cause a lot of tension as well, so it is good to address this early on.
    Happy Thursday already!

  5. Thanks for breaking down all the details on how to solve tension problems. I’m like Kitty, I’ve figured out my tension issues pretty well, but my zigzag stitches are so tiny & still I don’t have good control- especially below the line. I just hope I don’t need 1000 hours on zigzag or I’m in big trouble for future stitching:)

  6. I have been machine sewing for 50 years (ugh, that December birthday just changed this figure ;{) mostly garments. Tension is a very important balance no matter what type of sewing one is engaged in. In all those years, on all the various machines I have used, I have never had to mess with the tension screw on the bobbin. It’s a very, very small screw and even a minute change makes a big difference … and if the problem is worse after this minute adjustment, it is very hard to go back.

    Whiskers on the back? = Top tension too loose.
    Bobbin thread visible on the top? = Top tension too tight.
    Thread breaking? = Top tension too tight, machine threaded incorrectly, needle issues, poor quality thread, etc., etc. (and, as Lori has mentioned, some machines just don’t like some threads).

    Myself, I would try every other possible fix before attempting to adjust the bobbin tension screw. Change thread, try sewing on a different type of material and see if the problem is better or worse, put in a new needle, or even walk away and come back later with a more relaxed frame of mind … sometimes tension problems are self-replicating.

  7. I agree, tension issues eat up a lot of quilting time. Weather must play into it as well. Recently I had 30 minutes, I could make some progress on a quilt. First few minutes were great, then I turned over the quilt and deflated – it was a birds nest. Nothing had changed since the day before when all was perfect. I spent all my time getting the tension back to adequate. Bobbin tension was fine, HandiQuilter Sweet 16, top tension was the culprit.

    • I have a Sweet 16 too and although it isn’t difficult to change the bobbin tension, I think the top tension is almost always the culprit, or the thread is old or the needle is the wrong size for the thread. Also batiks seem to be a real problem when machine quilting because they are so dense with color/tightly woven?? I was told to let the bobbin thread “spider down”, being quite loose.

  8. Is all making perfect sense now. I’ve fiddled with tension but the internet made issues much easier to deal with and have to say haven’t had any real crazy problems. I did learn something though quilting recently on my nephew’s football quilt…Used white on top and dark brown on the bottom to match the brown flannel backing. My sashings were pieced and so I at first blamed just the changing material I was sewing through although it was all nice quilting fabric. But I had to adjust tension twice to keep a real pretty stitch going….it would start pulling the brown bobbin thread up but just barely so no whiskers or RR tracks…I didn’t pick it out…but I did stop and investigate and soon as I barely tightened bobbin case tension…like a quarter turn it would make a beautiful stitch again. I did this twice before I was done quilting so was it because my bobbin was not as full….not sure but easy fix and I kept right on sewing. 🙂
    I enjoy learning this stuff…thanks for helping us along!

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