Tackling Tension: Nine Factors that Influence Tension

Good Morning, Quilters and Sleuths…

Any clue what’s happening with our Mystery Quilt? (Please Note the new tab at the top of the Menu Bar with all the clues/assignments.)

Any theories what C50 and P50 stand for?  How about the M? or the X?

“Tackling Tension” Mini-series...

Last week we began our discussion of tension and we reviewed the difference between good and not-so-good stitches.

The perfect free motion quilt stitch:

  • The top and bobbin tensions are balanced and the knot is hidden in the quilt sandwich.
  • Individual stitches can be seen.

Free Motion Quilt Tutorial, Double Heart Leaf Vine


1.  You can’t find your car keys.

2.  You’re late for work.

3.  It’s -25 F outside.

Oh, okay….Let’s be more specific:

Nine Factors that Influence Sewing Machine Tension

1. You can’t find your car keys; you’re late for work…Yes, these are still on the list.  YOUR tension influences sewing tension.  Start by relaxing.  Take a deep breath before you sit down at your sewing machine.

Threads, Sewing Room

2.  Thread-Sewing machine manufacturers set tension for 50 wt Polyester thread.  Properties such as weight, fiber, ply and how the thread is  wound all create different coefficients of friction as the thread passes through the tension discs.  Consequently, the stitch tension is highly dependent on thread type.

Free Motion Quilt Tutorial, Double Heart Leaf Vine

3.  Fabric-The density and weave of each fabric influence sewing tension.  Looser woven fabric produce less friction than tightly woven fabrics like batiks. Adding a layer of batting adds more friction as well.

Needle Choices for Free Motion Quilting

4. Needle-The shape, tip and groove of the needle all impact the thread’s path as it passes through the fabric and joins with the bobbin thread to create the lockstitch.  Needle selection is critical to both top and bobbin tension.  Also, any imperfection, burr or bend in a needle will alter the mechanics involved in creating the stitch.Bernina1.web

5. Machine mechanics-Tension discs, thread guides and bobbin mechanics all help establish tension. Computerized sewing machines have internal tension settings set by the manufacturer. Loose threads and lint build up alter machine mechanics.

6. Stitch type-Zig zag and decorative stitches have different tension requirements than straight stitching.

Free Motion Quilting, Tea

7. Sewing Application-Hemming a pair of jeans, free motion quilting through layers of batting, and flat felling a silk seam all have different tension requirements.   Free motion quilting often requires a lower top tension to adjust for the slight pulling and pushing of the quilt as it maneuvered under the needle.

8.  Environmental-Humidity and temperature effect the textiles and thread and may have an effect on tension.

9.  Desired Result-For creative reasons, you may choose a non-standard balance of tension.  “Whiskers” created by unbalanced tension, could be a desired effect when thread painting a dandelion, for example.

Creating a perfect lockstitch is very complicated business!  While it is frustrating when tension goes awry…we must take a little pity on  our sewing machines… a little sympathetic understanding will go a long way in avoiding Tension Headaches.


  • The next time you are having tension troubles, considering all the factors affecting your stitch. 
  • Rethread your needle and your bobbin.  This step will fix most tension problems.
  • Don’t be afraid to tweak your tension.  Begin by adjusting the top tension in 1/2 setting increments.  

Free Motion Quilting


Next Thursday, we will continue our Tackling Tension Mini-Series with a Troubleshooting Checklist to use when re-threading and top tension adjustments aren’t enough.

Tomorrow:   Open Line Friday…If you have any questions…bring them on!

Hope your stitches are Happy!


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


24 thoughts on “Tackling Tension: Nine Factors that Influence Tension

  1. Good read this morning Lori…as always. I found that the small tweaks were easy and really helped. I had to tweak a couple times before I got the football quilt done and also changed the needle half way through helped a lot. The pieced top along with warm and natural cotton batting and a flannel back dulled my needle pretty fast.
    I made a few practice runs to try to relax a little…it helped but that first bit I was still tense…I don’t relax well. Maybe a glass of wine first next time. LOL! Since I don’t drink it would probably put me to sleep with my face resting on my sewing machine and I’d get no sewing done.
    So sit up straight, relax your shoulders and neck and take a deep breath and begin. OH and breath out and in regularly and not through grit teeth!

  2. I’m away from my sewing machine for awhile…1400 miles to be more specific…@ my daughters as she is now going through chemo, (talk about tension!) it is a welcome email to read about sewing when I’m not actually at the machine. Thank you. Love the continues hearts, my granddaughters birthday is just before Valentines Day, so I’m always doing something fun for that. Have a great day.

  3. I was really having issues with the tension on my Janome 6500P when I did free-motion work. It was great for piecing and regular sewing. I did everything and even after I had it serviced, still was an issue. Finally I went on-line and found that Janome made a bobbin holder for free-motion quilting and a straight hole machine plate. Voila, problem solved. Sometimes you just have to keep trying different things. I also found that I liked my stitches much better when I used the Sulky Rayon for the top.

  4. Your posts always get me thinking, and I’m thinking one more thing to consider is chair height. I went to a sewing expo once and the chair to table height was very uncomfortable for free motion quilting. The chairs were the stackable kind, so we stacked one chair on top of the other and it was amazing what that inch or two change did to ease our back and shoulder tension for quilting. If you’re sitting too low, or too hight it puts pressure on your arms and shoulders which causes tension. In other words, if you’re uncomfortable, try adjusting your chair a bit and see what happens. Does anyone have a rule of thumb on body vs machine placement when starting to quilt?

    • Hi Jackie,
      You are absolutely right! I would classify that under “Quilter’s tension”. I know what you mean about being comfortable, chair etc. I am going to revise this post and add those tips. Thank you!

    • I vaguely recall that for ergonomics, when you are sitting with your arms straight down at your sides, and you raise your lower arms and hands so that they’re perpendicular to the floor, with your upper arms still against your sides, the level of your hands should be your sewing level.

      • Except, when I was taking a FMQ class on Craftsy, taught by Leah Day, she gave her opinion that when quilting you want to be higher up, looking down more on what you’re doing, rather than the usual 90 degree angle of your arms. I tried her suggestion, and being up higher works for me.

  5. I think I have my tension OK; however, I find that my stitches are extremely small – they almost don’t look like stitches. Also, if I try to use the supreme slider my fabric sandwich is hard to move in spite of the fact that I have my pressure foot as high as it will go. I sure wish I could get my stitches to look normal.

    • Kitty, the size of the stitches usually indicates that you are not moving the quilt fast enough under the needle. The Supreme Slider should make the fabric easier to slide. Is your quilt getting stuck on something? Does that help? Can you send a video of you quilting? On Instagram perhaps or to my email?

  6. Thanks for this awesome information about the tension that causes me tension! LOL! I can’t tell you how many yards of thread have been unpicked in the hunt for the perfect tension. I may have it now. (Until I start my next project!)

  7. I found it interesting that you say top tension may need to go down for free motion quilting. when free motion quilting I often have to increase my top tension to get good-looking stitches. Is my machine weird? Should I have it looked at?

  8. I have the Viking Designer Topaz30. When using the embroidering part, I can’t figure out the right tension for metallic thread.

    • I don’t do embroidery, but with quilting and metallic thread…lower the tension a lot. Stitch more slowly than normal. Try a Topstitch 90 needle and put the thread on a thread stand–giving the thread more time to uncoil.

  9. Tension thoughts make me anxious but working on a longarm will quickly push that fear away or you’ll never get anything done. My longarm absolutely refuses to allow certain threads to run through it. If I accept that and use what I know it will sew with I am happier both with the results in the stitches and the pleasure I get from sewing. Really I would like to use an innova and do some of those beautiful embellishing techniques I have seen demonstrated but I will settle with learning to stitch well. Lori does a really good jb teaching new things to help us as well as the different designs for quilting. Thanks Lori, I appreciate you.

  10. I realized 2 things that were causing tension problems with my machine. The first was that my hook had been damaged – the composite material had been slowly worn away with use. The second was that my bobbin case had somehow gotten very loose. It should be a last resort to mess with your bobbin tension, but a quick test can help you determine whether it is an issue. With a new hook, tuneup and bobbin adjustment, I now get the tension I’ve been searching for the past few years. 🙂

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