Today we are excited to have Aurifilosopher HollyAnne Knight of String & Story here to demystify Sewing Machine Tension for your free motion quilting. HollyAnne is an Aurifil Artisan Alumni and a member of our incredible team of certified Aurifilosphers.
She is passionate about being your guide on the journey to quilting with confidence! She loves creating a quilting community where you can make new friends and learn the skills to finish your own quilts. Take it away HollyAnne!
Tension. Just the word alone may be enough to send shivers up your spine or make you tense your neck. I think we all know that properly adjusted tension is an important part of successful free motion quilting, but it often feels like a “thorn in the flesh.” It’s a true double edged sword– being the secret to gorgeous FMQ when perfectly balanced, but diminishing gorgeous motifs when out of whack.
So, how do we replace fear with confidence when it comes to sewing machine tension for free motion quilting? Let me show you, Rockstar!
First, this article is about adjusting the top tension only. If you are working on a longarm machine or an industrial sit down machine, your bobbin tension can also be adjusted, but, to avoid muddied waters, we will focus on top tension here. This is the tension as set by the discs on the front of the machine that affects the needle thread.
Second, set yourself up for success by making sure you have a fresh needle in your machine and that it is oriented correctly for your machine. Also use a brush or pipe cleaner to remove lint from your bobbin race and around your feed dogs. Always brush lint out of your machine; don’t blow it into the machine. Oil your machine as recommended by your dealer or manufacturer.
Finally, pay attention to your presser foot. You will put your presser foot in the raised position to adjust your tension but lower it to sew.
ADJUSTING YOUR TENSION
Ideal tension results in stitches that look the same on the top and back of the quilt. This is because the “twist” of the top and bobbin threads falls in the center of the batting. It’s like a fully neutral “tug of war” between the two threads. But what should you do if the stitches aren’t nice and crisp on both sides?
Remember in chemistry class when we were taught to only change one variable at a time in an experiment in order to successfully prove causality? The way we are going to adjust tension is the same. In other words, we only adjust the top tension because changing just one variable makes it easier to predict the outcome our adjustments will create.
So how do you know how to adjust that top thread? Hold that tug of war example in your mind’s eye and let’s take a look:
Eyelashes on the back
Eyelashes on the back of your quilt is one of the most common quilting woes because you can’t see the back while you’re quilting. So, if something goes sideways, you may not realize until things are a bit out of control. Eyelashes on the back means that your top tension is too loose. The bobbin thread is “winning” tug of war, and the top thread is showing on the back.
You can fix eyelashes like this by increasing/ tightening your top tension (this means selecting a higher number on a digital machine or turning the tension knob to the right on an analog machine). Raise your presser foot, adjust the tension, lower the presser foot, and quilt some swirls to get a good idea about how your adjustment worked. Continue adjusting until the stitches are crisp on both the top and back of the quilt.
Take note, too, that your top tension can be too loose and cause a “floater” instead of eyelashes, where the bobbin thread looks like it’s “floating” on the back of the quilt. Sometimes, you can even feel the little “bumps” where the top thread is barely showing. Just like with eyelashes, tighten up that top tension a bit to create nice, crisp stitches top and back.
Eyelashes on the top
As you might expect, eyelashes on the top of the quilt mean the top thread is “winning” tug of war, and the tension is too tight. Follow the same adjustment procedure above, but reduce the tension (selecting a lower number on a digital machine or turning the knob to the left on an analog machine). Be sure to pay careful attention to how your stitches look at the center of swirls because that center point is a sneaky place where eyelashes like to “hide” on the top of your quilt.
It is quite common for the top thread to simply break rather than eyelash on the top of the quilt. It likely means the top thread is too tight, but if fiddling with the tension doesn’t resolve the issues, look at other possible trouble makers like a burr on your needle, foot, or needle plate and make sure that your presser foot is not too high.
The biggest secret with tension is to check it early and often. It is much less painful to spend thirty minutes fiddling on a practice sandwich where nothing has to be unpicked than to start quilting and realize twenty minutes in that there are eyelashes starting on the back. Keep practice sandwiches handy for checking tension, and be sure to double check every time you turn your machine off and on again, change bobbins, or start a new quilt.
All in all, tension is, in many ways the hardest part of free motion quilting, but it’s also a challenge that is easily remedied by slowing down, understanding how it works, and being faithful to check it often.
Interested in a video demonstration of me adjusting tension and a free PDF cheat sheet to help you troubleshoot your tension woes? Visit my website at:
HollyAnne Knight is a wife, mama, and quilter who is passionate about community, free motion quilting, and wellness. She uses her love of art and teaching to write quilt patterns, teach classes, and encourage quilters around the world to quilt and live with confidence.