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Free Motion Quilting Tension Problems

by Vivian
(Hingham, MA)

The top side...<br /><br />(Click on a thumbnail image below for a larger picture.)<br /><br />

The top side...

(Click on a thumbnail image below for a larger picture.)

How do I know which tension—needle or bobbin—is out of sync? I can see the top thread on the bottom of my quilt sandwich. A trace to loops to tangled loop messes.


Thank you, Vivian, for supplying pictures of your problem. They help SO much!!!

OK, let's get down to business. First, check all the basics...

  • Put in a 'new-out-of-the-package' needle. Needle points are fragile, especially the ones on the MicroTex Sharp and quilting needles simply because they are so fine. A damaged needle can through off your tension adjustments.

  • Re-thread your sewing machine completely, sometimes the thread pops out of the tension disks. I don't believe it's the tension disk in your situation because then ALL the tension would be bad. You'd basically have a continuous bird's nest or 'thread throw-up' on the backside. But it doesn't hurt to double check.

  • Check that you've used all the thread guides on your machine. Double check that last guide just above the needle. This one gets missed sometimes. All the guides along your thread path add a bit of tension as your thread winds it's way to making a stitch.

  • Make sure that you have a nice, tightly wound bobbin that looks smooth. Once in awhile, my machine just plains winds a crappy looking bobbin. You'll be able to tell because it looks sloppy. If that's the case, I find that I can add a bit of extra tension by letting the thread run over my finger as the bobbin fills.

  • Finally, make sure that you've put the presser foot in the down position. Even though you're free motion quilting with a darning foot, and the foot hops along instead of pressing down on the quilt sandwich, putting the foot down is what engages the tension disks as you sew.
Now test again. If you still are having problems, we'll continue by...

Adjusting Your Needle Tension

While it is possible that a tension problem is solely attributable to your bobbin (see NOTE below), my experience is the majority of problems are solved with adjustments to your needle tension.

Since your needle thread is showing (looping) on the backside, needle tension is too loose.

To tighten it, increase the number on your tension controls. If the control is a knob, just remember 'righty-tighty'. Adjust by one number at a time and test. Repeat until you're satisfied with your quilting stitches.

Tension is Wonky on Curves

Now, if you have loops on curved areas on the backside of your quilt, that is called 'eyelashing'. You'll find that the rest of your quilting stitches look pretty good, just the curves have problems.

In that case, first try slowing down as you go around the curves.

Sometimes we like to 'whip around' a kind of feels natural...but slow down and try to move the quilt sandwich at an even pace, while keeping the stitching speed steady, too.

Be prepared.

It does feel un-natural to stitch this way at first. However, as you get used to moving the quilt sandwich at an even speed it becomes rather zen-like and peaceful. (OK. I don't mean to sound New-Agey, but I don't have a better description of the feeling.)

The other thing you can do for eyelashing is to 'tweak' the needle tension just a bit. You still want to keep the rest of the quilting looking nice, but you should be able to tighten it just a bit and that may do the trick.

NOTE: Now if your needle thread was pulled to the backside, but not looping, and the adjustments described above didn't correct the problem, then adjust the bobbin case tension screw.

First mark the orientation of screw before you make any adjustments. Then you'll know the position to return it too when you are finished.

To loosen the bobbin tension, you'd turn the screw an eighth of a turn to the left (remember 'lefty-loosey'). Stitch on a practice sandwich to test and keep adjusting until you are satisfied with your stitches.

Vivian, I hope I've been able to help.

Thank you for your question...AND for supplying the pictures...that helps a lot!


Julie Baird

Comments for Free Motion Quilting Tension Problems

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Machine quilting
by: Anonymous


FMQ issue on Singer 15 treadle
by: Lindy

I fmq’d almost two full quilts on this machine with no problem. I'm using new poly embroidery thread. All of a sudden, I am shredding thread just at needle eye.

I have changed needle multiple times. Size 14 needle. I have rethreaded machine repeatedly. I have disassembled hook mechanism for clean & oil. I have scoured internet for fmq troubleshooting.

Still the same problem.

The machine sews perfectly with straight stitch foot. The instant I change to fmq foot I'm at square one. I've been 8 weeks trying. I don't wanna start new project without finishing the previous project. I've been sewing for 30 yrs.

Do you have any ideas beyond mine? Thank you in advance.

From the Editor: I have no experience on a Singer treadle machine and am, therefore, at a loss. I'll leave the question here. Hopefully someone with experience on your machine will pipe in.

I wish I could be of more help.

~ Julie

free motion
by: Susan Rabinowitz

feed dogs down, free motion foot attached, presser foot down but fabric will not move freely

From the Editor:

If the presser foot is holding the fabric in place so you can't move it, look for a button/knob/lever that allows you to reduce the presser foot presser.

Make sure the free motion foot is attached correctly.

I hope this helps.

~ Julie

So frustrated
by: Anitra

I started quilting in December if 2013. I talked my husband into allowing me to purchase the Janome 8900qcp. I love this machine; however, I have had from the very start issues with quilting towards the left. So I've challenged myself to always shift my quilts around to avoid quilting in that direction. Unfortunately I'm at a point where I need to be able to quilt that direction. So I'm hoping that here I might have an answer to what is happening.
When I sew any other direction my tension is fine and I don't shred my thread and throw nests on the bottom of my quilt and have to constantly stop and rip out stitches. Sadly for me that is not the case when quilting from right to left. I quilt with microtex sharp # 80 needles and with isacord embroidery thread 50 weight. If the line of quilting is curved such as circular motion it is fine but as soon as there is any semblance of a slight curve to straight stitching in that direction here is no mercy on my thread. The first sign is the skip in the stitch immediately followed by a knot or shred of the thread at the eye of the needle. If I don't catch it right away and stop stitching the nest forms.
I've tried quilting slower, changing my needle and re threading the machine. I've also paid careful attention to how the bobbin is wound to achieve as even a wind as possible.
This has been plaguing my entire experience with quilting. I would be overjoyed to find the cure to this issue so any feedback is very much appreciated.


From the Editor:

Anitra, I'd check the particular I'm wondering if there's a nick in the one you're using. If you've got another one on hand, switch to it and see if that helps. My suspicion arises from the fact that your thread is being affected.

If that doesn't do it, I'd take it in and have the repairman test it.

~ Julie

broken needles???
by: Tamara


My question is I have the brother VQ 2400 and the dream frame with the sure stitch and I keep breaking needles! 6 this morning! I, of course, have changed needles, have good thread and the right foot..... is there special setting I should be using?

Thank you

From the Editor:

While I am unfamiliar with your specific machine and can't speak to specific settings, what I do know from your description of the problem is that your needle is somehow hitting something hard in order to break.

I surmise it's being bent just enough to hit the throat plate.

With that idea in mind, the most likely suspect is your thread. Check your thread tension first, then check the thread path to make sure that it isn't putting too much tension on the needle and then bending it just enough as you stitch. Look for thread that is wrapped around the spool pin or more than once around any of the guides. Once in awhile mine gets wrapped around my uptake lever. Not always, just intermittently.

I hope this helps.

~ Julie

FMQ Gone Mad
by: Wendy


I have stippled quite successfully before, but all of a sudden my machine has gone crazy.
It hasn't made hardly anything since the last service. It is a Brother Quattro Innovis 6700D.

I have lovely Superior Topstitch thread in both bobbin and top. Brand new needle. So off I go, first everything looks ok when I am going in a forward motion but as soon as I start to turn, I lose control, the machine skips stitches.

In fact sometimes doesn't even get picked up from underneath at all. But when I start to move straight and forward, it's ok again.

I have tried it using the FMQ Button and then taking that off and just putting the suture length on .02 which is the smallest, and tension on 3.5 but to no avail.

Can anyone help please?

From the Editor: Hi Wendy! It's frustrating when your machine goes wonky. I know. I've wanted to throw my machine out the window from time to time.

You've got lots of good information in your question.

Try this. Install your regular presser foot, raise your feed dogs and stitch...straight. Are the stitches skipping then? If they are, then I'd take the machine back to the dealer. I'm thinking there might be a burr on the needle plate from hitting a pin or that something is a bit off on the timing.

If there's no problem stitching straight, then first thing I'd do is completely rethread and install your FMQ foot just to make sure everything is in order.

Now try a bigger needle with a bigger eye. You'll find the largest eyes on both the topstitching and metallic needles.

If that doesn't do it switch to a straight stitch needle plate (throatplate). It's possible that for whatever reason, your fabric is flagging and preventing the loop on the back of the needle from forming either at the right time or properly. That would produce skipped stitches, too.

Finally, try slowing down your hand speed a bit. If you're moving the quilt sandwich too aggressively, you may be pulling on the needle just a wee bit. Pulling it a bit out of place would also impede the proper formation of the stitch.

If those don't work, then I'd go back to the dealer since it was just in. Take samples to stitch on with you.

I hope this helps.


Julie Baird

Free Motion Problem
by: Christine

Hi Sharon,
Have you solve your problem on skipping stitches/not picking up bottom thread? I have the exact same problem and am baffled because I've change needles, re-thread every thing possible. If you've solved your issue, do you care to share it with me?

Thank you.

Free motion problem
by: Sharon Switalski

My free motion quilting keeps skipping stitches and sometimes doesn't even pick up again. I have tried readjusting the tension, have a new needle, have rewound the bobbin and re threaded.. My machine doesn't do this on any other sewing. What is my problem?

Free motion no starter
by: Anonymous


I have tried unsuccessfully to get started with free motion quilting. My problem is that the bottom threads gets terribly tangled up right away - I have tried adjusting the tension but with luck...any help would be appreciated.

From the Editor: I'm not quite understanding (not enough caffeine yet, I guess!)

If it's just the thread tail that is getting all snarly, you need to bring it to the top before you start any of the stitching. Click here for a step-by-step through the process.

If it's a big glob of thread throw-up, I suspect that the bobbin thread isn't properly seated in the tension spring on the bobbin case. If there's no tension on the bobbin thread, it's just plain nasty. Pull out your manual to double check the bobbin threading instructions.

Let me know if this helps.


Julie Baird

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