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Machine quilting tension problems

by Melody

I am a rather new quilter. I have been doing this for about 5 years but little at a time. Every time I machine quilt the bottom is messy. I tried moving the tension but I can't seem to get it right.

What is the key to the tension?


The key to tension is testing. And then using the testing to help you identify the problem or problems.

Let's see if we can identify where the problem is coming from.

Is it the machine?

Since you wrote that this happens 'every time' you machine quilt, I would want to either rule out or identify that your sewing machine is the culprit. So...

How does the tension look for piecing?

If you're making lots of tension adjustment for piecing, I'd take the machine in for a 'well-baby' check-up.

Sewing machines are engineered to sew using the same weight thread in the needle and bobbin. When we're piecing it's more likely that we quilters will use the same thread both.

Any tension adjustments should be small, if at all, to accommodate the difference in thread weight.

Are the tension problems the same whether your are quilting with a walking foot or a darning foot?

If the tension is a mess regardless of the foot you're using, then again, I'd suggest taking it in for a check-up. That's because it's messed up under two very different sets of conditions...

  • With a walking foot installed the machine is control of speed and stitch length, you are merely guiding the quilt sandwich.

  • With a darning or free motion foot installed you are in control of everything except physically creating the stitch.

Do you need to adjust the tension itself?

Loops on the back of the quilt sandwich that occur consistently over all types of quilting—straight or curved lines and direction reversals—require actual adjustments to the tension itself. For more information please see "Adjusting Sewing Machine Tension to Prevent Problems.

What types of threads are you using?

Tame machine quilting tension problems with the same thread in the needle and bobbin

As mentioned earlier, sewing machines are engineered to stitch with the same thread in the needle and bobbin. Use a practice quilt sandwich, made from the fabric and batting types you most usually use. Thread up your machine with a quality 50wt cotton like Aurifil or Masterpiece.

I suggest these because the tension adjustments, if needed, should be minor.


How does this compare to your other quilting sessions? If it's better, then, for now, try to plan your quilting with the same brand and weight of thread both needle and bobbin. Using different threads in the needle and bobbin will almost always require at least slight tension adjustments.

Is it a matter of practice?

If the tension problems are the most visible during free motion quilting, but only during certain aspects of free motion quilting, then it may simply boil down to needing more regular practice to develop the feel for this kind of quilting.

Do the tension problems occur most frequently on curves or where line of quilting reverses itself (like the points of a star)?

Then the tension problems are coming from the combination of hand and stitching speed.

'Eyelashing', a common tension problem, occurs when the quilter 'whips' around a curve by suddenly increasing the hand speed.

Practice moving your hands and the quilt sandwich at a steady pace, regardless of the direction you're quilting. (This is where those practice quilt sandwiches come in handy. Practice the direction you have the most problems quilting.)

If you have 'speed control' on your sewing machine, reduce the speed to, say, 50-75% of full speed. This will take one variable out of the machine quilting equation.

Practice will help you determine your own 'comfortable' quilting speed, but I wager it'll be something less than full speed. You'll have more control.

Do thread knobs or nubs form at points (i.e. where you reverse the stitching direction)?

This happen because you've paused for too long in one place with the needle moving. Again, practice this motion repeatedly on a practice sandwich.

Final words...

For my own learning curve, I spent a lot of time practicing once I'd made up my mind to learn free motion quilting. It certainly helped to create the muscle memory so that I know how it should 'feel' while stitching.

But the biggest boost was to my confidence.

Am I an award-winning quilter?


Just a gal who likes to quilt. But the practice gave me confidence.

Now when I sit down to quilt, no matter how long I've been away from my machine, I know the ability is right there, just waiting to be tapped into. Knowing that I can do it, changes my attitude when my machine acts up...and it does from time to time.

Melody, I hope I've been able to help in some small way. If the machine quilting portion of making a quilt it important to you, one that you WANT to learn, then find a way to give yourself the gift of time for more practice. You'll reap the benefits!


Julie Baird

Comments for Machine quilting tension problems

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by: Anonymous

All....all sewing machine tension adjustment must
Star with,knowing ...before sewing...
1). What is,...the amount of tension (thread
control) of thread in the bobbin case.
U must know this,..and it should not betight.
2) now adjus,and again (with presser foot down)
,...before threading the needle ,..pull on top
thread ...and know what it is ,...Notice
important..It should be a lot finger feeing
than BTM bobbin thread.
Now tread needle and test sew....
If you see loops of the top thread on underside
of material,...increase top tension till they disappear..

Tired of thread twisting up after the needle
by: Anonymous

I am a new machine quilter also and I have a new machine also a brother sc-6000i.

I have read a lot about the tension so far but I can't figure out why after I sew the thread gets tangles after the needle. I have tried Gutermann 100% cotton and Coats and Clark 100% cotton. I notice that it happened more with Gutermann.

When I pull the thread out of the machine the rest of the the thread is fine except what has passed through the needle part and the bobbin thread is the same thread and does not get tangled. I can't remember if it does it while I free motion because it has been a little bit since I have free motioned.

I have my tension set to 4 and do not have any other problems with sewing. My projects are straight and clean looking. Just frustrated that it is twisted and springy.

Being a new machine and the closest repair shop is an hour and half drive away, hoping I can get it fixed by something I might be doing wrong.

Thanks for your time.

From the Editor: I'm sorry you're having these problems...let's see if we can get you quilting!

First, I'm assuming that you're using a walking foot because you said you haven't free motion quilted for awhile.

To fix sewing machine problems, first thing try a new needle. I know it sounds too simplistic, but a needle fresh out of the package doesn't guarantee that it is a good needle. A small burr or imperfection can totally screw things up.

After every change, stitch a bit on a practice quilt sandwich to test.

If that doesn't work, go back to your regular presser foot (the one you use for piecing). Can you sew properly with it on? If so, then grab the instructions that came with the walking foot and your machine's instruction manual.

Walk yourself step by step through the installation of the foot and the set-up for your machine, paying careful attention to the thread path and all the guides it must go through.

From what you've written, if everything works fine with the regular presser foot, then I suspect that it's either a problem with the needle, the walking foot isn't installed properly or the thread isn't properly seated in either the tension disks or is missing a guide (which would reduce the thread tension).

To see if the thread isn't in the tension disk properly, put the presser foot in the down position (this engages the disks) and give it a tug. There should be resistance—that's the tension disks doing their job. If the thread just slides, lift the presser foot to open the disks and pull the thread down into them (like using dental floss.

I hope these suggestions help.

Readers, we're always open to suggestions. Please share using the 'comments' link below.


Julie Baird

trying to machine quilt for 1st time
by: Anonymous

After adjusting and readjusting needle and bobbin tensions, the stitches that normally appear on the bottom of the quilt are showing up on the top.

In other words, the bobbin stitches are on the quilt top and the needle ones on the bottom.

What do you think is amiss?


I would assume that the needle tension is too tight.

The other possibility is that the bobbin tension is too loose...but in order for it to appear on top, the needle thread would have to be pulling it up through the quilt.

I have rarely found it necessary to adjust my bobbin tension for regular sewing and quilting. Usually those adjustments are needed if I'm using a particularly fine or thick thread in the bobbin case. In fact, I have a separate bobbin case on hand that I play with the screw on. I keep on bobbin case with the tension screw set exactly as it came from the manufacturer for regular sewing and quilting.

~ Julie

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