Machine Quilting Thread and Tension

Beginning Machine Quilting 101 continues...

by Julie Baird

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We are so-o-o lucky!

Machine quilting threads are available in every color, size and texture imaginable! What's a beginning quilter to do?

Be adventurous! Try anything! But pretest everything before using it in your quilt.

That said...

Machine Quilting Threads for Beginners

In the beginning you'll want to keep your choices simple.

Cotton quilting thread

For the purposes of Beginning Quilting 101 use quality 50 wt, 100% cotton threads like Aurifil on the orange cone or Superior Threads' Masterpiece. These are excellent quality threads and a nice weight for your first quilting projects. You will need to make few, if any, tension adjustments.

Quality machine quilting threads are made with longer staple cotton. It creates less lint in your sewing machine.

Stay away from the cheap, "10 for a dollar", threads that are sometimes offered by the big box stores. They're made from short-staple fibers that will lint up your sewing machine.

Quality thread just isn't that much more expensive. Click here to check out a cost comparison I did for another quilter.


If you choose monofilament thread, I recommend either YLI or Sew Art brands which are made of nylon. They're what I use.

You may also want to try polyester monfilament. It is sold an Mono-poly by Superior Threads. Madeira and Sulky also make them.

Good monofilament feels like hair, not fishing line, and is marked ‘.004’. These threads are found in your local quilt store.

Make A Perfect Stitch

A perfectly formed stitch has no bobbin thread showing on the quilt top and no needle thread showing on the backing. The stitch forms within the layers of the quilt.

A sewing machine is designed to create nice even stitches when the same thread is used both needle and bobbin. But we use our ‘sewing’ machines for quilting. Many times one thread will be used in the needle and another in the bobbin. This is where most of our stitch problems arise, so we...

Make Tension Adjustments

Virtually all of the tension adjustments you'll make as a beginning quilter are made with the needle tension dial or control. Bobbin tension adjustments may be needed if you are using a particularly heavy or ultra fine machine quilting thread.

Always start with the needle tension.

The general adjustments to the needle tension are:

  • If your bobbin thread shows on the quilt top, loosen your tension. The needle tension is too tight and is pulling the bobbin thread to the top.
  • If your needle thread shows on the backing, tighten the needle tension. The needle thread is too loose and is being pulled to the backing by the bobbin thread.

Remember the words, “Righty tighty, lefty loosey’. Turning your tension dial to the right tightens the tension. Turning left, loosens the tension. If your machine is a push button, increasing the tension number increases the tension.

Make a small adjustment to the tension, then test. It is easier to fine tune the tension this way.

Do not change your needle AND change your tension in one step. You won't know for sure which action caused the change you see in the resulting stitching.

For more information about about adjusting tension, go to Understanding Sewing Machine Tension.

The Fun Begins When You Choose Your Own

Once you begin using a one machine quilting thread for the needle and another for the bobbin, or a heavier or lighter weight thread, adjustments to the tension are necessary. Make sure that you choose the correct needle before making these adjustments.

Test on A Small Quilt Sandwich

Test your thread choices. Make a small quilt sandwich from your leftovers...same thread, fabric, batting and backing. This sandwich doesn't have to be neat, just big enough to stitch on for several inches.

Threads that Sparkle and Shine

If your machine quilting thread has a shine, sparkle or luster to it (like metallic, rayon, hologram, etc.) use a longer stitch. The longer stitch creates a longer surface for the light to reflect off. Conversely, to hide the shine or sparkle, shorten your stitch length. The light has no place to reflect off.

Threads that Stretch

Monofilament stretches when you pull on it. Try it. You can feel the stretch. This stretch creates tension in your sewing machine, so reduce your tension. On my machine, I reduce by 2 for monofilament and then fine tune on a practice sandwich. I test every thread in a project, whether or not I’ve used it before in another quilt.

Machine Allergies

Some machines seem to be allergic to certain threads. Is this really true? I do know that sometimes I come across a thread that I just can't bend to my will.

I’ve also heard quilters lament that a certain kind of rayon thread or metallic thread just doesn’t work in their machine.

What’s a quilter to do? Change your needle. Adjust your tension. Try a different batting. Unwind several yards of thread off the spool and try again. Flip the spool so that the thread is flowing off in the opposite direction. Use a metal thread stand. Experiment! Try a different brand or color. Try a larger needle.

Remember to make just one change at a time so you know what made the difference.

It is crucial to test your machine quilting thread choices for a quilt for this very reason. Sometimes you just can't get the effect you want. There are lots of threads out in the market. Try something else.

Thread Rules

I don't usually have a lot of hard and fast rules, but where thread is concerned, I do have a few.

  • Don’t use cheap thread. It's not worth your time. Good thread just isn’t that expensive when you compare per yard costs. No 10 for a dollar spools!
  • Test everything.
  • Be prepared to change plans. Sometimes you just can’t make a thread do what you want it to do.
  • Don't use thread labeled ‘Hand Quilting’ for machine quilting. This thread has a glaze on it that isn't good for your sewing machine.

Table of Contents
for Beginning Machine Quilting 101


Beginning Quilting 101: Quilting Instructions for the Beginner

Preparing to Quilt

The Quilt Sandwich

And finally, the Quilting!

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The best book for the beginning machine quilter

If you can have only one  in your library...this is it!

"Heirloom Machine Quilting"
by Harriet Hargrave

My must-have machine quilting aids

Helps reduce drag on your bobbin

Reduces friction on your machine bed - comes in 2 sizes

Helps you control the quilt sandwich

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