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Tension problems, I've tried EVERYTHING!

by Tasha
(Springfield, IL USA)

Ok, first of all, I have a very basic machine, it's just a sewing/mending machine, and has maybe 15 stitches, none of them decorative. The feed dogs do not drop, I have to cover them. I have a free motion foot, and I have used it before with OK results, but I forgot to write down what the settings were! So, here is my problem.

Two days ago, I sat down to quilt a quilt for charity. I kept getting thread nests, breaking needles (3 within an hour), and eyelashing. I turned to Google, and found this amazing website! I read everything on here about machine quilting, and rushed out to Jo-Ann's to buy new needles and machine quilting thread.

I came home, took my machine apart, cleaned and oiled it, and put it back together. I re-threaded it, making sure to use the same thread on the top and bottom, a new needle, and I started with the tension at 0 for the top. I started practicing on my quilt sandwich, and it was terrible. So, I adjusted the top tension up 1, and it was a little better. I kept going like this, until my tension was at 5(which is the average for my machine) and it was still doing it. So, I tried the bobbin tension, and I got it almost perfect, there was still some eyelashing on the top, but no nests on the back, which was a huge improvement. This took me quite a few hours of fiddling, so I took a break and came back to it later. When I got back to the machine, I decided to run a sandwich through it again, just to make sure it was still set like it needed to be. As I was sewing along, it seems that my tension loosened itself, and it went haywire again. I tried changing the needle and re-threading the machine again.

I'm at a loss as to what to do, any suggestions?


First, I want to CONGRATULATE YOU!

I know you're frustrated right now, but you've already shown the 'stick-to-it-tive-ness' that will make you a good machine quilter. You have tried all the obvious things that I would have tried, too. So...

Getting down to the nitty-gritty, given that the machine was doing fine, you left it for awhile and when you came back to start again, it seemed like the tension loosened itself, I think you should take your machine in to the repairman for a check-up.

Because you have a cover for the feed dogs, I'm assuming this is an older machine. Some of the parts may be at the end of their useful life and need to be replaced. The tension adjustment knob in my first sewing machine, an old Singer, is spring loaded. Mechanical parts just plain wear out over time.

Use machine quilting thread and not hand quilting thread...

Double check your quilting thread. Make sure it doesn't say it's for 'Hand Quilting'. Hand quilting thread sometimes has a glaze on it to make it easier to pull through the quilt sandwich. Sewing machines, on the other hand, don't like this glaze at all. If memory serves me correctly, it's either Guttermann or Mettler that glazes their hand quilting thread.

Tweaking Sewing Machine Tension...

Something that caught my eye in your description was that you started the tension setting at '0'. Then worked your way up. When the tension is set at zero, the only tension put on the needle thread is that caused by the friction of it against the thread guides on its way to the needle. A setting of 4-5, give or take a bit, seems to be the place to start when setting tension.

The big exception to this rule of thumb is monofilament thread. Monofilament has some inherent give or stretch to it. So to use it in your sewing machine, you offset set this by reducing the amount of tension the machine adds to it.

Larger, thicker threads usually require lower tension settings. They rub the guides more as they wind through your sewing machine, creating their own tension.

If you're adjusting tension and you just can't figure out which thread is causing the trouble, try using the same brand of thread, but use one color for the needle and and different color for the bobbin. You'll be able to see right away if one is poking through to the other side.

Adjusting Bobbin Tension...

To adjust bobbin tension, you must have turned the little screw on the bobbin case. This, too, is a temperamental part. The screw is minuscule and the threads do wear out. This would be another part to let the repairman know about.

That Pesky Eyelashing...

Eyelashing is caused by a combination of speed and tension. It happens on the curved portions of quilting lines. Your settings may be just fine for straight and gently arcing lines, but when you go around curves, do you tend to pull the quilt sandwich a bit faster? That is usually the cause of the eyelashing is the tension is OK otherwise.

The simple solution is to slow down a bit as you quilt the curves. I personally like a moderate, even pace as I quilt with no speeding up or slowing down. It's rather Zen-like after awhile. You may be able to tweak the tension tighter, just a wee bit, to help.

Again, I am so happy to see you jump right in and tackle your sewing machine's problems and then keep at it until you got it right. You will make a fine machine quilter!

Thank you for your question. Don't hesitate to ask more if you need to!

Readers, if you have more to add, please click on 'Click here to add your own comments' just below.

Thank you!


Julie Baird

Comments for Tension problems, I've tried EVERYTHING!

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Top tension singer featherweight loosens on its own
by: Mary

I bought and refurbished an old 122S Featherweight Singer. I followed the service manual and online posts on setting the top tension which was really messed up. It seems well now except the top tension dial loosens on its own very quickly as I sew. Google searches keep returning basic tension settings. Thoughts?

From the Editor: If there is nothing in the manual about how to keep the tension dial tight, I would take it to the repair person. Since a screw is a mechanical part, it's quite possible it's worn past its useful life.

I wish I had a better/easier suggestion, but that's what I'd do.


Julie B

The opposite problem
by: Anonymous

I have almost the exact opposite problem. I have tried all the normal things and the tension is still running very high. Even with the presser foot up!!! I've gone through each part the thread goes through, and the problem seems to be most apparent between the upper tension which seems fine if I run it through just the tension plates they don't seem bad. But then when I hook it over the feed arm it all goes to crap. I have not oiled my machine as it's new and very quiet and I've checked it for stray threads or fluff I have changed the needle and changed the thread using two different colors and the top thread is still poking below I have never touched the tension on my under bobbin, I have not used the machine much and haven't had it long so I really hope this isn't a repair job as I may as well just buy a new one as get it repaired it will cost so much to travel etc. I have an old Elna which also has problems if get that fixed rather than this one. It's a Singer Confidence and it has really shaken mine, although I've learned a lot trying to fix it I am at a total loss as to why each part seems to run through smoothly in tandem, it is so tight!!! Soooo tight! If anyone knows what this could be I would be most grateful for any advice or ideas to try. It isn't an expensive machine so I suppose what do you expect but I'd like to have made one quilt so far I've only been doing practice lines:( and just started a project and bam!:( I've actually never made anything start to finish and I've had three machines but they always go weird even when I do everything exactly as I am told and go slow etc. I am starting to think I should not sew at all:(

From the Editor: I am so sorry, I am at a loss as to what to do other than take it in. It's possible that there was something wrong with it right out of the box. Were you able to take any lessons on it before getting it home?

If traveling to the store where you got it is hard, maybe you can do a Facetime with them so they can see the problems you are having. I would expect a reputable dealer to stand behind their products.

Readers, if you can help, please do!

~ Julie

by: kath

I am new to quilting also, I find doing the quilt as you go method (one block at a time)
it is easier to handle. I also have to do my own speed--my machine cannot set the speed. I also use tone on tone fabric for backing or something with a busy pattern, so while I am learning you don't see the mistakes I might make, it takes time to get use to the stippling, I am only now starting to feel the speed and movement of the fabric, but still got a lot of practice. Anyway, good luck!

Tension problems, I've tried Everything
by: Patty

It sounded to me that possibly when you returned to your machine that you may not have lowered your presser foot. It is easy to forget to lower the presser foot since you have covered or lowered the feed dogs but forget that the presser foot still needs to be lower to begin free motion stitching. If the presser foot has not been lower, it will definitely cause a thread nest and loose stitches. Just a thought.

Thank you!
by: Tasha

Thank you for such a detailed and quick response!

I doubled checked the thread before purchasing, making sure it was for machine quilting. I don't remember the brand right off hand though.

I will try starting at a higher tension and working backwards, hopefully that helps.

I'm a very new machine quilter, and I have been trying to slow down around the curves(I'm attempting stippling.) It's hard for me, since I don't have the ability to set my pedal speed.

This is the first large project I've tried to tackle, and it's very daunting for me. As I said in my original post, I did a small project fine, it was a small table runner.

Thanks again for the suggestions! I plan on getting a new machine in a couple of months, I've outgrown this one.

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