Thread tension for quilting: find your machine’s sweet spot (+ sale!)

Quilting 101: Thread tension for quilting

Machine-quilting tension making you…tense? The first step toward success is knowing how to adjust your machine’s thread tension for quilting so your thread doesn’t get loopy, limit your progress, or (worst nightmare) come undone.

In Easy and Fun Free-Motion Quilting, Eva Larkin presents a simple, step-by-step way to test your tension before you get your machine whirring. Best part? You can test your tension on your readied quilt sandwich!

Easy way to test thread tension for quilting
An easy way to accurately test thread tension: use the extra backing and batting on one side of the quilt with a piece of scrap fabric from the quilt top.

With Eva’s method for testing thread tension for quilting, your efforts will be accurate from the get-go (read: no unpicking). Just follow the steps below.

Exercise: How to Test Thread Tension
From Easy and Fun Free-Motion Quilting by Eva A. Larkin

1. Thread the machine with the quilting thread to be used in the quilt.

2. Place a test section of the quilt (as in the photo above) under the needle and sew a line of stitches 3″ to 4″ long. If the stitches are too small to see clearly, sew another line of stitches with the machine running at a slower speed.

3. Remove the quilt from under the needle, clip the threads, and look at the thread on both the front and back of the sample area.

  • Is the fabric pillowing around the stitches? If it’s not, the tension needs to be tightened (turned to a higher number).
  • Is the bobbin thread still lying on the back of the quilt? If it is, the tension
    needs to be increased quite a bit.

You might need to make three to four changes in half-step increments before the tension is correct.

Pillowing around stitches
The tension is correct when pillowing occurs around the stitches, as in this example.

4. Continue testing and adjusting the tension settings in this manner until the tension is correct.

Now that tension is no longer a tense subject, you can get creative! This week’s sale books each give lessons on how to machine quilt, as well as loads of ideas for what to quilt when you’re ready. Which book will inspire you to spend some time at your machine?

Get 20% off + free shipping on select books!

1. Easy and Fun Free-Motion Quilting by Eva A. Larkin

From Easy and Fun Free-Motion Quilting
Easy and Fun Free-Motion Quilting

Easy and Fun Free-Motion QuiltingEasily turn stippling and simple lines into gorgeous quilting designs by focusing on only one block or area at a time. No tracing or resizing needed—and the frames and fillers included offer hundreds of design options.

See more from Easy and Fun Free-Motion Quilting >
Print book (with free eBook): $26.99 $21.59 + free shipping
eBook only: $18.99 $15.19

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2. Free-Motion Quilting Made Easy by Eva A. Larkin

From Free-Motion Quilting Made Easy
Free-Motion Quilting Made Easy

Free-Motion Quilting Made EasyEva’s debut bestseller will introduce you to basic loops, ovals, diamonds, triangles, and other familiar shapes. Practice the shapes with several exercises; then combine them in dozens of block-based designs. Loads of tips and hints included!

See more from Free-Motion Quilting Made Easy >
Print book (with free eBook): $26.99 $21.59 + free shipping
eBook only: $18.99 $15.19

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3. You Can Quilt It! by Deborah M. Poole

From You Can Quilt It
From You Can Quilt It!

You Can Quilt ItWhen you’re learning from Kim Diehl’s preferred machine quilter, how can you go wrong? Written for quilting on a long-arm or home sewing machine, you’ll find lessons for quilting oodles of free-motion patterns, along with eight techniques for classic feathers.

See more from You Can Quilt It! >
Print book (with free eBook): $27.99 $22.39 + free shipping
eBook only: $19.99 $15.99

4. Feathers That Fly by Lee Cleland

From Feathers That Fly
Feathers that Fly

Feathers That FlyThere’s no better resource for quilting feathers by machine! Learn to quilt straight-spine feathers, plus wreaths, curves, and cables in this bestseller, back in print by popular demand. Discover a new technique in each chapter, along with projects for practice.

See more from Feathers that Fly >
Print book (with free eBook): $26.99 $21.59 + free shipping
eBook only: $18.99 $15.19

What’s your favorite way to machine quilt: with an overall pattern or block by block? Tell us in the comments!

Get 20% off + free shipping on select books!

*Free shipping to the US and Canada only. Must sign in or register first; free shipping will apply at checkout.

10 Comments (leave a comment)

  • Block by Block – i have not attempted overall quilting.

    —Dawn Smolsky on June 29, 2015
  • I do overall quilting, and I stick to loops and meanders. I don’t have the required precision for block by block and using a pattern.

    —Sandy W. on June 29, 2015
  • I have not yet learned the "fine art" of machine quilting, but when I have, whole quilt would be my preference. Seriously doubt that I have the artistic ability to do all those fancy individual block patterns. Of course, only time will tell. Practice makes perfect, right?

    —debra lee on June 29, 2015
  • I have mainly done small projects–most of them were block by block or using a stencil. I haven’t done overall quilting.

    —Janet in ND on June 30, 2015
  • I usually do an all over quilting on my quilts. I have many problems with my tension but it is threads looping on the backing. It will be fine when I start quilting and then all of a sudden the loops start showing up. I am sew frustrated and do not know what to do about it.

    —Renea on July 3, 2015
  • At this point, I have mostly done straight line stitching with a walking foot. It is very basic but gets the job done. I really like the look of individual blocks and that is how I would quilt if I were hand quilting. FMQ is still in the works for me. My first FMQ project looked great from the front but when I turned it over I knew there was an issue with the tension. So, I guess the book that I would get would be the Easy and Fun Free Motion Quilting.

    —Darla E on July 3, 2015
  • I’m afraid I haven’t done any larger quilts. I’m still trying to get my design and stitches even so I’m still practicing on small utilitarian pieces. Need to do some more tops to be consistant!

    —Mary Smith on July 3, 2015
  • I do all-over quilting the most.

    —Donna on July 5, 2015
  • I do it section-by-section. But I just do ‘random’ quilting so the sections don’t have to match each other. VERY amateur! And I am VERY impressed by those great-looking samples!

    —Jan Gervin on November 18, 2015
  • I have done both block by block and all over with varying degrees of success. I think the important thing is to practice every day, even if it is only on left over scraps. And save those halting first attempts to compare to what you are doing now; it is very rewarding to see how much you have improved.

    —Elizabeth P. on March 24, 2016

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