Troubleshooting sewing-machine tension: 5 simple steps

Flower Power free-motion quilting motifHow can you get the perfect thread tension before you start machine quilting? Look no further than Lori Kennedy’s book Free-Motion Machine Quilting 1-2-3!

In Lori’s book, you’ll learn all you need to know to create 61 whimsical motifs, including how to set up your machine, how to doodle to refine your technique, and yes—how to get that perfect thread tension before you begin.

Today we’re sharing Lori’s five-step process from Free-Motion Machine Quilting 1-2-3 for finding your machine’s sweet spot when it comes to thread tension. These tips will help you today and years from today. Read on to learn Lori’s secrets!


Lori KennedyFINDING THE BEST TENSION

The perfect machine-quilting stitch should be balanced between the top and bobbin threads. In other words, the bobbin thread shouldn’t show on the top of the quilt, and the top thread shouldn’t show on the back of the quilt. It’s almost impossible for any sewing machine to create perfect balance at all times while you’re machine quilting, because of the mechanics of moving the quilt in many directions. Using the same color of thread in the bobbin as on the top will conceal most issues as long as the tension is properly adjusted.

For most sewing machines, stitches will look better when the top tension is lowered. Adjust the top tension first, adjusting the bobbin tension only if necessary. If it’s impossible to balance the tension completely, it’s better to have top threads pulled slightly to the back than to have bobbin threads showing on the top. Here are some examples of my machine quilting after adjusting my thread tension.

Here are the steps I take to balance my tension:

1. Using the same fabrics and batting that will be used in the quilt project, free-motion stitch a 3″ line without changing the tension settings. Inspect the line.

2. Lower the tension one step or number and stitch another 3″ line. Inspect the line. Does it look better or worse? If it looks better than the first line, lower the tension again and stitch another line.

3. Inspect this line of stitching. Does it look better or worse?

4. Continue lowering the tension and stitching lines until the newly stitched line looks worse than the previous one.

5. Tweak the tension between the final two lines to find the perfect sweet spot for your stitches.

Troubleshooting machine-quilting tension


Take the time to set your tension before you stitch—it will relieve a lot of tension in the long run!

We caught up with Lori at Quilt Market and she showed us how she stitches her Flower Power motif from Free-Motion Machine Quilting 1-2-3. Watch her work her magic (with a little practice, you can conjure her magic too):


Reading this post in email? Click here to view the video.

Here’s a FREE tutorial for the Flower Power motif from Lori’s book that you can start with (it’s her favorite). Just be sure to check your tension first!

Free machine quilting motif: Flower Power
Download Lori’s Flower Power tutorial—print it out and try it for yourself!

What’s your tension-checking trick: a scrap of fabric, a practice sandwich . . . a seam ripper? Tell us in the comments!

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17 Comments (leave a comment)

  • When threading your machine, do not slip the thread through the last loop closest to the needle – the thread will run more freely.

    Gail G on August 25, 2017
  • When I’m done layering my quilt, I usually have a pretty generous amount of extra batting and backing sticking out past the edge of my quilt top (all the easier to grab and guide my quilt as I quilt the borders on my domestic machine). I frequently just pin a piece of scrap fabric from my top over this area and do some practice quilting to check my tension on there. If necessary, I can also write my final tension setting and any other notes on this scrap, and then it’s always there if I need it later.

    Meredith on August 25, 2017
  • I check my tension with 2 layers of felt squares (purchased from Hobby Lobby or Joann’s). Halfway through the quilting I stop to check it again with the same squares.

    —Roberta J on August 25, 2017
  • I use scrap fabric and move in increments until I find perfect tension.

    Chris on August 25, 2017
  • If I know on the practice sandwich I have good stitches… I double check my table height (take up rail) each roll(advance of the quilt) to prevent thread breaks. I use to think I always had tension problems until I practiced using the sandwich test after each bobbin change or needle change. It has made all the difference in my learning curve. thanks for such clear examples in the pictures.

    —Sharon Beeghly on August 25, 2017
  • I usually test my tension on a small quilt sandwich. I use the same batting and type of fabric as my project.

    —Lillian K on August 25, 2017
  • A scrap of fabric.

    —Karen Hootman on August 25, 2017
  • A practice sandwich because I would normally be quilting on a top, batting and backing!

    —Patty on August 25, 2017
  • Wow! Thanks for this post! I usually check my tension with a swatch of fabric. And when all else fails I get out the seam ripper!

    —Maclary on August 25, 2017
  • Years of practice but like to use 2 different colors of thread on a different color of fabric to really get a good visual.

    —Bev Gunn on August 25, 2017
  • Always a practice sandwich and a stitch regulator turned on!

    —Renae on August 26, 2017
  • I like to practice on a small quilt of fabric I don’t think I’ll use for another project. These not so perfect samplers become quick tablecloths for a surprise picnic. They are also with camping and picnic supplies. They also are cut up for everyday placemats.

    —Karen on August 26, 2017
  • I try out my quilting on a scrap of fabric placed next to the quilt top on my extra batting/backing. I’m using the same materials as my quilt, and it’s always there for me to test it again.

    —TaraA on August 26, 2017
  • I usually start quilting on the bottom of the quilt to check tension and get into the swing of the pattern so it’s less noticeable. If the tension is off, I have to use my trusty seam ripper. Thanks for the great advice and it’s a really handy book to have right by my frame! Hugs, Deb Quiltbeeme

    —Deb Johnson on August 26, 2017
  • I check with a practice sandwich

    —Gwen Hanvy on August 26, 2017
  • I make a quilt sandwich and then practice the design I plan on quilting.

    —Barb H on August 28, 2017
  • I use my scrap fabrics of what I’m sewing to check the tension to make sure I have the right needle and the tension is good before I start sewing.

    —barb s on August 30, 2017

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