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Troubleshooting Thread Tension Issues

It’s very frustrating to deal with thread tension issues while quilting. Is it a lint problem in the bobbin case? Is it a dull needle? Are the tension settings correct? It can certainly be time consuming, especially if you’re not sure what to check! I recently put a call out for help on Instagram while I was dealing with a tension issue and I appreciate all the advice received. I thought I would summarize the tips in a checklist. This is meant for when the thread does not look right on a quilted piece.

But first:

Take a deep breath. This issue stinks but don’t let it tear you down (because if you’re like me, you want it fixed RIGHT NOW). If you’re able to walk away for a few minutes, you can come back with a fresh set of eyes to look at the situation.

I would suggest NOT trying everything at once. Read through the list and start with the most applicable one you think could be causing an issue. For example, if you suddenly remember you haven’t changed your needle in a month, start by changing it and see what happens. If you just cleaned your bobbin area, just put in a new needle an hour ago, and just stitched for 30 minutes without a problem, you may want to take the thread out and rethread again as something could have shifted/been bumped/etc.

Finally, identify what doesn't look right. Are there loops on the bottom? Are the top stitches incredibly tight together? Make note of what looks wrong.

Thread Tension Issue Checklist
1. Rethread the top thread. Consult the machine’s manual for how to ensure the top thread is placed correctly in the tension discs. Also, here’s a tip to make sure you’re threaded through the disc properly (for most machines, may not be true for all!) – once threaded, lower the presser foot and pull on the thread. If it’s properly sitting in between the tension discs, you should not be able to pull the thread through the needle.

2. Re-insert the bobbin. Consult the machine’s manual for how to properly insert the bobbin.

3. Wind a new bobbin. The current bobbin may have been wound incorrectly – even just a minor bump in how it was wound may be causing issues.

4. Check the tension settings. Consult the machine’s manual for default tension settings. Also, some manuals will have troubleshooting tips for various issues and may have guidance on thread issues. Experiment on test fabric (set up as close as possible as the scenario where you were experiencing the issue) by trying the default settings, making minor adjustments and testing again. Mark each row so that you know which setting produces the correct result.

5. Clean lint out of the bobbin case. If you’re able to access and clean other areas or your machine, make sure all dust/lint is cleared out.

6. Change the needle. I’ve read a few times that either after 6-8 hours or one project it’s time to change the needle. Your machine may need it changed after a different amount of time. Also, have you used that type of needle before? If yes, but you continue to experience issues, consider testing out different needle sizes and different needle brands to see if it makes a difference.

7. Check the spool of thread. Many quilters find that certain thread brands do not get along with their machines. Check the actual spool of thread too as occasionally there’s a knot or weak spot in the thread. Try a different spool of thread from your stash, even if it’s the same brand, to see what it does. If there’s still an issue, consider trying a different brand of thread to see how it works. Also, several people noted that thread in direct sunlight can start breaking down, as well as really old spools of thread.

8. Check the spool cap. Some machines come with multiple spool cap sizes. Smaller caps should be used for smaller spools of thread; larger caps for larger spools. Using a larger cap with a smaller spool could cause an issue with how the top thread is feed through your machine. Consult the machine’s manual to determine what spool cap sizes are available for your machine and when to use each size cap.

9. Evaluate the thickness of the fabric and batting. How does this compare to other typical projects you quilt? If it’s an unusual combination for you – double batting, thinner batting, linen vs. cotton, etc., there’s a chance a setting needs changed on your machine. You may want to consider test quilting a smaller sample piece and making notes about what works best in different scenarios for your machine.

10. Call in the experts. It may be time for a full machine clean or an evaluation by a technician who can dig deeper into the problem.

I do not know with certainty what caused my thread issue but I have two strong suspicions. A) I was moving very fast in between the four colors I was using and not checking the top tension every time I rethread. It may not have been the issue but it would certainly make sense that I only saw it on two of the four threads I used. B) After another week or so, I noticed I was practically pulling pieces through to be sewn (just piecing, not quilting). I realized my feed dogs were off. I took my machine in to have been fixed and my machine has been sewing much better since then. I tried everything else on the checklist multiple times and there was still a problem. It was worth my time to call in the experts.

This checklist is meant to help identify the possible problem(s), but does not cover every possible scenario. Consulting the machine’s manual is a good place to start! What else would you add to the checklist?

Thank you to EVERYONE in the Instagram community who sent recommendations and offered continued support (especially my friend, Karen, who walked through scenarios with me for an hour!). Our quilting community is filled with such kind-hearted, helpful, inspiring people!

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