Get Threads magazine!

Give a Gift

Understanding Thread Tension

Learn how to use the tension devices on your sewing machine and how to thread for proper tension.
Learn how to use the tension devices on your sewing machine and how to thread for proper tension.

Learn how to use the tension devices on your sewing machine and how to thread for proper tension.

Photo: Karen Meyer

Whenever you switch from your standard sewing thread to another thread, first thread your sewing machine and test your setup to see if you can get away with a tension-dial-only, temporary adjustment. If that doesn't work, get out your second bobbin case, and start moving the screw in quarter-turns to loosen or tighten it, as your sample dictates. Typically, when you use a lighter-than-normal thread for both needle and bobbin, the tensions will stay balanced, even though they're both lighter. This is often just what you need to avoid puckering lightweight fabrics, so no adjustment may be necessary. A heavier thread in top and bottom will increase both tensions, and you'll probably need to set a lighter tension to accommodate heavier fabrics.

Don't touch that dial!
So many things can affect the tension that it's worthwhile to run through the following checklist in the order given before you reach for the tension regulator:

Incorrectly threaded machine: Incorrect threading is responsible for more "tension" problems than any other factor. Did you use all thread guides? Did you thread with the presser foot down, thus keeping the thread from slipping fully between tension discs? Is thread unwinding freely from the spool, or catching on the spool's slash? Are you using a bobbin as a spool (which can interfere with the thread flow)? Is the bobbin inserted correctly?

Incorrectly filled bobbin: Remove any thread on the bobbin be-fore you wind on new thread. Wind the bobbin following the machine instructions, so it's evenly wound at the proper tension. Remove any thread from the outside of the bobbin. Wind at a consistent, slow or medium speed, especially with polyester and nylon threads, to keep them from stretching; they relax in your seam, causing puckers.

Dirty machine: Lint and thread ends lodged between the tension discs, under the throat plate, or around the bobbin case and bobbin, increase the resistance and restrict the thread flow. "Floss" between the tension discs with a lightweight, lint-free cloth, and check in the bobbin area for thread ends and lint.

Damaged machine parts: Bent needles and bobbins, and rough or damaged surfaces on the needle eyes, thread guides, tension discs, take-up lever, throat plate, presser foot, bobbin case, and in the bobbin area can all cause problems. If you drop a metal bobbin on a hard floor, throw it away, even if it looks fine; the smallest damage can distort tension. Avoid damage to the bobbin-tension spring by cutting the thread close to the case before removing the bobbin. Raise the presser foot before removing thread from the upper tension.

Needles, threads, and fabrics: Different thread sizes and types on top and in the bobbin can throw off basic tension settings. A needle that's too large or small for the thread can also unbalance your stitches, because the size of the hole adds to or reduces the total top tension. If you find that you're getting puckers on organza, chiffon, jersey, lace, or blouse-weight silks or polyesters, try changing to a straight-stitch foot and needle plate, and shorten the stitch length to 1.75 mm (15 sts/in.), before you reach for those tension dials.

Claire Shaeffer, author of Couture Sewing Techniques (The Taunton Press, 1993), writes about all levels of sewing in Palm Springs, California.

Prev 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 View all
ThreadsMagazine

Comments (31)

gricozys gricozys writes: nice
Posted: 8:51 am on October 3rd

Lemanczas Lemanczas writes: Great!
Posted: 5:45 am on September 5th

vlbknl2 vlbknl2 writes: Thanks for this great information.
I also recently bought a document, it was very good on this issue : http://thetopworld.com/fyos
Posted: 12:40 am on March 18th

quecome quecome writes: There's a good video explaining this...
Posted: 7:11 am on September 22nd

JennyRichards1 JennyRichards1 writes: Brilliant job of explaining how tension works. Thank you.
Posted: 2:51 am on May 16th

ThomasGops ThomasGops writes: In diet continue with the protein rich diet and foods like cereals, lentils, tofu, peas, fresh cheese , soya ,sugar and rice. Here's an example of how the timing approach works:. So her diet would include 1219 calories (using example #1) or 1380 (using example #2) + an additional 40%. Spiropent is a brand name for the chemical Clenbuterol Hydrochloride or Clenbuterol HCL. Need not stick to 8 hours as you might not need that long to feel great.
[url=http://uswafl.com/story.php?title=dukan-diet-excess-fat-quickly-although-it-off-forever-new-french-diet
diet advertisements
[/url]
Posted: 11:18 pm on May 5th

daniellacin daniellacin writes: I remember how I use to "play" with my mother's sewing machine settings and then she would get annoyed when she would notice her thread tension went haywire. Now I totally understand why! Thank you for sharing!
Posted: 9:13 am on February 18th

user-3436137 user-3436137 writes:
Posted: 2:14 am on May 23rd

Alekxechka Alekxechka writes:
Posted: 3:20 pm on December 22nd

user-2698071 user-2698071 writes: I had a problem with top threads breaking.
Solution: My machine held the spool horizontally (not vertically) and when I used a larger spool, the end cap that held the spool in place was too small. It allowed the thread to catch in the little slash on the rim of the spool and everything stopped.
When I used the larger end cap (supplied with the machine)the problem was solved.

Posted: 10:10 am on December 13th

TTAntone TTAntone writes:
Posted: 10:33 am on October 3rd

TTAntone TTAntone writes:
Posted: 6:20 am on October 3rd

Riccarsewer Riccarsewer writes: Attention to all,
I am need of some assistance. Some many years ago I purchased for my wife a Riccar 800 sewing machine. she has been trying to use it lately and the bobbin will not thread. The needle thread will catch the tip of the shuttle hook and the tip of the shuttle race holder. HELP! Can someone out there please assist me?
Posted: 10:02 am on July 29th

dsantil71 dsantil71 writes: I learned about using the right size needles for specific fabric, right type of thread for specific fabric such as polyester for polyester fabric & cotton for cotton fabric, not to use old or cheap thread not just color, even how to hold the fabric as it goes thru the machine matters but I could never get the tension right. I even learned about maintaining it regularly, using a new needle for every project but this is the first time I have learned this much about tension! I don't understand what you mean about how to "floss" between the tension discs. I'm not even sure where they are exactly and how to get to them. Can you give me for information on that please?
Posted: 1:48 pm on June 2nd

rshirt rshirt writes: My problem doesn't really seem to be thread tension. My foot sits too firmly on the fabric, I think! I have a skirt with one side shorter than the other because of the foot's movement or lack thereof on the slick fabric--any suggestions on how to deal with that?
Posted: 12:29 pm on March 15th

Sunshineliz Sunshineliz writes: Thank you so much! My machine has been driving me crazy and finally I have fixed the tension. Thank you for the tips on the bobbin tension.
Posted: 1:00 am on December 28th

mlssfshn mlssfshn writes: If both tensions are to loose and the stitch looks perfect how is the seam compromised?
Posted: 7:36 am on May 7th

nalax nalax writes: Thank you!! Excellent information!

Posted: 7:38 am on December 1st

cocoon_bobbins cocoon_bobbins writes: Interesting read about a little discussed topic on web blogs. I was not familiar with "thread tension" and so just learned some valuable information, thanks.
Posted: 3:34 am on November 7th

Grandytoon Grandytoon writes: How timely! Tomorrow, I will be teaching a homeschool sewing class of 12 and 13 year olds the parts of a sewing machine and how to use them. Thanks so much. I found this on Pinterest this evening and will use it during my class.
Posted: 5:40 pm on September 28th

SouthPawArtistry SouthPawArtistry writes: Thank you so much for this post on tightening the bobbin case screw. You made my day. I have been trying to fix my sewing machine for awhile. I kept reading the same info over and over, until I read this. Yay I'm so excited...it's fixed!
Posted: 6:03 am on August 23rd

SewingTina SewingTina writes: This article was perfect and exactly what I needed. I saved this as one of my favorites for future reference. Thanks.
Posted: 10:10 pm on January 8th

happy273 happy273 writes: I have a 1662 singer sewing machine and i can not get the bobbin thread to thread to top thread. I have cleaned machine. reread manual to make sure bobbin is thread correct and also that machine is threaded correctly. All are correct I loaded the bobbin it will not catch when i rotate the needle. It always did before now it just does nothing what i notice is the case doesn't rotate any more. It is a plastic case.

Please help
Posted: 11:34 pm on December 9th

AnotherSewingSue AnotherSewingSue writes: For the other Sue...

It sounds like your machine's timing is off - I had that problem with one of my antique Singers, it didn't matter what I did, it broke thread or knotted severely.

Not willing to throw my 1924 model 66 in the trash, or send it to Goodwill where I rescued it from, I looked around until I found a shop that would work on it. it turns out... one of the lower arms bearings were loose, which made the bobbin case run just slightly out of time.

Now, your babylock (I hope!!!) isn't as abused or old as this machine, but if you can't get the tension to tense right (after following the instructions on this page) it might be worth spending a few $$$ to have someone go thru it, and make sure it's timed right.

If you're lucky, you'll find a repair guy who will let you watch what he does. Not likely your machine breaks again, but if it does, yo'll know what he did to fix it. IF you're handy with tools (and can find the repair book for the machine) you'll remember what he did, and better, keep your machine running like the techs!!! ;)
Posted: 4:31 pm on October 28th

sew4sue sew4sue writes: This article is very well written and I want to thank you for it. I will print this and post it by my machine.
I have a Baby Lock Quilter's Choice Professional on a New Joy Gold Standard frame. I have always experienced alot of thread breakage and I get so frustrated with it and will walk away from it for days. I have 6 shirt quilts to quilt and Im not looking forward to it. I was experiencing my top thread showing on back, but I finally got that balances out. Now my bobbin thread is showing on top. Ugh! I will work on balance that tonight. back to the thread breaking. I have tried different thread, different needles. I have threaded, unthreaded and rethreaded to no avail. I keep having the same issue. Im almost convinced now, it may be the way the thread is on the spindle. I noticed that when I have the presser foot up and I pull the thread thru, that it is smooth until more thread comes off the spool, then it almost jerk and releases smooth again. Any thoughts?? If you can help solve my ongoing problem, you will have a friend for life!! THANKS SO MUCH!!
Posted: 2:47 pm on October 15th

sewingtime sewingtime writes: Hi there kaylaesq. I was having the same problems, and my instruction book didn't mention this problem, either. I thought maybe it was the thread I was using. I had a coated thread on both the upper thread and the bobbin. I think all the coating affected how the threads gripped one another. Changing the type of thread on at least one of them fixed this for me.
Posted: 6:04 pm on August 7th

ccfranco ccfranco writes: The upper thread keeps on breaking. I have cleaned and oiled the machine and I have changed the needles and the thread. I have a strong feeling that it has something to do with the tension disc and the tension dial. Though I have it on the lowest and loosest setting, it still seems like there's a lot of tension on the thread. I'm thinking this is why the upper thread is breaking. Is that possible? If so, what should I do? thanks.
Posted: 2:36 pm on July 18th

kaylaesq kaylaesq writes: I don't know if my problem is tension-related or not: when I start to sew, the stop motion knob spins free and when I lift the presser foot & remove the fabric, I find several threads @ 3 inches long looped on the bottom of the fabric instead of just a single bobbin thread. The troubleshooting list at the back of my sewing machine book does not address this problem. Could you at least identify the problem for me? If possible, I would also appreciate an explanation of how to solve the problem.
Posted: 5:07 pm on June 25th

uluky uluky writes: thanx for nice detail and clear info...i required it for my begginer usage of the machine...had funy things goin on with wound up thread appearing on the wrong side of da fabric...am now gonna check list the possible problem using the exact list u gave above...wud be very interesting to try it out.thanx for guidance on dis ...will get back by Gods grace.bless ya'll
Posted: 5:33 pm on April 22nd

DjSar DjSar writes: I am so glad I came on this site. With your information on bobbin tension I have been able to fix my sewing problems!
Posted: 5:04 am on July 22nd

vasantha vasantha writes: hi i have singer 8280 machine. my problem is when i stitching the cloth in backside the thread is loose then i use tension they will correct in 8 number but in manual book say 4 or 5 is correct for stitch wat can i do plzs help me
Posted: 3:20 am on May 14th

Log in or create a free account to post a comment.