How to Fix Bad Machine Quilting Stitches

free-motion quilted fly
My free-motion quilted fly ATC.

pokey boltonOh, how I love being seated in front of my beloved Bernina®, moving my latest creation under the needle in a steady rhythm, free-motion quilting away until…the thread breaks; I notice the stitches are skipping; or a little tug tells me there is a problem underneath the fabric, like an unsightly nest of bobbin thread.

That's when the tension starts to get to meand I don't just mean the kind that lodges in my shoulders.

Let's face it: sometimes stitches go bad, and tension is usually the culprit. But not always. Sometimes there is a problem with the needle, the thread, or even (cough) lax machine maintenance.

I put together a little video about how to pull up the bobbin thread to avoid those unsightly bobbin nests.

Click on the arrow to view
"How to Pull Up the Bobbin Thread."

As for the other little issues that can create annoying machine stitching problems, Australian textile artist Dijanne Cevaal has some very helpful advice.

As a quilting teacher and author of several books, she really knows her stuff.

Though Dijanne says you shouldn't worry about your stitching looking absolutely perfect, when stitch issues get in the way of your quilting enjoyment and artistry, you should consider the following:

Regardless of what the instruction books recommend for your machine, you will almost certainly have to adjust your tension for free-motion machine quilting.

It is impossible to say exactly what tension you should use, as it is dependent on the thickness of the thread, the needles you are using, the thickness and density of the batting you are using, and the backing fabric.

It is best to keep a small sampler piece of the materials you are working with so that you can check that the tension is right for the materials you are working with.

If you are having problems with the top of your work, such as threads breaking or stitches skipping, first check your needle; you may need to change it.

If you have changed the needle and the problem continues, there is usually something going on with your bobbin. Give it a good cleaning and then rethread it, making sure that your bobbin is properly wound.

If there are problems underneath your work such as tension or bunching of threads, it usually means there is a problem with the top of your machine. Rethread the top of your machine completely. With free-motion machine stitching it is possible for the threads to slip out of the tension plates, and tension is needed to make good stitches.

Armed with Dijanne's machine stitch tension tips, I feel more relaxed already!

You can see Dijanne's machine stitching method for adding texture with thread and read many more of her tips in Quilting Arts In Stitches Vol. 4, now available.

P.S. Have you ever "dared" to alter the tension on your bobbin? Success, failure, tips? Share them in the comments section below.

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Machine Stitching, Quilting Daily Blog

8 thoughts on “How to Fix Bad Machine Quilting Stitches

  1. I have had my Viking centuries longer than I have had my husband, so I am very at home ‘dismantling’ my sewing machine. The bobbin tension screw is so very tiny that adjusting it is done in fairy eyelash increments. Nothing to freak out about. Adjust. Test. Adjust. Test. When you have tried Dijanne’s suggestions and still have a problem-check for teensy hunks of thread lint between the tension plate and the actual body of the bobbin. Happens when some people don’t clean the bobbin case area regularly enough. Ahem…

  2. Sure! when I first started sewing with my longarm I was having real trouble with the stitch balance, broken threads etc. I was at my wit’s end with it. So I summoned up all my courage and turned that little screw a quarter turn (because that was all the bravery I had at the time, and took a real look at what happened.. Little by little, the stitches got better, more even and finally looked right as I moved the machine around curves… I’m so glad I did it! Now I have another tool in the toolbox of tricks for my artwork! (I’m just glad I didn’t lose the screw)

  3. I have been adjusting my bobbin tension for years so that I can use different thicknesses of thread in my bobbin more easily. I find that if I tug on the upper thread (make sure it is through the tensioner and the pressure foot is down) and get a feel for how tight it is adjusted and then tug on the bobbin thread it should feel about the same. It takes practice but after a while I got good at telling when they were ballanced.

  4. I like to do bobbin work; which means that I put heavier thread in the bobbin and turn my fabric right side down when doing free motion or embroidery. I use a separate bobbin holder that I can adjust just right for the thickness of the heavy thread. I keep my regular one just for sewing. It makes it much easier. I keep the bobbin in a small baggy noting it is for thread work!

  5. Thanks for this. It is reassurring that you experience some of the same challenges as a “baby” quilter like me! Cindy from Teulon, Manitoba Canada.

  6. I loved reading the comments. I have never adjusted the tension in my bobbin…. ever… and i only do fmq. I know, you are thinking, ‘my what must her fmq look like?’ LOL

  7. When I learned to do “bobbin work” with the heavy thread/cord wound on the bobbin, I was hesitant to do the required loosening of screw of the bobbin case. You will feel braver if you purchase another bobbin case to use just for this purpose. Even then, before loosening the screw, make a mark with a fine marked to show the initial line up of the screw dent(?) Then you can always turn it back to the starting point without concern.

  8. Thanks for the tips. I’m sure evry quilter has struggled with at least one of these problems,if not more.Reiewing the basics is just the reminder needed. It’s so helpful to draw upon the experience of others!
    And “NO” I’m terrified to even think about adjusting the bobbin tension.