Sewing Technique Trouble-shooting: Bobbin Tension Tips

Recently, our online editor, Cate Prato, put out a plea on Facebook, regarding the sudden change in tension on her sewing machine stitches:

Sewing friends, I need advice. I have been machine piecing a quilt top for a couple hours without incident. Then the bobbin ran out and I refilled it, taking the opportunity to de-fuzz the feed dog and bobbin casing area before putting the bobbin back in. Now, the tension is completely off: loops on top and squiggly stitching below. What happened and how can I fix it?

To get an even quilting stitch, you must be sure your tension is correct, especially when free-motion quilting. Art by Dijanne Cevaal.

Responses came swiftly from Cate’s Facebook friends, most of whom quilt or sew. The comments (from everyday home sewers to Bernina® Brand Ambassadors) read like a tension trouble-shooting guide from a sewing tutorial:

  • Did you change the needle?
  • Is the bobbin inserted the right way?
  • Is the bobbin basket seated (aligned) properly?
  • Did you remove all the fuzz? Try compressed air.
  • Is the thread and/or needle the right size for the project?
  • Is the machine threaded properly?
  • Did you adjust the bobbin tension?
  • Is there thread caught in the thread track?
  • Did you oil the bobbin area?
  • Is there thread caught in the bobbin area you didn’t see?
  • Did you put the presser foot down?
  • Did you change the bobbin?

The last suggestion was the winner. By putting in a completely new bobbin and stitching a few practice runs on a scrap of the fabric she had been stitching, Cate was back quilting–stitches all even and nicely interlocked.

Cate was simply sewing straight seams to piece her quilt top. When using free-motion quilting techniques, there are additional tension considerations.

Art quilter Dijanne Cevaal covered these tips and more in her interactive article “The Liveliness of the Stitch,” on Quilting Arts In Stitches, Vol. 5. Here are some of her suggestions:

  • 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 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.

Like Cate, I’m glad I have a community of quilt-and-sew friends who can help me out when I’m in a stitching conundrum, as well as the many print, video, and interactive resources from Quilting Arts.

There’s a wealth of information in Quilting Arts In Stitches, too, and now you can get the first five volumes in one convenient CD collection.


P.S. Who do you reach out to when you’re sewing machine isn’t behaving? Friends? Your local quilt store or dealer?  Leave a comment below.

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Categories

Free-Motion Quilting, Machine Stitching, Quilting Daily Blog, Sewing Techniques

10 thoughts on “Sewing Technique Trouble-shooting: Bobbin Tension Tips

  1. Here is something that is not in the manuals and not on the tutorial videos. I know that it was the secret I was missing on my Bernina 820.
    When starting to thread the machine put the thread in the first spot for thread and then wait until the automatic threader light goes on. Only when it is on can you be sure that the tensions are ready to accept the thread. I found that out after 4 trips to the repair shop for messed up bobbin works. I have had not one problem since. I only found that out by talking to someone who had gone to Bernina as part of the test run people.

  2. I’ve had this problem several times too with the feed dogs down, while free-motion sewing, and have had to change the bobbin more than once. I also put a new needle in my machine. Which also seems to help the thread from bunching in the bobbin feed.

  3. Re: Bobbin tension tips: Please, please do NOT use compressed air on your machine, especially in the bobbin area. All it does is blow the lint and other gunk INTO your machine! Buy that small vacuum cleaner attachment kit that will save you much money in the care of your machine, also your computer and other electronics. Canned air is the death knell of your machine, not to mention your wallet.

  4. Re: Bobbin tension tips: Please, please do NOT use compressed air on your machine, especially in the bobbin area. All it does is blow the lint and other gunk INTO your machine! Buy that small vacuum cleaner attachment kit that will save you much money in the care of your machine, also your computer and other electronics. Canned air is the death knell of your machine, not to mention your wallet.

  5. My machine is a Viking. The few times help is needed, I call the Viking dealer (at the local JoAnn’s) and she can quickly walk me through any struggles. The only times I had to take my eight year old machine in was to replace the cutting blade and once for general servicing.

  6. Hi there. I’ve had this problem several times, and found that most often it is the bobbin to blame – because it wasn’t wound correctly. If the bobbin is wound too loosely, you’ll have no hope of proper tension.

    I don’t know about Berninas, but both my Brother embroidery machine and my two Janomes will wind too loose unless I give them a little more tension as they’re winding. I used to wind all my bobbins on my industrial machine as it was always perfect, but it’s gone now.

  7. I too own a Bernina, I was told NOT to use canned air because it blows it to the back of the machine and is a PAIN to remove “quote” the repair lady at the store I bought it in.

  8. I too own a Bernina, I was told NOT to use canned air because it blows it to the back of the machine and is a PAIN to remove “quote” the repair lady at the store I bought it in.

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