Tension Taming Tips for Longarm Quilting Machines

As a relative newcomer to longarm quilting, there are still so many skills I’m trying to acquire. From getting the quilt onto the frame (preferably without stabbing myself with pins) to learning how to quilt various motifs with my own machine (swirls are a lot harder than they look!). The number one thing I struggle with, on each machine I’ve tried, is taming the tension of longarm quilting machines.

Example of longarm quilting practice by course instructor Dawn Cavanaugh.

Tension has always been a struggle for me when sewing, so it comes as no surprise that I would also encounter this problem with my longarm machine, which is basically just a large sewing machine that moves. After several broken threads mid-motif (and maybe a couple of choice words) I’ve decided I must dive deeper than my instruction manual to find tension taming tips.

Our friends at Fons & Porter are sponsoring an APQS Longarm Certification course at the end of the month taught by Dawn Cavanaugh, so I took a peek behind the curtain to learn a little more about adjusting tension on longarm quilting machines.

Here is a brief excerpt from Dawn’s lesson about mastering your machine and understanding how tension works:

How Do Stitches Form?

With each and every stitch your longarm takes, the needle and hook must get to the right place at precisely the right time to form the stitch correctly. If the needle gets there too late, it doesn’t have time to get the bobbin thread pulled up snugly into the quilt layers. If the needle bends away from the hook, then skipped stitches result.

Balanced tension is affected by much more than simply the bobbin case tension or top tension setting. By understanding the mechanics of how your machine works, you’ll also have a better understanding of what you can change to get the best possible stitches from your machine.

Quilting Direction Makes a Difference

Your longarm machine is really just a gigantic sewing machine. It forms stitches in just the same way. The needle travels down into the hook area where the hook point picks up a loop of thread behind the needle. The hook carries the thread around the entire hook assembly (and bobbin case) before releasing it and grabbing another loop. To make the best possible stitches, the needle should go straight down into the hook and come straight up once more.

The top thread is the hard worker in this relationship. The bobbin thread is lazy. It does nothing but wait for the top thread to come by and tug it into the quilt’s layers. If the top thread doesn’t have enough power or strength to pull up the bobbin thread, it will either break or it won’t pull up the bobbin thread completely.

That problem is magnified because the needle is also a moving target. Once you start moving your quilting machine, the needle bends too—and it bends in the opposite direction from which you’re moving. Two quilting directions will produce good tension results, and two directions could result in tension changes.

When you stand at the needle side of your machine, your stitches will look the best moving the machine from left to right, and when you pull the machine toward you. The stitches may not be as nice when you push the machine from right to left, or when you push it away from yourself. Pushing the machine to the left makes the needle and hook point meet too soon to make a great stitch, and pushing it away from yourself pulls the needle away from the hook point (in severe cases you’ll see skipped stitches.)

Take a look at the diagram below to understand which quilting directions will produce good or bad stitches, depending on where you stand at your quilting frame.

Quilting Direction and Tension relationship diagram

Whenever you needle bends or flexes in the wrong direction, your stitch quality will be compromised. Therefore, anything that causes your needle to bend is a potential variable that can affect your tension. Sometimes you can change those variables, and sometimes you can’t.

– Excerpted from a course lesson by Dawn Cavanaugh

Explore an entire list of factors that can cause your needle to bend, thus changing the tension, and learn how to adjust both bobbin and top tension. Plus, try the APQS easy tension test on the edge of your next project so you can understand exactly what’s going on with your tension before you start quilting on the quilt top.

Whether you’re new to longarm quilting, or have been quilting on your machine for years, there’s so much to learn in this APQS Longarm Certification Sponsored by Fons & Porter!

Happy quilting!

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