How to troubleshoot sewing machine tension is an ongoing problem in the sewing community. How do I know this? Because since I started the Suzy Quilts Patterns Facebook Group almost once a week someone posts a frantic question about uneven stitches or breaking thread or loose top stitches.
I get it! There are very few things more frustrating than tension issues – in life and in sewing. But before I dive into the troubleshooting checklist, I first have to give a shout out to the patient wisdom of those in the SQP Facebook Group. No matter how many times someone posts the same sewing machine tension question to the group, 100% of the time they will still get a flurry of quick responses from others trying to help. And that is just one more bit of proof that quilters are the nicest people in the world.
Troubleshooting Sewing Machine Tension Checklist
What is sewing machine tension? In this post, How Sewing Machines Work, I explain how sewing machines use a “lock stitch” which is made using two separate threads interlocking with one another through a layer of fabric.
This lock stitch is why you need thread through both the top needle of the machine, and thread down below the surface in the bobbin. Because you have thread coming from two different directions, it's important that they are pulling with even tension so your interlocking stitches are strong, smooth, and most importantly, pretty.
In the picture below you can see what stitches look like when machine tension is where it should be.
Rebecca Kose, from the SQP Facebook Group, emailed me a couple pictures from her last tension issue. Do you see how loose the stitches look on top? Flip the quilt around and there is a tangled mess on the back! How frustrating!
In this case, Rebecca needed to manually tighten her tension because she was working with a 100% poly thread. We'll dive more into thread in a minute.
Whenever I find myself with a tension problem, I run through a mental checklist. Almost always the issue is resolved before I get to the final item.
To save you from late night moments of panic because the baby shower is tomorrow at 10:00 AM and my machine keeps jamming up and I've GOT TO FINISH THIS MINKY BABY BLANKET!! I’ll share my checklist with you. 🙂
#1: Get a New Needle
How old is your needle? Did you break out a new one for this project, or is this still the needle you used to sew up those cool scrunchies back in ‘95? If you’re having tension issues, my first line of defense is swapping out the needle for a new one.
Even if you are using a brand new needle, set the current one aside and try a different one. Every once in a while you may get a defective needle straight out of the package, so let's just be sure that's not happening.
While on the topic of needles, are you using the right size for your fabric and thread? Read more about needles in this post: The Truth About Universal Needles.
#2: Double Check the Thread
Now that you have a new needle, re-thread your top and bobbin thread. I know, I know. You just threaded your machine. Well, for my sake, do it again. Sometimes even the smallest pull of tension in one area of the thread running through your machine can be the reason everything is off.
Still having a tension issue? Let's make sure the thread you are using is playing nicely with your fabric. As a quick rule of thumb, natural threads work best with other natural fabrics (ie. cotton, linen, lawn, etc...) Likewise, synthetic threads work best with synthetic fabrics. For more info on what that means, check out these posts on thread:
#3: Match the Top and Bobbin Thread
You can do some really cool things top stitching with one thread and using a different thread in your bobbin. Don't let me talk you out of experimenting with that. However, beware that once you travel that path, you may need to tinker with your sewing machine tension.
If sewing machine tension troubles are really frustrating you, wind a new bobbin with the same thread you are using on top. I can't promise that will fix the problem, but it's worth a shot before checking off the next box on our list.
Let's see here… needle check? Check. Thread check? Check. Bobbin thread check? Check. If issues persist, we’re going to have to get down and dirty.
#4: Clean and Oil Your Sewing Machine
For a full tutorial on how to clean your machine, check out this post: Sewing Machine Maintenance. However, if you KNOW you’ve cleaned and oiled your machine recently, kindly remind your sewing machine that you are holding up your part of the bargain and it’s time for her to start doing hers. And if sitting alone talking to your sewing machine doesn’t work…
#5: Get Help From Someone
You've done your due diligence and now it's time to talk to some real live people about your sewing machine tension. Might I suggest the Suzy Quilts Patterns Facebook Group? Quiltketeers, I'm not exaggerating when I say that this is the most helpful group of sewing geniuses on the planet.
Someone in the group once called it “a brilliant hive mind,” and I wholeheartedly agree! And speaking of that magical group, here are some of their favorite tips on sewing machine thread tension issues:
Sarah Smith says: “Rethread, and rethread again.” Sarah knows that we don’t always do things right the first time… and I’m pretty sure she’s right.
Nicole Carlen suggests: “Your bobbin might actually be bad!” Bobbins are like apples… they can go bad! (And you can go bobbin' for apples… there’s a joke in there somewhere…) Try switching out your bobbin and see what happens.
Genevieve Starkey says: “Slow down.” I think she's talking about stitch speed, but this is good advice for all aspects of life.
And the very best advice ever comes from the wise sage and my dear friend, Caitlyn Williams, who says: “Time to go make some brownies.”
#6: Bring in a Professional
Now, my friends, you have tried everything humanly possible to fix your pesky tension issues. You have checked your thread, your needle, your bobbin, and may possibly be munching on a brownie right now.
If that’s the case, it's time to call in the professionals. And let me tell you, there is no shame in that! Everyone has to bring in the pros once in a while to get things back into tip-top shape. I'm actually waiting on a plumber now. You know how when one thing breaks, inevitably two more things break? Well in my case I have a broken toilet, drippy shower and low water pressure in my sink. (I have a point coming.)
What I'm saying is, chances are if you have been troubleshooting sewing machine tension with no success, it's very possible there are a few things that need to be fixed inside your machine. A professional repair person can help!
Is your next question, "Where do I find a sewing machine repair person and how much is that going to cost?"
I recommend buying a sewing machine from a dealer so you always have someone to turn to when things break – cause they inevitably do. If you have a sewing machine dealer, call them first. If not, do a search for sewing machine repair online. I've had a couple machines serviced by a local repairman and he did a great job for about $60/machine.
That price varies based on your sewing machine and what is wrong with it.
Above is a picture me sewing a queen-sized sawtooth star quilt back in 2015. Half way into making this quilt I had to move my sewing machine from my tiny sewing studio into my dining room so I'd have enough space to lay everything out.
During the move my machine must have gotten jostled a little too much and my tension got off. Thank goodness for this checklist that eventually got me back on track! Find the free sawtooth star pattern here.
What Are Your Troubleshooting Tension Tips?
Now that I have shared the best my brain has to offer, please make me even smarter and share your tips in the comments below!