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!
32 thoughts on “How to Troubleshoot Sewing Machine Tension”
Sometimes just loosening the top tension a hair brings the bobbin thread back, allowing it to work properly with upper thread. I found this out when the top thread on top of my quilting project looked perfect and the (surprise! ) bobbin thread on the back looked like a thread simply lying on the fabric surface with upper threads looped over it , loosely. I did not rip it out since the top thread seemed embedded enough but it was susceptible to being snagged so I shelved it for my use only!! Be sure to check your bottom thread often.
Great article!! When my machine FROZE up and wouldn’t move, up-down, nothing! I looked on You-Tube! Several tutorials later it was working fine!! But, the same answers Suzy says, Check needle, re-load, check thread weight, check the machine to see if you’re supposed to move or change the thread tension adjustment. And lastly – oil, clean out your machine, and 1x a year or 2 years, take to a professional repair guy for a check.
This set of videos is so helpful!!!
Cannot thank you enough for this post.
I just had my Bernina serviced in Newtown CT and it was $130! Plus they had the machine for weeks!
Not a good experience.
My point is price must vary as well as Howie long it takes to get your machine back. The dealer I bought it from closed years ago.
That seems a little high. I’m sorry that was your experience!
That’s the going price in Phoenix area for the Bernina.
Called two places in my area and they both said $160!
Such a good post, Thankyou. I keep a second bobbin holder to use when moving my bottom tension around for free motion quilting or playing with threads. It means that I don’t need to keep altering my straight stitch tension and has really helped.
My thread kept bunching up in front of my needle and breaking when I was free motion quilting. I tried everything. Then I asked a few professional quilters. One suggested I should try a titanium top stitch needle in a size to match my thread size. I purchased the needle and re threaded my machine. I was able to free motion quilt and no more thread breaking. The top stitch needle has a longer eye allowing the tread to glide through without fraying and bunching. I am a happy quilter again.
My 1953 slant needle Singer never gives me a problem with tension.
The sound it makes is music to my ears. My new ones do not give me a joyfull noise.
I was dying a few weeks ago trying to figure out a tension problem — popped open the bobbin plate and cleaned out all the dust and everything, still had issues. Then on a whim I tried flipping over my spool of thread — I was trying out a mini cone instead of a standard spool for the first time and had put it on the thread holder upside down. It fixed it completely! Sometimes the simple solution is what works.
I haven’t had this problem yet, but if I do I now know what to do. Thanks to all of you for excellent advice. I love your articles.
Make a note of your top tension setting when everything is working properly, then double-check it when things are off. My travel machine has the tension dial on top, and it often gets bumped going in and out of the bag.
Suzy, you are a God-send! I’m a grandma making quilts for my grandchildren. All of them have love notes written on white cotton with a Micron Pen and stitched on the back fabric. I can write (in my handwriting) the year and the message and they love it. I learn so much from your emails and your easy to read tutorials. Lately, I’ve been having some tension and thread issues and you have given sage advise about all of it. Thank you so much for letting us in on your experience and insights. The smart quilters (we’re all geniuses) give wonderful advise and stories and I enjoy them so much. God bless you and your followers.
Make sure the presser foot is raised when you thread the machine. With some thread, a product called Sewer’s Aid can help. Also, you might need to use the extra hole on the finger of your bobbin case, if you have one.
I was just going to say that! I always had tension issues and never knew why. I was threading my machine with the foot down (tension discs engaged) for the longest time.
Make sure you put your presser foot down before you sew. If your presser foot isn’t down, your tension discs aren’t engaged and you’ll get a knotted mess. With thicker projects (like a quilt!) it can be difficult to tell if you put your foot down or not so just do a quick double-check, especially if you are using a hopping foot or a hovering fmq foot.
Last week I went to the store with my Bernina, because it was impossible to get the tension right. The toptension was too high, even tough it was on ‘0’. Very frustrating. It turned out the bobbin screw was too loose… Would never have thought about that! Lucky for me it is a nice store and I did not have to pay anything, he even cleaned and oiled the machine… (go see Wouters in Amsterdam ;-))
I am having tension problems right now!! I had the machine tuned up and reset the tension to original manufacturer settings. I can use the walking foot fine. But, my hovering FMG foot (note cascading tears here) is not working at all. My threads won’t make the lock stitch at all. I have gone through the checklist and nothing is working. I am now going to read all the comments here and hope that something works. Otherwise, I am calling the shop and requesting an appointment with the FMQ expert to figure out what is wrong with me and my machine. (Sorrow and Joy).
FMQ can be finicky. I’m assuming your feed dogs are down? When you start sewing, did you pull up the bobbin thread so that both the top and bobbin are on top? If you don’t pull up your bobbin thread a lot of times the threads won’t hook that first stitch.
Amen! I finally noticed the difference between loading the thread with the presser foot up or down. With the foot raised, the thread easily gets into the proper locations and then when the foot is lowered, the machine properly grasps the thread moving it nicely through the machine. No wonky tension issues on the back side. Just lovely stitches on the front and back.
I have a Janome quilt machine. It still has the standard throat. All my threads underneath are loose when I’m free motion quilting. Now the threads are still loose when I took the machine back to normal stitching. I’m makin a full size quilt. It was working great and then started the loose stitching
When I zigzag with heavy weight fabric my zigzag skips I have a Bernina
Sounds like you may need to get a heavy-weight thread. Are you using 40 wt or thicker? With a heavier weight thread, you also need a thicker needle. Try a 90/14.
I have an older Singer Sewing machine. my thread seems to be too tight coming through the bobbin case creating too much tension. do bobbin cases need to be replaced over time?
Unless the bobbin case is visibly warped, I don’t think so. If you are able to have a sewing machine repair person look at your machine, that would be the most helpful. It might just need a tune up.
This post and the comments were a God send! Thank you all for sharing. I’m trying to finish up face masks for my son’s wedding this week. The top tension has given me fits. Your suggestions were awesome! Thanks again!
Thank you for this post! I know how to fix tension issues but in my frustration, I needed to slow down and think. After reading this post (having already changed my needle), I was rethreading the bobbin and noticed that it was plastic. I wound and loaded a metal bobbin and that fixed my tension issue! Hooray!
I followed your instructions to change to fresh needle and re-thread the machine. Voila!! Stitches look great again. Thank you!
Juste received a gift of a sewing machine ,i had it worcking ,had to move it because of my birthday ,and now it not working .I juste let it there for a while ,i’m taking my old one . Not good
Cannot thank you enough for this post.