Day 12: Don’t get tense about your thread tension

Today is Day 12 of 31 Days of Sewing School.

When needles break or bobbins run out, it can be frustrating, but it’s a simple fix: replace the needle, wind a new bobbin. But when your machine’s tension is all out of whack? That is a whole-nother ball game, one that will often cause some tension in any sewista.

What is tension?

The term tension refers to the tautness of your thread and the way the top thread and bobbin thread balance each other out. Your machine has ajustable knobs (unless it’s a completely computerized machine) that determine the tension and how tight or loose each part (top and bottom) of the stitch will be.

If either the upper or lower tension is off, your machine will not be able to make its stitches perfectly, and the thread might bubble or knot (either on the top or the bottom of the fabric).

The mystery is how a machine can be sewing along perfectly one minute and the next appear to need a tension adjustment. Before you go touching your dials, there are some things of which to be aware.

And don’t worry, I’ve got some great resources for you (and me) to file away for whenever your tension goes awry (thanks to my mom’s research and help).

First things first

Before you adjust your tension, be sure to do a few things:

  1. Check your threading, and better yet, rethread your machine. Maybe even get out your owner’s manual to make sure you’ve got it perfectly threaded. And as I just learned, thread your machine with the presser foot up, so as to make sure the thread hits all the tension disks properly (source).
  2. Check your needle and presser foot. Make sure the needle is inserted and threaded properly and that it isn’t bent or out of place at all. Are you using the right presser foot for the stitch you selected?
  3. Check your bobbin. Is it inserted the right way? Is it spun nice and tightly? When you poke the thread with your fingernail, it should feel tightly wound, not loose and uneven. Is there lint under or behind it? Don’t ever blow the lint out (I’m terrible about following this rule!) but instead, brush it out with a small paintbrush or the brush that came with your machine.
  4. Check your thread, too. Did you accidentally choose two different types/weights of thread? This could affect your tension. Sewing with two different colors (in upper and bobbin) could be a great way to test which thread is having tension problems.
  5. Is your machine well-maintained? Sewing machines require regular maintenance. If you use it regularly, you should have it serviced yearly. Check your coupon clipper for sales or discounts at your local shop. If your machine needs to be oiled regularly, make sure you do so.

If all of that checks out A-OK, and your tension is still off, proceed… with caution.

Photo by blmurch

Troubleshooting your tension

I personally am very wary of touching my tension. The slightest adjustments can make a big change. If you are a total novice, my best advice is to have someone experienced look at your machine; a tech at your local sewing machine shop or dealer is your best bet. Chances are they will take a look and help you adjust it for free (especially if you bought your machine there).

If you’ve been around the sewing block a little while, here are some tools to help you understand the mechanics of tension more and to walk you through adjusting yours.

If you’ve had tension problems in the past, I hope you find this post to be a helpful resource. After today we are going to move on to less-technical and more– dare I say– fun topics such as patterns and fabric and eventually some simple projects. But today, please let me know if you have any machine-focused questions that I can try to help you with!

top photo source

Nicole lives near the beach in Southern California with her husband and three young kiddos. She writes a a lifestyle blog about creativity, family life, community, and all sorts of other fun stuff, and also keeps a homeschool journal called The Bennettar Academy. Her most recent (free!) ebook is about why and how to make more time for reading.

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  1. I’m enjoying this series- it came at the perfect time for me

    I love to sew- but I hate patterns and I am not very good- this series is helping

  2. This is so helpful! My biggest sewing headache is tension… and sewing the wrong sides of pant legs together.

  3. My husband learned to sew before I did, but I’ve now practiced more and taken more classes. The very first thing he does when there is a problem is try adjusting the tension! What I’ve learned, which is what you describe here, is that the tension should be the LAST thing you try! I keep trying to tell him! I will remember these references for the future, maybe it will help him with his desire to adjust tension! 🙂

  4. Oh, Nicole! You must have written this post FOR ME! I hemmed these pants and placed darts into another two pairs and the work was splendid. The next thing I tackled, which APPEARED to be exactly like the rest, bam! My tension was all out of whack. I have hated my tension so much at times, I have actually AVOIDED sewing because of it. I am SOOO glad you put those helpful links up and I am going to take a look at them this week, because they might become my new best friends! I did learn on my own that unsuitable (but apparently fine) thread can be the culprit, or a slightly defective (but again, apparently fine) needle can also cause havoc. But at other times, all that can be done boils down to tension. So I need to slay my dragon, or eat my frog, or whatever and MASTER this baby. THANK YOU for the push to do so ; ) Again, great and timely series.

    • You’re welcome! Make sure you get your machine serviced regularly and then hopefully you can make sense of those links to tackle your tension when it seems off. I’m still a little intimidated by those knobs but it’s helpful to have step-by-step guidance if we need it!

  5. Thank you Nicole. You’ve given us a little treasure trove of information here! I’m bookmarking this page for future reference.
    I love, love, love my sewing machine. It sews beautifully, but last week clear out of the blue it started looping and knotting the threads on the underside of fabric. I’ve tried everything, except playing with the tension. I’ll check out all your resources, but may still opt to have it cleaned/serviced by someone who knows what they are doing.

  6. Nice to be here and see your post!

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