Today’s Topic: How to Fix Tension Problems when Machine Quilting
Welcome to Week Six!
of The Better Machine Quilt-a-long based on my book 25 Days to Better Machine Quilting.
Find all of the previous Lessons HERE.
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Good Morning, Quilters!
Today, we will continue our discussion of machine quilting tension and will discuss how to fix tension problems.
Troubleshooting problems is easier if we clearly understand how the sewing machine creates a proper lockstitch.
Sewing and quilting machines create an intertwined top and bobbin thread called a lockstitch. (Machines–like sergers and industrial sewing machines- form stitches in different ways, for example cover stitch or chain stitch. We will limit our discussion to lockstitch machines.)
I highly recommend watching this short video on the lockstitch from Threads Magazine: Sewing Machine Anatomy: How a Stitch is Made.
In normal sewing the needle moves vertically up and down in a very straight plane. The needle penetrates the quilt and meets the bobbin hook with precise timing and placement. The hook (part of the bobbin) grabs the top thread in a loop and the bobbin and bobbin thread rotate through the loop to create the lockstitch.
Every part of the machine works with precision to create the stitch. The timing and position of the needle as it enters the bobbin case is critical to stitch formation. The tension on the take up lever is also very important.
If anything disrupts the path of the thread, the movement of the needle, or the rotation of the bobbin, the stitch will be altered, skipped or broken.
Start Here: Five Steps Fix Most Problems
Quilting really puts our sewing machines to the test. The heavy layers, variety of threads and the movement of the quilt (tugging and pulling) create special challenges for the sewing machine. Don’t be surprised or alarmed if you need to tweak your machine a little to help it create a well-balanced stitch.
The following five steps will fix the vast majority of tension problems.
Clean and oil the machine.
As you clean, carefully examine the bobbin case and race to be sure it is clear of all threads and lint. Lint can get trapped in the bobbin case and small threads in the race wreak havoc on tension.
Re-thread the top thread.
Make sure the thread path is clear and nothing is impeding the thread. Examine the spool for nicks that might catch the thread. Place crosswound spools on a vertical pin and straight stacked or parallel wound thread on a vertical pin with the thread exiting from the back of the spool. (Or place either type of spool off the machine on a thread holder— my preference.)
Replace the needle.
The needle takes a lot of abuse in the form of pushing and tugging and may flex or bend. Make sure the needle is the correct size for the thread weight and consider increasing the needle size and switching to a heavier needle type–like a Topstitch needle to reduce flexion.
Rethread the bobbin.
Examine the bobbin and bobbin case to be sure there are no burrs. Rethread the bobbin carefully checking that it is inserted the correct way and that the bobbin is rotating in the correct direction. (Q20 -Q24 owners alert!!)
Lower the presser foot before quilting.
It is easy to leave the presser foot up when free motion quilting and it makes a real tension mess! (This happens all the time in my workshops and students are heartbroken and worried when they see the mess… But this is the easiest fix of all! )
Always start with the Five Step Fix.
If you’ve tried the top five tension fixes and your tension is still unbalanced…then you fall into the 1 percent category! Congratulations! YOU are in for some real sewing machine lessons. Pop some popcorn and some Tylenol and here we go!
Railroading is a severe form of tension imbalance between the top and bobbin threads. It can occur on the top or the back of the quilt. One thread is pulled very taut and the other thread shows up as short perpendicular stitches crossing the taut thread. This tension problem is usually the result of an improperly threaded machine or something caught in the bobbin case. FIX-Rethread top and bobbin, check bobbin area carefully.
Eyelashing is a directional tension problem and/or a needle problem. The bobbin thread is pulled to the top of the quit in long eyelashes usually occurring around a curve. Due to the mechanics of the sewing machine, it has a “preference” for sewing in some directions more than others. For example, stitching up and to the left is difficult for some machines. In addition, the needle may flex out of the straight up and down position, making stitch formation more difficult. FIX-Slow down when stitching curves, change the needle, try a larger needle to decrease flex, have machine timing checked/adjusted.
Quilt puckering – quilt distorts an inordinate amount with quilting. This problem is the result of the top and bobbin threads are both too tight. It may be more problematic when the stitches are very short–requiring each stitch to pin too much quilt top, batting and backing. FIX-Stitch with larger stitches, loosen top and bobbin tensions.
Bobbin Stitches Look Better Than Top Stitches
This is the best tension problem. I am not sure what causes this but an educated guess -it is characteristic of the sewing machine and is likely influenced by the thread used in both the top and bobbin. FIX-Change top thread, tweak top tension, enjoy nice bobbin stitches.
Other Steps to Try/Check
Try quilting with 50 wt cotton in both the top and bobbin. Try quilting with 50 wt polyester in the top and bobbin and see if the problem improves. If so, the thread may be part of the problem.
Is your presser foot lowered?
Have you dropped your bobbin case recently?
Check bobbin case for lint, burrs, damage.
BERNINA owners-make sure you are not pressing on the knee lift–even slightly.
Is your Firmware up to date? (Firmware often fixes mechanical problems.)
Is it time for a tune-up?
Make Friends with YOUR Technician
Bring your technician flowers and candy. (I am only half joking here.)
You can not fix some tension problems on your own. When the above checklist is not enough, do not give up on free motion quilting! Take your machine to a technician. Be as specific as possible about the issues you are experiencing and bring samples. Schedule (and expect to pay for) a review of your machine when you pick it up. Don’t leave the store until you sit at your machine and quilt. While you are at the store, bring a quilt sandwich and thread and test the machine. If all is well, hooray! If not, ask the technician to quilt with you. Show them what you are doing and troubleshoot with them.
Have Fun Quilting!
I know (firsthand) that tension problems can take the fun out of quilting. Keep your machine well-oiled and cleaned and follow the checklist systematically. When you are struggling–take your machine for a tune up/repair.
Remember, when YOU have fun quilting, YOUR quilts will be FUN!!!
(And Fun quilts become heirlooms!)
The Quilt Doctor is signing out for the week! (See you Saturday and Sunday)
PS…All tutorials, images and information are the property of Lori Kennedy Quilts and are intended for personal use only. Feel free to re-blog, pin or share with attribution to LKQ. For all other purposes, please contact me at Lori@LoriKennedyQuilts.com. Thanks.
PPS...More Free Motion Machine Quilting 1-2-3 has a Troubleshooting Guide on page 36
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