A Discussion on Tension

Posted by on September 2, 2015

shutterstock_151206683 Here is what I understand about tension.  First of all, it is a tug of war.  If you remember as a child playing tug of war the goal was to pull harder than the other team to get the center flag onto your side of the field.  In achieving good tension on the sewing machine we want the tensions to be equal and that “flag” to stay in the center.  There is no magical number for the tensions, but keeping the tensions equal is the goal.  For this reason I always teach adjusting the bobbin tension first, then adjusting the needle tension to match that.  I like my bobbin tension fairly loose.  By that I mean when laying the bobbin case in the palm of your hand you are able to lift the bobbin case up onto its side holding the thread that is placed in the tension strap, but not in the “piggy tail.” (The piggy tail is the little spiral shaped wire on the front of the bobbin case.  I place the thread in the piggy tail when I have finished adjusting the bobbin tension.)   As you pull your hand away from the bobbin case it should gently fall with your hand.  There should be tension felt, but it should drop gently, not like a rock.  If the bobbin case does not move or has to be shaken down it is much more difficult to achieve a balanced tension.  If the bobbin case does not drop, turn the tension adjustment screw (the large screw) left 3 to 5 minutes as on a clock.  If is drops like a rock, turn the tension adjustment screw right 3 to 5 minutes and try the test again. Test the tension by sewing a figure 8.  Examine the result.  Has the stitch locked inside your project?  Yay!  You got it.  Can you see the bobbin thread peeking out on top?  If so, then loosen the needle tension by turning the adjustment knob counter clockwise.  The needle tension is MUCH less sensitive than the bobbin tension strap.  Turn the tension adjustment knob AT LEAST one full turn when making adjustments.  Can you see the needle thread peeking out underneath the project?  If so, then tighten the needle tension by turning the adjustment knob clockwise at least a full turn.  Pay no attention to the numbers on the knob.  Use them to know if your turned a full or half turn. ALWAYS MAKE SURE THAT THE NEEDLE THREAD IS FLOSSED INTO THE TENSION DISCS.  The thread may appear to be in the discs when in reality it is only resting on the edge of them.  Please note that the thread may be hampered by lint from moving smoothly.  Take a business card and slip it under the tension strap to clear any possible culprits from under it.  Use a brush to clean inside the tension discs that the needle thread runs through. There are many elements that effect tensions.

  1. Thread weight and drag.  Weight is indicated by # and a number or WT and a number.  #40 to #60 (40 WT to 60 WT) are common weights used in quilting.  The higher the number, the finer the thread.  To add to the confusion there is another measurement of thread called TEX.  This measurement is the opposite.  You will see it on the label as TEX and a number like TEX 30.  The higher the number, the heavier is the thread.  TEX 30 is close to #40. This method of measurement is less common.  I prefer using a three ply thread.  Stay away from the serger threads because they aren’t as strong as they need to be for quilting.
    1. You should be using equal or less weight and drag in your bobbin than is in the needle.
    2. Drag is caused from thickness of thread or loose fibers.  When cotton thread is created fibers are twisted together leaving small ends.  That is why people sing the praises of Long Egyptian cotton because the fibers are longer and leave fewer ends.  These ends drag on the tension disc and strap and increase the tension.  There is nothing wrong with this, but you need to be aware of what is happening and that you need to loosen the tension.
    3. Polyester thread is one continuous fiber, often twisted over a core of polyester.  It has less drag because of the lack of loose ends.  A wonderful combination is Cotton like King Tut in the needle and a nice polyester like PeraCore in the bobbin.  Having less drag in the bobbin makes it easier to get better tension.
    4. There are other threads that are REALLY slippery.  An example are the trilobal threads that are polyester, but the fibers have been forced through something like a sieve to create three sides.  Three fibers are twisted together to make these threads shine.  They are very slippery and have very little drag.  You need to tighten the tensions on these.
  2. Another element influencing tension is batting.  The thicker the batting, the easier it is to get the stitch to lock inside the project.  If the project is thicker there is more wiggle room for the stitch to lock.
    1. 100% cotton batting is among the thinnest battings and requires a little more adjustments to get great tensions.
    2. High loft polyester is among the thickest and easiest to achieve perfect tension.
    3. I love the 60/40 blends.  That is 60% cotton and 40% polyester.  It has the finished look of cotton, but is easier to get the adjustments on tension because it is a bit thicker.
  3. Fabric density also effects tensions.
    1. Think of the difference of Home Spun or flannel type fabric as opposed to 800 count sheets.  The fibers are more densely woven in the sheets making is harder for the needle to pull the thread through the fabric.  Try to match your quilt top and quit backing to be the same type of fabric so you aren’t battling the loose weave/tight weave battle.
    2. Painted fabric also requires the needle thread to pull harder to get the threads to lock.  An example of painted fabric is batik.
    3. None of these are “bad” fabrics.  It is just important to know what adjustments need to be made to be successful.

There are some mechanical items to notice to make sure all is in proper order with your machine.  There is a check spring attached to your tension unit where the needle thread runs through.  It is important that the thread is in this check spring.  Its job is to lock the stitch by pulling on the thread.  Notice that when you pull on the needle thread near the needle the check spring will move.  If it is not moving, check to make sure the tread is running through the check spring.  Also check to make sure that the check spring is positioned at about 11 o’clock.  If it is not in the correct position, you will be able to adjust it slightly by using a screw driver in the center screw of the tension unit and turning it in the direction that is needs to move.

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Buying and Exploring Threads

Posted by on October 6, 2014

From denim-weight threads to the skinny slippery lingerie threads, we thought you’d like to have a little bit of knowledge of the differences and benefits so that you could purchase the threads that will work best for your long arm and your project.

Strength—Take the end of the thread and break it. It should have at least the same standard strength as the regular piecing thread that you buy on the dressmakers spools at the local fabric store.

Ribbed or not ribbed— Run you fingers down the thread and feel for ribs, on the metallic threads especially. Threads that are man made often have a core and then a second winding around the core. The smoother the thread the less breakage you will have.

Shape of the thread cone— If there is no spool or cone for the thread to stand on then the spool was meant to feed off of a horizontal spool holder (you know, the kind with just a little tiny cardboard core.) You would have trouble at the bottom of the cone if it were on a stand without a cone because the thread pulls out from under the thread where it rests and sometimes snags. Some spools or cones are tapered and the thread jumps off the spool in hopping motion. You can take the jump out of the thread at the first 3 hole thread guide on your machine just by using all 3 holes. The cone shape or the way the thread is wound around the cone can sometimes cause this jumping. Also, be aware of the cones with the cut slots for holding the tail of your thread for storage or the coined edges. These rough edges can snag the thread and yank the spool right off of the thread tree. The cure for this is the spool caps. The spool caps fit right on the top of the spool pin on the thread tree and angle the thread away from the spool.

Colorfast—The reds, oranges and deep rich colors have been treated heavily to absorb the dye. Sometimes there is excess. If you hold the thread like dental floss and rub it across a light colored fabric scrap you can see if any color comes off.  If it does, don’t buy it.

Fuzz— Fuzz that you build up on your long arm sometimes has to do with the thread. Sometimes it has to do with the way the thread travels up and down as it sews. Some threads like Gutermann are run over a flame before it is spooled up and that burns off the fuzziness. It is one of the reasons that Guterman is a little more expensive, but sometimes worth it. Keep a paint brush or sewing machine lint brush handy and every time that you change the bobbin brush out the hook. Brush, brush, brush, until no more fuzzies are falling out of the hook.

Stretch— Threads like monofilament and metallic are stretchy; you can see it and feel it just by pulling the thread. You can loosen up on your tensions enough and use less thread guides to keep the thread from stretching. The stretch threads are usually a little weaker but can run on a long arm with the proper adjustments.

Storage and thread aging— Stores are told to rotate their thread stock every 4 months by the thread representative. If they are doing that then the thread that you purchase will be fresh and new. On the other hand we are told by the thread representative that the quality threads will last 200 years in a quilt. Store your thread out of the daylight. Don’t believe all those rumors about rejuvenating your thread after it is all dried out—get rid of the old stuff.

Price— You get what you pay for. If the thread brand as a whole costs a little more then it is probably a really good thread. Of course the industrial threads are made to last also and they are a little better buy.

Brand— The TinLizzie18 accessory box that comes with a TinLizzie18 product will have Superior Thread products in it. This is a quality thread. We also wanted you to know that just because we have just one brand in the box doesn’t mean that is the only brand it will run. The TinLizzie18s run a wide range of threads including fussy metallics.

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What to do when the machine “jams!”

Posted by on June 2, 2014

Bam! Don’t you just hate that sound? And then the machine is locked up.

The first thing to do is stay calm 99% of the time it is only a fuzzy or thread jam.


If you are in computer mode—save your layout. Don’t worry, you can get back to where you were in the pattern if you save the layout. Then turn everything off.

Go to the back of the machine and grab on to the fly wheel and see if there is any play in the motion of the wheel. In simple terms, rock the wheel back and forth and see if you can get it to free up. Don’t force it; you don’t want to turn the hook on the shaft into another position. You can be firm with it but, let’s check some other things before we go to brutal force.
PHOTO2Rock the fly wheel to get motion between the hook and race to help clear out threads.

Take the bobbin case out.
Take the needle out. You might have to unscrew the needle bar screw to get the needle out—and it might be that you have to take the needle out to get the bobbin case out.

PHOTO4Look in the bobbin basket area and see if there are any threads or fuzzies that you can clear out. Pull them out and use a tweezers if necessary. Then use a lint brush and really work at it to get every bit out that you can.

Oil the bobbin basket/ hook. Oil it until the oil can saturate the fuzzy. Sometimes you will need to let the oil set for a while. Rock the fly wheel a little and then re oil in sequences so that you can work the oil into the fuzzy.

PHOTO5A PHOTO5B PHOTO5COil at the top          Oil on the left        Oil on the right

Try to get oil between the outer part of the hook and the inner part that is called the race. That is generally where the fuzzy is. Our plan is to oil up the fuzzy and when it is greasy enough we will be able to turn the fly wheel and spin the fuzzy out.

PHOTO6Now begin to rock the fly wheel. You will know if you are making headway by how far you can rock it back and forth. It is definitely a fuzzy or thread jam if you can get the fly wheel to respond and loosen up. I remember that I once had to rock that fly wheel 500 times to get the oil worked into the fuzzy so it would then turn.

Once you get the fly wheel turning free, you can turn the machine on without any needle or bobbin case and spin the fuzzys and extra oil out.

It is possible that during the initial thread jam the hook could be turned on the shaft. You will know that this has happened if you cannot get a full rotation of the needle without hitting the hook. You will also know if you are slightly out of time if you begin sewing and skip stitches. If the hook is no longer synchronized with the needle then check out one of the timing videos on our website or YouTube channel, or look in the manual for timing instructions.

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Quilting with Metallic Threads

Posted by on May 7, 2014

Because quilts should have a little “Bling!”


Metallic thread comes in all colors, many different strengths, smooth and rough textures and soft and wire like properties. To find a metallic thread that will run well on a long arm…

  • Break the thread with your hands to see if it’s tough.
  • Run it between your fingers to see if it’s smooth or if you can feel the windings on the thread. Smooth is better.
  • If you can find a softer, less wire-like metallic it will behave better when going through the thread guides.

The next few educational tips should help you use metallic threads on your long arm machine.

  1. Choose a less dense batting so you won’t build heat in the needle. (Metallics are usually heat sensitive threads.) I use poly, even for my competition quilts.
  2. Choose a high speed needle that is slim lined so it won’t build heat stitching. Some machine companies offer a needle especially for metallic threads and it has to do with the sculpture of the needle.
  3. Always use netting on the spool or cone so the thread will feed smoothly.
  4. Metallics run best if the bobbin thread is a normal soft thread.
  5. Sew your quilt together with normal threads but decorate with the metallics, as the longevity of a normal sewing thread is much longer.
  6. Loosen up on your top tensions so that you do not stretch the metallic thread and cause a stretched thin area, as it will cause breakage when quilting.
  7. When pulling your thread out, as you would when you stop and start, caution on stretching—try to help the thread come down and through the needle by grabbing the thread right after the take up lever and working the thread down toward the needle slowly and carefully.
  8. Use about a 10 stitch per inch selection as the stitch is a little larger and reflects light a bit more, making your work a little sparklier!
  9. Test the thread, sewing every direction before you commit to an entire quilting project so that you are sure it has no issues concerning directional sewing.
  10. If you are building heat in your needle, stop every so often and let the needle cool.

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