Longarm Tension – Identifying and Solving Tension Problems

Quilters that are new to longarm quilting are often overwhelmed by everything that is different about longarm quilting.  The machine is moved rather than the quilt, the quilt must be loaded, learning how to set up pantos and/or free motion quilt, adjusting tension, and more.

When teaching new longarm quilters or teaching seminars on tension, I always mention that the biggest learning curve in longarm quilting is becoming at ease with adjusting the tension. In fact, a quilter will probably feel more comfortable quilting than with adjusting the tension. Why? Unlike home sewing machines where the tension is rarely ever adjusted, the tension on a longarm must be adjusted.

If you own a longarm or have looked at longarms, you will find most longarm machines do not have numbers on the tension adjustment screw. Even more important is that the quilter recognize balanced tension and what to do if the tension is not balanced.

What Poor Tension Looks Like

thread tension

Thread Tension

When the tension is balanced, the top and bottom thread knot in the middle in the batting. When the tension is not balanced, the top thread may be seen on the backing or the bobbin thread on the top and either the top or bobbin tension, or both, will need adjusting. The question is, which tension should be adjusted?

Before randomly adjusting the bobbin tension, the top tension, or both, observe what is happening with the unbalanced tension. If the bobbin thread is seen on the top of the quilt, the top tension is too tight and is pulling the bobbin thread up to the top. This can be corrected by making the bobbin tension tighter or loosening the top tension. If the top thread is pulled to the back of the quilt, the top tension is too loose or the bobbin tension is too tight.  This can be corrected by increasing the top thread tension or decreasing the bobbin tension.

Best Method to Adjust Longarm Tension

Even identifying poor tension and knowing that it could be too tight or too loose still leaves most quilters wondering the best way to solve the tension problem. I will share with you the secrets to solving the problem.

Secret 1. Longarm machines sew best when the bobbin tension is loose. If the bobbin tension is too tight, then the top tension must be tightened more to balance the stitch. If the top tension is tightened too much, often the top thread will start breaking or shredding. Keep the bobbin tension loose. Follow this method for checking bobbin tension manually.  Lay the bobbin case the left hand with the open side up.  Gently pull on the bobbin thread standing the bobbin case up.  Loose bobbin tension is when the bobbin case stands up, thread pulls out easily, but the bobbin case does not lift off the hand.

Because “easily” and “loose” are very subjective terms, I recommend Secret 2.

Secret 2. Use a scientific instrument to measure and adjust the bobbin tension. The Towa Bobbin Gauge is designed to measure bobbin tension and also allows access to the tension screw so that the tension can be adjusted without removing the bobbin case from the instrument. For many M-hook longarm machines, the Towa reading would be 170-220. For Nolting machines I recommend 170-200. For L-hook longarm machines I recommend 100-125.  Each longarm brand has a sweet spot number that works best.

You will use the same Towa setting for all brands, types, and sizes of thread. It is your magic

towa bobbin gauge

Towa Bobbin Gauge

number. It is the number that your machine operates best at. And, because you always set your bobbin tension at the same number, only the top tension needs to be adjusted. If, after setting the bobbin tension, the bobbin thread pulls to the top, loosen the top tension until there is a balanced stitch. If the top thread pulls to the bottom, tighten the top thread until there is a balanced stitch.

My Tension Story

For several years after purchasing my Nolting Longarm, I struggled with setting the tension. I never knew whether I should adjust the top, the bobbin, or both, so ended up fiddling with both. It often would take a very long time to adjust for a balanced stitch. At times I would have thread breakage or shredding adding to my frustration. After being introduced to the Towa Bobbin Gauge and knowing the best adjustment number for my Nolting Longarm machine bobbin case, it usually takes less than a minute now to adjust the top tension for a perfectly balanced tension.  I no longer have frustration with tension and can concentrate on the fun part, quilting.

For more information on tension and using the Towa Bobbin Gauge see the video below.

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You Own It, You Love It, But What Is Trilobal Thread?

thread displayIf you are an embroidery fanatic or a quilter who loves and uses those bright, reflective colored threads, you are probably using trilobal thread.

Polyester trilobal threads have three lobes or sides which reflect light back giving atrilobal thead high-sheen appearance.  Silk is actually a natural trilobal fiber.  Poly trilobal thread is made of many individual micro-fibers which are trilobal (three sided) in shape, but when twisted together in the final thread, the result is a smooth, round, high-sheen thread.

Although most companies have a line of trilobal thread, Superior Threads has several lines of trilobal thread.  Each has slightly different properties and uses, but all are beautiful.  Superior Threads manufactures Magnifico, Fantastico, Twist, Rainbows, Nature Colors, Living Colors, and Art Studio Colors threads, all made from trilobal polyester fibers.

Magnifico, Fantastico, and Twist are three companion threads that are stronger than normal trilobal polyesters and offer the same high sheen.  Magnifico is a bold, strong thread created for quilting and embroidery. Magnifico is an extra-strength, high-sheen polyester that can handle the speed and tension of longarm and commercial machines, while displaying bold and beautiful shades of color and is available in 200 solid colors. Unlike most high-strength trilobal polyester threads, Magnifico is ‘heat set’ in processing, which eliminates unwanted shrinkage.

Next time you are looking for a special color, or a thread with outstanding properties to reflect the color, choose one of the trilobal polyester threads available.  Superior Threads can be found at many quilt and fabrics shops and online.  From their online store, you can also order cards with actual thread samples of each color of that line of thread, so it makes looking for the perfect thread color much easier.

Some information from Superior Threads.

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