Is Perfect Longarm Tension Possible?

Learning to adjust the machine tension is the biggest learning curve in longarm quilting.

perfect longarm tension

Perfect tension looks as good on the back as on the front.

Quilters often become more comfortable with quilting pantos and free motion quilting before they are comfortable adjusting the tension.  We aren’t used to adjusting tension as most sewing machines today rarely, if ever, need the tension adjusted.  Longarm machines, however, DO need the tension adjusted, usually with every quilt and every thread change.

Let’s take a look at why tension must be adjusted, then how to do it successfully.

Why does tension need adjusting?

  • Each quilt is different – different fabrics, different backing, perhaps different batting, and different threads in top and bobbin.  Each of these variables will affect the tension.
  • Today is a different day than yesterday.  Even high humidity can affect cotton causing it to absorb moisture from the air.

How to adjust tension successfully:

  • Accept the fact that tension must be adjusted and checked frequently and re-adjusted if necessary.
  • Use top quality batting that has a consistent thickness.  It is impossible to adjust tension when batting is thick in places and thin in other places.
  • Use top quality thread that is designed for machine quilting, especially longarm quilting.  Longarms operate at a much higher speed than home machines and operate best with strong machine quilting thread.
  • Use a Towa Bobbin Gauge to reliably and consistently set the bobbin tension with
    towa bobbin gauge

    Towa Bobbin Gauge

    every new bobbin.  Nolting L-hook set at 100-125 and M-hook set at 200-225.  Once the bobbin tension is set, you do not touch the bobbin again, only the top tension will be adjusted.

  • Use space at the side of the quilt, the backing and batting placing a strip of fabric on top to test and adjust the tension.
  • Always use the same color thread, or nearly the same color, in both top and bobbin. It does not need to be the same thread, different weight threads are OK.   Using the same color thread will “hide” the places where there are slight inconsistencies in tension.
  • Always adjust the tension using the stitch length or motor speed you plan on using when quilting the quilt. Changing the stitch length or motor speed will usually affect the tension.
  • Tighten the top tension until you see the bobbin thread poking or nearly poking out the needle holes on the top of the quilt.
  • Now to balance the tension, loosen the top tension until the bobbin thread is back
    thread tension

    Thread Tension

    down in the needle hole. You want to barely see the bobbin thread down in the needle hole.  The bobbin thread should not be visible on the top and the top thread should not be visible on the bottom.  When you can still see the bobbin thread down in the hole, you know the top and bottom thread will be forming the stitch in the batting.  This way you should not have to look at the back of the quilt very often.

  • Once adjusted, feel of the stitch line on the back of the quilt. It should feel depressed into the batting.
  • Once the tension is balanced at the side of the quilt, you can start quilting on the quilt. Be vigilant when you start quilting the panto or blocks, stop and check the tension frequently at first and tweak if needed.  Because the quilt top is not the same as your test strip at the side, you may need to make a little adjustment to the tension once you start quilting.

For more on tension see “Guide to Quilting with Your Nolting.”

Yes, you can achieve perfect longarm tension.  It takes time, patience and practice using the technique described above.

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Trouble Shooting Longarm Issue – Long Stitch

Yesterday we delivered a longarm to a customer upgrading from a 17″ throat to a 24″ throat machine with more options and ergonomic, adjustable handles front and rear.  The machine used, only a few years old, but I had sent it back to the Nolting factory to have them go through and make sure everything was as it should be.  When the machine arrived back from the factory I put it on a frame and stitched with it to make sure I was satisfied with everything.

At the delivery we replaced the short frame arms and short carriage rails with longer ones (an easy upgrade with Nolting frames) to accommodate the 24″ throat Pro and put the machine on the frame.  My customer had practice fabric and batting ready to load so that I could train her in the use of her “new” machine.  We basted the batting and top onto the backing and started stitching.  The basting stitches worked well, but when we started sewing we occasionally got a long stitch, sometimes half an inch long, other times much longer.  In addition, we noticed that it always seemed to be a vertical stitch (front to rear).

towa bobbin gauge

Towa Bobbin Gauge

Before we started we used the Towa Bobbin Tension Gauge to set the correct bobbin tension for the M-hook (200 to 225 for the Nolting machine), then adjusted the top tension for a balanced tension.  As the tension was OK, we knew we could rule out tension as the problem.  The clue we focused on was the vertical long stitch.  Skipped stitches vertically could indicate a problem with the encoder on the side of the machine, so we replaced the encoder and made sure that the encoder wheel made good contact in the carriage rail.  Hoping this would solve the problem we tested again, and again the same long, skipped stitch.

Use a List

Working through a list of possible causes for skipped stitches we (1) changed the needle, but that didn’t correct the problem.  (2) Made sure the quilt sandwich was level and only a finger width of space under the take-up roller, and loosened the quilt sandwich slightly as both of these could cause skipped stitches.  Again, same problem of long, skipped stitches.  Knowing that this machine had stitched perfectly several months ago when it came back from the factory, we had to look at other possible causes.

Again focusing on the long, skipped stitch, we realized that it only happened when the machine was moving away from the front of the frame toward the back of the frame.  It is important to slow down and analyze everything carefully when something like this is happening.  The customer had put a fine thread in the top, something to consider.  But, the key was moving the machine toward the back.  Needle flex will happen with longarm machines, even with a larger, sturdier needle.  The machine had a MR 4.5 (size 19).  But the other factor was, one of the fabrics was a batik which, because of its high thread count, can be challenging to stitch.

What we observed was excellent stitch quality except in one direction with needle flex a

Nolting Pro owner Carol

Carol enjoying stitching with her “new” Nolting Pro 24

possibility, so we decided to check the timing.  After taking off the throat plate and rotating the hook to the correct position we found the timing position correct, but the hook was a tad too far from the needle.  We are talking a very small distance too far away, but enough to see day light between the needle and hook.  We adjusted the hook distance, put everything back together and tested stitching again.  SUCCESS!!  The machine stitched beautifully and there were no long, skipped stitches.

Diagnosing and trouble shooting issues with longarm machines can sometimes be challenging because there are a number of variables involved.  To diagnose, find the root problem, and solve it, each of those variables must be considered and evaluated.  When diagnosing, rather than jumping to a conclusion, I think it is important to consider every possibility and to work through those, starting first with the things that can easily be checked and changed (changing needle, adjusting tension on the quilt top, etc) and moving to other possibilities until the cause has been found.  For these reasons, I have included a comprehensive chart type trouble shooting guide in my book, Guide to Quilting with Your Nolting.  Although written for Nolting owners, this guide provides helpful information on the various aspects of longarm quilting (beneficial to all longarm quilters), free motion and template quilting, a maintenance and repair guide for Nolting machines, the trouble shooting guide which covers issues common to all longarm machines, and many tips, hints, and resources.  Click to buy the Guide now.

Don’t Panic

Issues like this are inevitable.  Rather than panic, analyze carefully what is happening, when it happens, take into consideration the thread, batting and fabric you are using.  Then, go through a list of possible causes checking out each one until you find the problem.  Often there is something you can do to correct the problem, but if not, you can tell your dealer or the company tech what you have already tried as they work to solve the problem.

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Nolting’s Quiltmagine and the New “NV” Machine

I have been stitching with Nolting’s Quiltmagine computer guided system for over two years.  A couple of months ago, Nolting released their new generation five “NV” longarm machine which I now have paired with Quiltmagine (QM).  Without much experience under my belt yet with this system,so far I can say that I am pleased with the quick response of the machine, how quietly is operates, the awesome high illumination LED task lighting over the quilting area, and the precision of the stitching producing even stitches everywhere. Because the NV operates from a touch screen tablet, Nolting has designed a tablet bracketNolting longarm

Nolting “NV” with QM tablet and bracket.  Machine color custom white.

 

for the QM tablet which is now mounted on the left side of the machine head. This is a convenient location, although I must say that I find myself wanting to go back to the center tablet (former) location. It is funny how habits are formed and I am sure that with time, I can re-train myself to the new tablet location.  Setting up QM with the NV was SIMPLE as the carriage plugs directly into the side of the machine.  Very clean and neat.

NV has a nice feature allowing up to five profiles be saved. I have set up one of the profiles just for QM quilting. I have the stitch length set for what I want, along with the basting stitch length, and the handle buttons correctly programed to work with QM.  Upon first trying QM with the NV I discovered my original handle programing to be faulty.  I learned from Lance at Nolting that the single stitch button in QM only interfaces with the red button on the right handle. For QM to operate correctly, the red button must be programmed for the full rotation stitch (down and up).   Handle buttons can easily be programed from the profile page and every profile can have different settings.  All other functions in QM work as they should without any changes to the NV.  In my QM profile, I also set up one of the left handle buttons as a full down/up stitch because I am used to doing it that way.  Other profiles could be set up for free motion quilting at the front of the machine, or even doing a paper panto at the back of the machine.

The NV has been easy to learn how to use, easy to program the features and has a wide range of spi settings, 4 to 22. Who in their right mind would stitch with 22 spi, I am not sure. I would never want to rip those out if a mistake happened!

Nolting NV - custom red paint.  QM tablet and bracket.

Nolting NV – custom red paint. QM tablet and bracket.

One new stitches available on the NV is the Idle stitch. (gray button on left between the two purple buttons)  This is a stitch regulated stitch (4-22 spi, your choice), with the machine idling (slowly running) as it travels in and out of points (you determine the speed), then switches back to the spi setting for normal stitching. This creates crisp points. If you decide to use this stitch with QM, you must be near the machine to use the handle stop button when the pattern finishes as the machine will continue to idle stitch at the end of the pattern.

All in all, I give the machine great reviews. 5 stars. Nolting has done their homework in the design of the NV.

Even if you decide that moving up to the NV is not for you, as quilters upgrade to the NV, there are and will continue to be very nice newer machines that are traded in. Check with your dealer and let them know what you might be interested in and what your budget is so they can keep an eye out for a “newer” Nolting machine for you. Remember, you already own your frame, so would just be trading heads.

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