Not All Tension Problems Can Be Solved By Adjusting The Tension

As a Nolting Longarm dealer, I have received many calls over the years for longarm help and advice.  The calls can be broken down into two categories, (1) mechanical, such as broken needle, timing, or frame problem, and (2) stitch quality and quilting problems.  Tension issues seem to top the list over all.

This may come as a surprise to you, but there are many situations where adjusting the

bobbin and top tension will NOT solve the problem.  In other words, when there “seems” to be a tension issue, there can be one of a number of other reasons causing the tension to be unbalanced.  When you find that adjusting the bobbin and/or top tension are not helping, then you need to look further to see what the real reason is for the poor tension.  Here is a check list of some common issues that can cause poor tension.  Some of these can be corrected by adjusting the bobbin or top tension, but for most of these, the problem must be corrected.

What is good tension versus poor tension.  Good tension is when the top and bobbin

thread tension

Thread Tension

thread form the stitch in the middle creating a balanced stitch.  When quilting, this is in the batting.  Poor tension is defined as an unbalanced stitch with either the top thread or bottom thread laying on the fabric surface or railroading.  Railroading is when the top thread is pulled below the backing or the bobbin thread is pulled through to the top of the quilt.  Poor tension never looks good and can even be felt with the fingers.  The flat line thread can be felt, and railroading feels bumpy.  When the tension is balanced, both the top thread and bobbin thread will pull slightly into the batting giving the quilt texture.  The fingers feel a slight indent in the backing and top and the thread feels smooth.

Tension Check List – What To Check To Correct Poor Tension

Poor quality batting.  Regardless of what you pay for batting, if the batting is inconsistent in thickness, you are asking for problems.  Batting that is inconsistent in thickness will be thick in places and very thin in places.  In the thin areas of this type of batting, there simply is no place for the top and bottom thread to form a stitch.  As a result, the stitch is pulled to either the top or bottom of the quilt.

To prove this point, I stitched a side by side sample using Quilter’s Dream select cotton

Sample testing tension of two different battings.

next to a poly (unknown brand) that varied in thickness from very puffy to so thin you could see your finger prints.  I FMQed (free motion quilted) feathers and other designs across the sample without making any tension adjustments.  Results: The tension was perfect on the Quilter’s Dream batting top and backing, but varied from acceptable to poor to unacceptable on the inconsistent thickness poly.  In poor places the thread laid on the top of the fabric and in unacceptable places there was railroading (the top thread totally pulled to the bottom).

Purchasing the best quality, same consistent thickness batting is a small investment to make to assure quality stitching, a quality quilting job, and time spent without frustration trying to constantly make tension adjustments.

Poly batting (left) very thin, Quilter’s Dream (right) consistently same thickness.

Nice even, well defined stitching on the Quilter’s Dream consistently same thickness batting.

Poly sample with railroading (see pokes of top thread), flat line thread laying on fabric, and a few places where the stitches are sell defined. With inconsistent thickness batting, tension changes quickly from good to bad.

Needle.  The machine needle is a very important part of a successful quilting equation as poor tension can result from a number of needle issues.

  1. Using the wrong type of needle.  Have you experienced tension or inconsistent tension problems when quilting batik, especially when batik is on both the top and backing?  We now recommend using a ballpoint needle when quilting batik fabric. Because most batik fabrics have a higher thread count, it is harder for the needle to pierce the fabric to deliver the top thread to the correct spot to make a balanced stitch.  The ballpoint needle for longarm machines (different than the ballpoint for sewing knits on home machines), has a slightly rounded point that pushes the fibers apart making penetration better and placing the top thread correctly to make a stitch.  Groz-Beckert makes a needle with a “light ball” point that is suitable for woven cotton fabrics.  The Groz-Beckert ballpoint packages are labeled with

    “light ballpoint” needles from Groz-Beckert. Look for FFG on package.

    “FFG”, the needles are titanium coated, and are SAN 11.  (these work with Nolting L and M hook machines) To avoid damage to your longarm, make sure the numbers match the needles required for your machine.

  2. Needle incorrectly inserted in the machine.  For a perfect stitch to form, the hook point must pass behind the needle in the scarf (indentation) to pick up the top thread loop as the needle starts pulling up.  If the needle is inserted backwards (will likely hear clicking), or turned slightly to the left or right, the thread loop will not be in the correct spot to be picked up by the hook, or will be picked up too soon, or too late, causing the tension problem.
  3. Dull needle or damaged needle.  Needles do wear out.  In fact, the point on them wears down much faster than you would think.  I have often solved a tension problem by simply changing the needle.  The reason is that a dull needle has trouble penetrating the fabric resulting in a delay in delivering the top thread at the optimum time for a balanced stitch.  Always change the needle every 8 hours of quilting.  Remember, too, that even a new needle might be defective.  If you are experiencing problems, replace the needle.
  4. Needle too small for thread.  A needle that is too small for the thread being used does not have a deep enough groove on the front of the needle to carry the thread through the quilt sandwich.  As a result, there is a delay, or even non delivery of enough thread to make the loop.  When the thread loop is not picked up at the right moment, the thread tension will not look right.  It is always better to over size the needle rather than undersize the needle.  Yes, the slightly larger needle will leave a little larger hole, but the holes will close up.  The higher the number on the package, the larger the needle and the larger (wider and deeper) the groove.

Top thread caught.  If “all of a sudden” there is a change to terrible tension, look for a problem with the thread path or thread delivery from the bobbin.  Once in awhile the top thread will spin off the cone so fast that a loop of it will get caught some place.  Recently this happened to me.  When the tension changed and the bobbin thread was visible on the top, I started tweaking the top tension, but the tension problem did not go away.  When I checked the thread path I found the top thread looped around the three-hole thread guide above the tension assembly.  Rule of thumb, always look for something obvious when tension changes “all of a sudden.”

Quilt sandwich too tight on the frame.  Remember that the machine is constantly moving in different directions as you quilt.  It does not stop moving as each stitch is made.  As a result, the needle will flex as it is going up and down through the quilt sandwich.  If the quilt is loaded too tight on the frame, there is more needle flex displacing the position of the top thread loop, often causing what appears to be a tension problem.  Loosen the quilt roller on the frame one or two cogs.  You should be able to see the throat of the machine moving under the quilt.

Quilting too fast.  Just because we can make our longarm machines go fast doesn’t mean we should.  Do you rush your brownies baking in the oven 10 minutes instead of 25?  It takes time for the brownies to bake to the right doneness.  The same is true for quilting.  The faster you go, the more needle flex and the more likely there will be what looks like tension problems.  Slow down and enjoy the journey.

Thread quality.  Poor quality thread and thread not designed for machine quilting can be weak, inconsistent in thickness, have slubs, or even be knotted part way through the cone.  Using poor quality thread or thread not meant for machine quilting could result in thread breakage which can cause broken needles, scratches to the hook and pricks in or around the needle hole from a broken needle, and could even knock the machine out of timing.  This is in addition to the thread not performing causing what looks like a tension problem.  Always select thread that is labeled for machine or longarm quilting.  These threads are designed with extra strength for the rigors of machine movement as well as running through the machine and stitching three layers together.

Type of batting and thread.  Battings and threads are made from different types of fibers.  Some battings and threads are more abrasive than others.  This wears on the needle eye and point and can result in needle penetration problems and poor stitch quality.  Realize that every quilt is a different set of variables.  With each quilt project, start fresh with a new needle sized for the thread being used.  Sometimes a particular thread will be more difficult to use with some battings, causing the thread to “drag” creating tension problems.  If the particular thread combination (top and bobbin) is not working with the quilt sandwich, try a different thread.

The weather.  Do you have more tension problems quilting in the summer than during the winter?  It could be the humidity.  Cotton can absorb up to 40% its weight in moisture, right from the air.  The quilt top and backing is usually cotton, the batting is often cotton, as wellas the thread.  As the temperature outside and inside goes up, the air can hold more moisture and the relative humidity goes up.  The science principle of substances moving from where there is more to less holds true here.  The moisture in the higher moisture air moves to the lower moisture cotton fabric, batting and thread.  As the cotton absorbs moisture, the fibers swell.  Thread may not flow as easily through the machine or needle eye and the fabric and batting may resist the stitching, all of which may cause what looks like tension problems.

Solution: Keep batting in the package until ready to use.  Fluff it up in the dryer on no heat.  Run a dehumidifier, especially if your studio is in a basement, or run the air conditioning which typically removes moisture from the air.  If you had no problems yesterday and today everything is the same with the same quilt and same thread, but the tension is terrible, run the dehumidifier or air conditioner, wait a day or two, then try again.  When the humidity goes back down, everything will work better.  I have experienced this problem as have other quilters.  If you are feeling uncomfortable from the humidity, your quilt is, too.

Tension problems can be very frustrating.  Even becoming comfortable adjusting the bobbin and top tension can take time.  It is important to realize that there are many factors that can affect the creation of the perfect balanced stitch.  The next time you run into a tension problem and adjusting the bobbin or top tension doesn’t work, take time to go through this list and analyze what might be causing the problem.

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What’s Special About Egyptian Cotton Thread?

Perhaps in quilting circles you have heard that the best quilting thread on the market is made of Egyptian cotton.  But what makes it better than cotton grown in the US, China, India, or other countries and why should quilters look for Egyptian cotton thread?

“Dr Bob” of Superior Threads explained more about Egyptian cotton in a September 17, 2017 educational post.  There is also a short video below where “Dr Bob” explains and demonstrates more about cotton thread and answers questions about the differences between short, long and extra long staple thread, coated thread and thread “memory.”

Dr Bob writes, “Last week both Walmart and Target announced that they were pulling sheets branded as Egyptian cotton from their shelves because they “suddenly discovered” that they are not Egyptian cotton. We’ve been fighting the Egyptian cotton mislabel battle for years, knowing that Egypt does not grow enough cotton to make all the Egyptian cotton sheets, towels, clothing, and thread that is sold. Our cotton threads really are made from Egyptian-grown extra-long staple cotton.

Here are some interesting cotton facts from a recent year:
A standard bale of cotton weighs 480 lbs.
In one year, the world produced 114 million bales.
The top five cotton-producing countries:
1. China (26% of total)
2. India (23% of total)
3. United States (16% of total)
4. Pakistan (8% of total)
5. Brazil (7% of total)
Egypt ranks number 15 among cotton-producing countries and produces only .0005% of the total amount. That is one-twentieth of one percent. If Egypt is such a tiny dot on the cotton-growing map, why is Egyptian cotton so prevalent? Why is there so much Egyptian cotton clothing, bed sheets, towels, and thread? The truth is, there isn’t. The label may say Egyptian Cotton but the contents are not. Whether it is due to false advertising, misunderstanding, or ignorance on the part of seller, the fact remains that it is incorrect. There is not enough Egyptian cotton in existence to produce all the products labeled as Egyptian Cotton. It would be safe to say that there is 10,000 times more Egyptian cotton sold than is grown.
Does it really matter? Those who know cotton quality obviously understand that it does matter. Otherwise, many companies would not be falsely claiming that their cotton is ‘Egyptian Cotton’ when in fact, it is not. There is something about the climate, soil, water, and minerals in Egypt that is ideal to grow the highest-grade cotton. It is not possible to tell the origin of cotton fibers by examining them. But you and your machine will know the difference. A high-grade cotton with advanced processing will be clean, smooth, and consistent.
What about Superior’s MasterPiece and King Tut cotton thread? As far as I can tell, we are the only thread company that can honestly say this: 100% extra-long staple Egyptian-grown cotton. Our factory buys cotton from Egypt, transports it by ship to Japan for spinning, twisting, gassing, finishing, mercerizing, dyeing, and winding, and then ships it to us in Utah, USA. And it is guaranteed to work in your machine.”   From Superior Threads.

From personal experience, I use both Master Piece for all of my piecing and King Tut for longarm quilting.  I have found they are excellent, low lint cotton threads that are strong and perform to my highest expectations.  There are many colors available to blend with any quilt.  Although they are more expensive, they are higher quality than regular cotton thread and I know they will last and I won’t have problems with breakage, knotting, or bird nests.  Inexpensive thread is never worth the aggravation.  For the few pennies extra per project, I find using top quality thread is always the best decision.

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Turning Cotton Into Yarn and Thread

What does it take to change the harvested cotton into the thread that we use to make

Cotton ready for harvest.

Cotton ready for harvest.

Ripe cotton in field ready for harvest

ripe cotton in field ready for harvest

clothing or even sew our quilts with? Quite honestly, it takes a lot!

In our modern, technical world, we often forget and take for granted the products readily available to us. Centuries ago, and even fifty or sixty years ago, a lot of the work to make these products was done by hand labor taking a very long time. Just think back to the early 1800’s before the industrial revolution, no sewing machines, no mechanical harvesting equipment, cotton was hand harvested (even into the 1950’s), all thread and yarn was carded and made using a spinning wheel, then woven on hand looms. If we had to depend on those methods today it would take all of our “spare” time, when not working at our regular job, doing these tasks just to make the yarn and thread so we could make our clothing. Without a lot of household help which only the wealthy could afford, there would be no time for us to enjoy our favorite hobby, quilting.

The short video below shows all of the steps needed to take the raw, harvested cotton and turn it into usable yarn mechanically. I am simply amazed at the machinery needed, the knowledge and creativity it took to design machines to do this work and even take two threads and knot them together and wind them on a cone. Does anyone want to go back to the “good old days?”

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Is Your Thread Unwinding Correctly?

It seems fairly easy. Put the spool on the spool pin and thread the machine. This simplethread selection task, however, may be the source of thread issues if you have not first noticed how the thread is wrapped on the spool.

How Thread Is Wound On The Spool

You have probably noticed that thread is wound differently with some thread wrapped around the spool in parallel winds (stack wound) while on other spools or cones the thread is cross wound creating the “x” signature.   How the thread comes off the spool or cone does make a difference in how it sews. In fact, some thread may actually kink up or twist as it unwinds.

Position the Spool/Cone Properly

Spools with thread that is stack wound or parallel wound should be positioned so that the thread will unwind straight from the side of the spool. On your home sewing machine the spool should be placed on a vertical spool pin so that the thread can unwind off the side of the spool as the spool rotates. For cones or spools where the thread is cross wound, the thread should come off the top of the cone/spool rather than the side. On a home sewing machine, these small cones or spools would be placed on a horizontal spool pin where the thread pulls off the top of the small cone/spool.

Longarm quilting machines typically use cross wound thread on large cones which unwind from the top of the cone when sewing. The cone holders are vertical pins near the back of the machine where the thread unwinds up off the top of the cone and up through a thread guide above the cone as the machine is threaded. Sometimes Longarm quilters want to use specialty, decorative threads that are usually used on a home sewing machine. Often these threads are stack wound (parallel wound). To use these threads successfully on a longarm, a horizontal spool pin must be used to prevent these threads from twisting and knotting. Additionally, because a Longarm machine stitches so much faster than a home sewing machine, the twisting and knotting can be very frustrating with many stops and starts to try and remedy this situation. Horizontal spool pin adapters are available and may be made of plastic or metal. Some of these adapters screw into the machine and others clamp onto the existing spool/cone pin.

Cone/Spool Adapters

The video below from Superior Threads below illustrates the two different types of thread wrap as well as how to use the Superior Threads thread stand for use with either type of wound thread. I have one of these stands and use it at my home sewing machine when using the large cones of thread I might use at my Longarm. These cones, of course, are too large to mount on my horizontal spool pin in the top of my Janome Horizon. Other times I might use a decorative stack (parallel) wrapped metallic thread. These threads are known to have kinking and twisting problems. The only way to successfully use these threads is with a side delivery method. The Superior Threads thread stand can be set up for this use, too.

Another spool pin adapter system is called “Specialty Thread Spool Pin Adapter,” www.thethreaddirector.com. This has a sturdy post adapter with a spool pin that is perpendicular to the post adapter. Depending on which way you attach it to a vertical or horizontal post it can be used for either stack (parallel) wrapped or cross wrapped thread.

Although you might “get by” positioning a spool incorrectly, using the correct thread delivery method for the cone or spool allows more successful stitching. While a stitching issue might look like a tension issue, it may really be caused by how the thread is coming off the cone or spool. Remember, when thread is manufactured, parallel wrapping goes on from the side and must come off of the side. Cross wrapped goes onto the cone from the top and must come off of the top.

 

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Selecting Thread for Machine Quilting

Why Machine Quilting Thread

Whether you are a Longarm quilter or quilt at your domestic machine, it is important to choose a thread designed for this type of work. Longarm machines operate at higher speeds than domestic machines. Also, stitching through the three sandwich layers of a quilt cause more wear and tear on thread than ordinary sewing. Fortunately thread manufacturers understand these demands and have designed thread for machine quilting.

Machine quilting thread can be found in both cotton and poly and is available from a number of manufacturers. Because of the larger volume of thread required in quilting a quilt, machine quilting thread is available on cones that hold 2500 yards or more. Although we may balk at the price of machine quilting thread on cones, we need to remember that they hold several times as much as a standard spool of thread. When compared to the price of the spool, this thread really does not cost that much more and often costs less per yard than spool thread. It is important to know that hand quilting thread should never be used on a Longarm or domestic machine as the glazing on the thread will gum up the machine.

Considerations for selecting quilting thread:

  1. It is designed for machine quilting
  2. Choose a fiber type
    1. Cotton – select long staple cotton for the least amount of linting
    2. Poly – usually is low lint
  3. The look wanted on the quilt
    1. Dull look to the thread or shiny look of the thread
    2. More visible – select thicker thread, less visible – select a thinner thread
  4. Color
    1. To blend with fabric color but show quilting texture, select a couple of shades lighter or darker rather than the exact color of the fabric.
    2. For contrast, select a totally different color than the fabric.

Angela Walters is a Longarm quilter and author of several books on quilting. In the video below from her blog, she answers the question, “What are your favorite threads?” As she notes in the video, these are her opinions and she is not promoting any particular product.

 

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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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