With sewing machine advances in the last 20 years or so, we have come to rely on the machine’s automatic tension setting. Because the machine has a preset automatic tension setting, we assume that the tension will always be perfect. This is not necessarily the case. This question was posed to Superior Threads wondering if machines with a preset tension ever need the tension adjusted, this is their response.
This is a big YES! Newer machines come preset with faster speeds and tighter top and bobbin tensions designed to sew with a 50 or 60 wt. polyester thread. Factory preset tension (usually set at 5.0) is too tight for most quilting and embroidery applications. Automatic tension does not know if you are using a very delicate thread, sensitive thread, or heavy thread. It does not know if you are using cotton or poly or metallic or monofilament thread. Learn to override the automatic tension setting and adjust it (usually loosen) to the point where you get the perfect stitch. Knowing how to adjust the top tension will open up your thread choices so you can use any quality thread without frustration. On most machines, we set the top tension between 2.0 and 3.5 (see Home Machine Thread Reference Guide). When using metallic thread, we go all the way down to 1.0. The tension concept is explained on our Tension Tug-O-War diagram. (Superior Threads)
What about longarm quilting?
Because we are used to the preset tension on our home machines and our fear of messing things up by adjusting tension, many longarm quilters are hesitant to adjust the tension on their longarm. And, Once they get it adjusted, they don’t want to touch it.
Stitching with a longarm system presents several variables which are likely to change from quilt to quilt, or even within the same quilt, such as the type of batting, various types of fabrics with different thread counts, and the thread. From one quilt to the next, changing just one of these factors is likely to change how the machine stitches and as a result, the tension may not be as perfect on this quilt as on the last one.The solution is to become comfortable with adjusting the tension on the longarm. Regardless of whether you want to or not, get over it. You must become comfortable and confident in adjusting the tension on a longarm.
What is balanced tension? The tension is balanced when the top thread and bobbin thread form the knot in the middle between the quilt top and quilt back, in the middle (batting).
Adjusting Machine Tension
Tension on a longarm has to be adjusted for each quilt you are working on. The over-all tension of the machine starts with correct bobbin tension. Rely on your machine manufacturer for guidelines in setting the bobbin tension. Nolting longarm machines, for example, prefer a loose bobbin tension, usually around 100-125 on the Towa Bobbin Gauge for the L-hook or 200-225 on the Towa Bobbin Gauge for the
M-hook. Once the bobbin tension is correct, then you only change the top tension to achieve a balanced tension. If you change to a different thread in the bobbin, the bobbin case tension must again be adjusted to the same settings (as used for your specific hook) before adjusting the top tension to achieve a balanced tension.
By far, the biggest learning curve in longarm quilting is becoming comfortable adjusting the tension. Find out what bobbin tension your longarm will operate best at, use a Towa Bobbin Gauge, if necessary, to make sure the bobbin tension is consistently the same with each type of thread, then adjust the top tension until the top and bobbin thread are in balance.
The video below offers more information on why a bobbin gauge should be used and how to use it correctly for best results. Order the gauge.