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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