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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I’ve Heard, “Don’t Touch That Tension Dial!! “

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.

thread tension

Thread Tension

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

towa bobbin gauge

Towa Bobbin Gauge

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.

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