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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Yikes! Terrible Tension – What Do I Do?

Some days just don’t go as planned with Longarm quilting and you have to stop, step back and analyze what the issue is and what to do about it.

The quilt I was working on was made of excellent quality quilting cotton, 1930’s reproduction fabric.  The batting was top quality Quilters Dream Blend 70/30 (select, mid-weight) and the thread was top quality Superior Threads King Tut and So Fine 50, both designed for Longarm machine quilting.  I used the Towa Bobbin Gauge to set the bobbin tension at my normal setting of 200 for the M-hook on the Nolting Pro.  I was using IntelliQuilter computer guided system for this quilt and the machine and bobbin were correctly threaded.

The problem: Regardless of how carefully I adjusted the tension, the bobbin thread either pulled to the top or the top thread pulled to the bottom railroading, inconsistent tension.  Some places looked wonderful, others not very good.

poor quilting tension

Inconsistent poor tension.

I can say that I have not had any tension adjustment problems in several years since starting to use the Towa Gauge to adjust the bobbin tension at the same setting regardless of the thread.  So, why now?  Was it just a bad day, careless top tension adjustment, the weather, the particular computer guided pattern, one which I had never stitched out before, or some other issue.  I continued to adjust the tension on the “fly” as I stitched out two rows of the pattern.  Not having much success I decided to quit for the day.

The next day after taking a really good look at the back of the quilt, I had to make the

poor quilting tension

Inconsistent poor tension.

dreaded decision to totally take out all of the quilting.  The inconsistent tension was in too many places to even consider repairing the spots.  More importantly, I had to figure out why it was happening and fix the issue before working on the quilt again.  I talked with a friend who also had a Pro (now upgraded to the Nolting NV) and IQ to see if she had any suggestion.

I could rule out some things as they were not a factor:

  • I ruled out any mechanical issue as this machine is only a few months old.
  • I ruled out any problems with IQ as that also is only a few months old.

    terrible quilt tension

    Really terrible tension!

So, that left me with the quilt sandwich, thread, and adjustment.

Here is now I solved the problem:

  • I could not change the quilt sandwich, however, part way through quilting I realized that I had loaded the backing incorrectly with the scrim side up rather than down as it should be. I feel that this was a factor to some extent because the “fluffier” side was down toward the backing rather than up touching the back of the top.
  • The pattern was a medium density pattern with quilting less than 3” apart, sometimes 2” apart, many curves and points which probably caused a lot of needle flex as the machine moved back and forth around the pattern. I made sure I had a stronger, thicker needle in the machine and used the MR 4.5/19 for the M-hook in the machine.  Even using a size 20 needle might have helped even more.
  • Because of the denser pattern, the very inconsistent tension and trouble fine tuning the tension, I reasoned that the So Fine 50 (poly) thread in the bobbin was not a good match for the heavier #40 King Tut (cotton) on the top. I switched bobbin thread to Robison Anton 50 cotton.  And, if that had not worked, I would have used the King Tut in the bobbin also so that the threads would be evenly matched as far as strength and elasticity.
  • I slowed IQ down so that there would be less needle flex and have more time to precisely place the stitches. The settings I used were 1.3 Speed and 1.1 Detail.  These slower speeds also meant that I needed to slow the machine speed down.  If this speed had not worked, I would have slowed IQ and the machine down even more.  If I had been hand guiding this pattern and experiencing the same issues, which quite possibly could happen, I would need to slow down my hand guiding speed.  With a denser pattern, hand guiding the machine slower would probably happen anyway.
  • I warmed up my machine for at least five minutes, perhaps even more. Over the years I have discovered that if the machine’s internal parts are well warmed up, along with the bobbin case, adjusting the tension takes less time and takes fewer adjustments after starting to quilt on the quilt.  Remove the bobbin from the bobbin case and put the empty bobbin case into the machine for the warm up.  Don’t forget to remove the thread from the top and out of the take up lever.  Warm up using a medium speed.
  • Use the Towa Bobbin Gauge to set the bobbin tension. I checked the bobbin tension on every bobbin and set to 200.  Experience has taught me that this is the best setting for my Nolting Pro with the IQ.  When I use the Pro with Quiltmagine (Nolting’s computer guided system), I set the bobbin at 175.  Each computer guided system, because it so precisely moves and places stitches, places a different amount of stress on the thread.  By experimenting with different settings, I have found these setting to work for me.  Longarm machines run best with a looser bobbin tension as that gives much more flexibility in adjusting the top tension.
  • Once the bobbin tension was set correctly, I spent time adjusting the top tension. My method for that is to tighten the top tension until I see the bobbin thread starting to poke out of the top on my test sample at the side of the quilt.  Then, I start backing the top down until I can only see the tip of the bobbin thread down in the needle hole.  I feel and look at the back to make sure there are no top thread pokies.  I always test using the same setting (stitch length or motor speed) I will use on the quilt, stitch little circles, curves, straight lines and points to see how the machine tension responds as I am adjusting the top tension.  When I am satisfied, and only when satisfied, I started the pattern.
  • I decided to adjust the pattern size a little larger to give a little more gentleness to the curves of the pattern. This slight adjustment was still within the scale of the quilt top design.  With a paper pattern and hand guided, you don’t have this flexibility, so you simply have to work with what you have.
  • Once I started IQ stitching the pattern I stopped several times within the first several inches to check the tension top and bottom and made little refinements to the tension. I did not want to make any assumptions and I did not want to spend any more time ripping out machine quilting stitching.  If I had been hand guiding this pattern, I would have done the same, stop a number of times as I started stitching the pattern to check the tension top and bottom.   As the pattern continued to stitch out, I checked periodically across the row, and across every row.
  • Because I had started quilting this in the early afternoon, I kept at it until it was finished. When success presents itself, I did not want to stop until completed.

Problem Tension Solved!

You might be asking if every quilt is such a struggle.  The answer to that is, no.  My normal setup does involve sufficient machine warm up, using the Town Bobbin Gauge to set the bobbin tension, testing and adjusting the tension on a test strip at the side of the quilt, and stopping frequently when I start quilting to make fine top tension adjustments.  Normally I do not have problems and am able to work through the project without any issues.  Just why this quilt was a problem, other than the factors I mentioned before, it is hard to determine.  Perhaps each of the variables contributed something to the problem.   Situations like this are frustrating and for new Longarm quilters, almost overwhelming.  Rather than fret and stress, it is best just to step back, look at the whole quilting picture, analyze the problem and the variables involved, and even check the simple things like thread path.  Even with my experience, I am happy that I had a Longarm friend to bounce ideas off and that the problem inconsistent tension was solved.

1930's quilt

Beautiful Quilt, Beautiful Quilting – Job Well Done!

Solving Longarm Backing Issues

Nothing is worse than taking the quilt off the frame and discovering problems on the back

problem quilt

Notice distorted sides and wavy bottom on this quilt.

of the quilt, such as puckers or tucks, or getting to the bottom of the quilt and find dog-ear borders.  It is very discouraging after spend a lot of time to make the quilting design look so nice.  Who at this point wants to do reverse stitching (pick out stitches)? Perhaps, even by removing the stitching, there may not be a good solution to fix the issue.

Reasons that may result in puckers, tucks, backing that drapes on the sides and dog-ear borders:

  1. The backing is loaded too loosely.
  2. Backing is pieced with a vertical seam
  3. Improper clamping
  4. incorrect technique for adding borders

Because of inexperience, new longarm quilters often have backing issues, even I did.  All of these issues are caused by incorrect methods.  Change your methods and you immediately change the outcome.

The best solution to “fixing” these issues is prevention using techniques that will eliminate the problems from the start.  In fact, prevention starts even before you start loading the backing.    Over the years I have refined a procedure that totally eliminates all of these issues.  If you follow these steps, you can eliminate these issues.  Best thing is that these same procedures and techniques work with all brands of machines and frames.

Techniques to eliminate puckers, tucks and dog-ear borders.

Method for adding borders:

Dog-ears result from the border being longer than the quilt top or being stretched during quilting.  “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  In this case, add borders correctly.

  1. Never add a border by laying the strip on the quilt, stitching it on and trimming it off.  Because the sides of any quilt will distort easily, opposite borders will never end up being the same sewn on this way and you end up with opposite borders all different lengths distorting the outside edge of the quilt.  Borders added correctly will square up a quilt.
  2. Correct method:
    1. Measure across the quilt top in two or three places (not at the top or bottom), use the average of the measurements or the smallest, cut both top and bottom border at the same time, the same length.
    2. Pin border to quilt easing in any fullness of the border or quilt.  Best way is to quarter both the quilt top and border, pin together at the quarter marks, then ease in fullness.
    3. Always stitch with the fullest piece on the bottom where the feed dogs will evenly pull it through without creating any puckers.
    4. Using the same method, measure the other direction across the quilt, cut both border strips the same length following instructions in steps A-C.

Loading Procedure:

  1. Backing (and batting) must be 8” longer and 8” wider than the quilt top.
  2. Square the top and bottom end of the backing so that they are perpendicular to the sides. Fold backing in half lengthwise, fold again making sure there are no puckers and the folds and side lay on top of each other with no ripples or puckers.  Use a long cutting ruler and line up a cross mark along the folded edge and trim the top (and bottom) edge.  Cut will be perpendicular to the length of the backing.  Your backing will NEVER work properly without squaring with this method.  Even tearing along the grain line does not work because all fabric is distorted during the manufacturing and winding process.  You must square by cutting.
  3. Make sure the backing is pinned evenly to the canvas or zippers, or with the same amount folded over the rod if using leader grips. Any amount that is off by more than ¼ – 3/8” here can distort the backing.
  4. Always roll ALL of the backing onto the take-up roller first (roller under the machine arm). Stand at the back of the frame, roll a little, then, SMOOTH the backing from the center outward in each direction.  This does not stretch the fabric, it smooths it out to remove little puckers and ripples.  Keep rolling a little and smoothing until nearly all of the backing is rolled onto the take-up roller.
  5. Roll the backing from the take-up roller to the belly bar roller. Again, roll a little, walk
    loading quilt backing correctly

    Controlling transfer of backing from take-up roller to belly bar roller.

    over and smooth from center outward in each direction (belly bar), roll a little more, smooth more, until the backing is transferred to the front belly bar roller.  When transferring from take-up roller to front roller, keep tension on the backing by keeping a hand on each roller (see photo).  Something magical happens during this transfer – the backing straightens itself out, drapes along the side disappear.  YES, this method takes a little longer, but it eliminates the problems.

  6. What about a backing seam? Unless the backing is directional, always seam backing fabrics so that the seam is a horizontal seam and not a vertical seam.  If you must have a vertical seam see my YouTube video below on how to roll the backing.

More Loading Tips:

Once the backing has been transferred to the belly bar roller, the batting and top can now be loaded.  Do not put clamps on the quilt yet as this distorts the backing.

  1. Batting must have a straight edge at the top perpendicular to the sides. If it does not and/or is distorted, square up the top edge of the batting.
  2. Baste the batting to the backing with the horizontal channel lock engaged. This is very important as the basting line becomes the placement line for the top.
  3. Using the basting line (step 2) as the placement for the top edge of the quilt matching the center of the top to the center mark on the roller.  The quilt top will be perfectly aligned parallel to the rollers and square with the frame. Baste less than ¼ “ from the edge of the quilt top.  When basting less than 1/4″ from the quilt edge, there is no need to remove the basting as the binding will cover the stitching.
  4. Using a zero center tape installed on the frame, baste the sides of the quilt top at the same distance from the center as the top edge of the quilt. Using a zero center tape every time the quilt is advanced assures the quilt will be square at the bottom.

After the top is basted to the backing, attach the clamps only to the backing.  Backing clamps are used only to stabilize the sides of the quilt and are only attached to the backing.  Side leader grips can be used as an alternative method of stabilizing the quilt/backing sides.  These are 10-14 inches long with the ribbon on the side leader grip held by a frame side clamp.  They do a great job of stabilizing a longer area than just a narrow clamp.  DONOT pull tightly on the clamp straps as that distorts the backing.  Because of this distortion, when the clamps are released after quilting, the quilt will pucker.

One final tip.  Before starting to quilt the new area, take a quick look under at the backing.  Make sure that it is smooth with no ripples, folds, or areas of distortion.  If it looks smooth, you are good to go.

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