So you have a sewing machine, you took a class or had a friend show you how to use it, but the first time you try to use it on your own, the stitches came out all wonky. There were loops or snarls of threads on the back side, or the stitches were skipping. You try spinning the tension dials because you heard that there is something called “thread tension” and this must be that problem. No matter the settings, you can’t figure out and you give up. “My machine must be broken!!! The tension is all off.”
Nope. Most likely not. It’s not the machine, it’s probably user error. But that is a good thing! It means we can get you sewing again in no time flat (and for FREE. woohoo!).
First off, in all likelihood, there is nothing that needs to be adjusted about your thread tension. The only times your (upper or bobbin) thread tension needs adjusting is if you are using some sort of speciality thread, or you are doing Free Motion Quilting or something of the sort. You don’t need to muck around with the tension for standard projects sewn with all-purpose thread unless your machine is in need of a servicing, WHICH IS NOT LIKELY. So, set that tension dial back to the center (4), and your stitch length to between 2 and 3.
Let’s do some sleuthing to figure this out. Usually the problem is that…
Your machine is not threaded properly.
I did this as a beginner, and every single one of my students have made this mistake. You will get better with practice but for now, let’s rethread your machine.
- Take the upper thread all the way off the machine.
- Are you using an all-purpose thread?
Specialty threads will take more experience to work with. I recommend only all-purpose thread for the beginning sewist. Make sure it is newer thread. Vintage spools, while pretty to look at, don’t feed as nicely and break easily.
- Lift the presser foot!!!!
When the presser foot is down, the tension discs clamp on the thread. You can’t feed the thread between the tension discs when the presser foot is down, which results in those mysterious “tension issues.”
- Bring the needle to the uppermost position.
- Rethread the upper thread – follow the markings on your machine or directions in your sewing machine manual to make sure you don’t miss any steps.
Try again. Still not fixed? Let’s rethread the bobbin too.
- Bring the needle to the uppermost position and lift the presser foot.
- Take the bobbin out of your machine (and out of the case, if you have a front-loading bobbin).
- Is the thread wound nicely around the bobbin? It should be smoothly wound, if it isn’t, cut it off with a seam ripper and rewind it. (In the photo above, the bobbin on the left is poorly wound, loose, and uneven. The one on the right is wound correctly.)
- Reload the bobbin into your machine.
- To fish for the bobbin thread, hold the top thread while bringing the needle all the way down and up again. Pull on the upper thread and it will bring the bobbin thread up.
This will fix the problem 75ish% of the time. If you are still having problems, it could be that…
You need to change your needle!
- If your needle is old, it might be slightly bent, or the tip is broken off. This could effect the timing and result in skipped stitches. Swap out your old needle for a new one. Universal size 80/12 will work for most beginner projects.
- If you are working with a finer, heavier, or speciality fabrics, you might need a different kind or size of needle for the best results. Check out this guide by Schmetz to help you choose the best needle for your project.
One last thing to try, if you are still having problems with your stitches….
It’s time to give your machine some TLC.
This is the one I often forget to do. Sewing machines collect lint over the course of every project. After a few projects, the lint can become an obstruction to the machinery. I find this especially true with the lint in the bobbin case. In addition to the lint build-up, older machines will also need regular oiling with a special machine oil, but you need to refer to your manual to see if this applies to your machine.
My guess is that these three things will have your machine purring like a kitten again. If not, it is possible that the tension may be in need of adjustment. However, it is also probably a good idea to take it into your local sewing machine shop for a checkup or advice.