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.
Sew4Home has a nice summary of what you can do to de-lint 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.
Great article! I have also found that I must put the spool of thread with the thread unwinding off in a specific direction–I can’t remember off the top of my head if it’s supposed to come from under or over top, but at any rate it makes a big difference in my tension!
It probably depends on the location of the spool holder, but checking the manual for tips like these can be really helpful!
Kathy Benitez says
It usually takes me two or three attempts…start sewing, things are sounding funny, bobbin thread barfs, stop, pull things out, try again…then I decide I should rethread the machine. Why it takes me so long, I’m not sure I’ll ever know. But you’ve inspired me to spend a little time cleaning my machine when I’m done with Halloween costumes.
Jodi Bonjour says
It won’t hurt to clean it. 🙂 Best of luck on your costume sewing.
When I teach people to sew, the first thing I show them is the tension dial and then tell them not to touch it! It’s the first thing they tend to reach for if there’s any weirdness in their stitches, but usually it’s a much simpler problem. And once they mess with the tension dial, there’s another whole can of worms to deal with. I’ve got a craft gossip post scheduled for this evening that features your tutorial:
Jodi Bonjour says
I seem to have a problem with my top tension. When ever I stop stiching or stich back, the top tension tends to loop at the bottom. Any information on that?
I recommend going through the suggestions listed above. It is likely that your thread is not placed within the tension discs. Make sure your presser foot is up while you are threading.
Also- a mistake my daughter sometimes makes is forgetting to put the presser foot down.
Jodi Bonjour says
That would do it too. 🙂
I’m about to start last costume. Going to put your suggestions to practice. I’ll let you know how it goes! Thank you! P.S. Your example pic of tangled bobbin thread looks beautiful compared to my last project! Here’s hoping! ❤️
Good luck! And let me know if you need any help.
Joan van Velsor says
Also check to make sure you are using the right bobbin for your machine. I have two machines that use different bobbins; one is just slightly shorter than the other. Neither machine will work right with the wrong bobbin.
I wrote on one of my sets with permanent marker so I wouldn’t get them confused. 🙂
my tension will be at the highest (for testing) yet i can pull my thread easily through the needle as if it is a tension of 3…..pls help
It is likely because the thread is not going between the tension discs. This happens when you thread with the foot down. I would suggestiong pulling the thread out and try rethreading.
I was ready to buy a new machine! Your site saved my machine! I was convinced the tension mechanism was broken, but thanks to you the machine is now working properly. Thank you!
This makes me so happy. I’m glad I could help!
I have an embroidery machine and when it is sewing away from me, it makes loopy stitches. I’ve had it in to have attention checked but it never helps. Any help would be appreciated…TIA!!!
Thx for this article
Susanne, I’m not really sure the specifics of your machine, and embroidery machines are more particular about needles and thread, etc. If you have taken it in for it to be serviced, you should contact the people who did the work for you. They might be able to fix what wasn’t fixed the first time, or perhaps show you the user error if there is one.
THANK YOU for this post! I am currently sewing picnic blankets and many, many cushions for my youngest daughter’s wedding IN TWO WEEKS, so when the thread started snarling on the bottom, I panicked. Everywhere else I looked said it meant the tension was too loose, but increasing the tension only made the top thread snap.
I was envisioning many all-nighters sewing all these things by hand when I found your article.
I am mortified to have to confess that the problem turned out to be a mis-threaded bobbin. I have only been sewing about 40 years. How on earth could I have made such a newbie mistake? But yes, my bobbin was turning counter-clockwise instead of clockwise. Eesh!
At the same time, I am also DELIGHTED that the problem was a mis-threaded bobbin! It took approximately 3 seconds to fix — I was fearing a week in the repair shop with the clock ticking down!! Now my lovely little Husqvarna is humming along happily. And so am I!
Thank you from me — and from my daughter, the bride-to-be … who I won’t tell all this until blankets and cushions are safely delivered!!
Hi! I am trying to free motion some stippling designs on my quilt border. I have stippled my quilts in the past with no problem but this time the top thread keeps “nesting” under the fabric. I am sewing on a Pfaff machine with Coats all-purpose thread (37%cotton, 63% poly).
I have changed the needle, re-threaded both the bobbin and the machine, removed the feeder plate and cleaned underneath it with q-tips and canned air, fiddled with the tension on both the bobbin and the machine and nothing keeps the thread from tangling. (And I’ve lowered the feed dogs during all of this.)
I keep finding tutorials and blogs on how to prevent this from happening and I’m following the suggestions given but the thread continues to bunch up. I understand that if the thread “nests” then the needle tension is too loose. I’ve loosened the bobbin tension and tried tightening the needle in different increments. When I stitch a regular straight stitch, it sews fine…just not with my darning foot in place. Any suggestions?
FMQ is a different beast and will probably require some tweaking of your thread tension. At least it does on my machine.
Unfortunately, I am a beginner to FMQ myself and I don’t have any special insight to give you. Do you have a local sewing shop you could take your machine to and have them give it a look?
Jeanie Nelson says
Thank you for this! I totally thought my machine needed to be serviced but for some reason just turning my thread spool the other diredtion3and re-threading everything took care of it! It’s a mystery to me why that helped but it did.
I know I’m a few years late on this but my sewing machine leaves the top thread showing on the bottom AND the bottom thread showing on the top at the same time, no matter what thickness fabric I use. I’ve tried all of the above and the same happens. Help!
I am having trouble picturing thread showing on both the top and the bottom? like the stitches are loose on both sides?
Is it a new machine, or an old machine? If it is an old machine, it may need to be serviced.
They are tight but in-between each stitch the other thread is showing like it’s being pulled through, but it is happening on both sides at the same time. It’s not an old machine.
Pls help. The tension is on 4 but the stitches are loose and I have tried different tension no’s including 9 but the stitches are loose. What can I do???
My guess is that you probably did not thread the machine properly. Particularly, you need to have your presser foot raised so that the thread goes between the tension discs when you thread it. Like I mentioned in this article,
– Take the upper thread all the way off the machine.
– Lift the presser foot!!!!
– 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.”
If that doesn’t help, check the article for tips on how to thread the bobbin properly.
My machine seems to refuse to release the upper tension when the presser foot is raised. I thread the machine and begin sewing. All is well. Then I stop, ensure the needle is at the highest position, lift the presser foot, pull my fabric and it won’t budge. I can turn the handwheel backwards to release pressure but as soon as I turn it forward again I feel the tension and can hear the thread scraping. When I attempt to restart sewing, same piece/new piece/etc, the thread is so tense that the machine can’t move the needle. I lift the presser foot again, and can only pull thread if I turn the handwheel backwards. If I completely retread the machine it works but the problem arises again immediately. I have changed the needle, ensured that when the machine is freshly threaded I can pull thread when the presser foot is up but not when it is down, pulled the front off of the case to ensure the thread isn’t snagging anywhere else, ensured the mechanism for resetting the tension disks is moving when the presser foot is lifted, blown everything out, and used a knitted thread and a solvent coated fabric to ensure the tension disks are clean. The machine is relatively new. Ever heard of anything like this before?
If you have checked your manual for the correct threading technique and have tried all the above tips, it is possible that your machine needs to be serviced. Machines do need a little TLC every once and a while.
Thank you so much for this. I nearly sent my machine out the window I was getting so frustrated! So helpful.
Lisa Nelski says
Yeah, I’m pretty sure the tension on my machine is broken. I had already done all the steps above, but redid them just incase.
Just for the heck of it, I turned the top tension (with the foot up) to 0 and I’m still getting the same problem.
HANTEE CHEN says
I inherited a singer 2001 memory machine and tried to learn all the features. The upper tension dial was set to the highest and I couldn’t adjust at all. Is there a switch to set so I could move the tension dial? Thank you for helping.
jeff kopp says
I have a Viking Husgavarna model 6010. 1970 edition
When I raise the pressure foot the tension disc for the upper thread does not release. So if you are threading a new needle the thread will not slip in the disc. This messes with the upper thread tension. The only way to remedy this is to set the disc tension at “0” when threading a new needle and the setting it back to 5 when you start to sew. I have 2 identical machines and one works perfectly and one does not. I can not see anything that is worn.
Not wanting to be awkward (but I often am) why have a tension dial if you shouldn’t touch/use it? I find it both baffling and frustrating. I do fibre art and free motion, which can mean playing with tension for effects or different threads. Problem is, whenever I change the tension, that’s it, the machine is knackered and no matter what I do, nothing will correct it. It usually means a trip to the engineer. WHY have adjustable tension, if you can’t use it? argh!
Can anyone recommend a machine where you CAN play with tension without it having a pink fit and sulking with you?
Lalla Ward says
All of the above is very helpful except I still have a problem! I agree with you that leaving the tension adjuster alone is probably best. I’m trying to do a zigzag stitch, not rocket science, you’d think. I appreciate that sometimes it’s necessary to adjust tension a little for zigzag. I’ve done all the things you suggested, but nothing produces a good stitch; either there are “Y” shape distortions on the underneath. Or the top is almost completely bobbin thread (I’m testing with different colours so I can be sure what is going where). If I alter the tension on the top, nothing changes, even from extreme loose to extreme tight. Very occasionally it all works fine for about an inch of stitching. and then the bobbin thread comes back to the top. Or appears at either side of the stitch. The fact that altering tension changes nothing seems to me to indicate that maybe it actually IS broken. What do you think??
Thank you so much..best advice of so many I’ve read!! I thought something was really wrong..tried your very sensible ideas…running like brand new!! Whew..so relieved because I love my sewing machine.
Denise Martin says
THANK YOU!!! It was my bobbin thread. I never would have guessed. I was ready to head to the shop & get it fixed. Thank you for this site.
Well 12 years after buying my brand new 8280 signer prelude sewing machine and never having it ever work… it always had nesting. I chalked it up to user error… I even had friends trying to use my machine to see if they could get it to work… to no avail! Fast forward to today I finally discovered my machine was faulty from the get go. It has zero top thread tension. I finally took the machine apart myself and the tension disks are all loose. For years I blamed myself and in reality the machine wast faulty. I never got rid of it since it was brand new, it sat un touched year after year. Yesterday I finally decided to get to the bottom of the issue. The key to discovering the issue was that either with the pressure foot up or down the upper thread had no tension at all. I opened the machine up, and I discovered the tension disks had no tension. It’s so frustrating to discover that the machine was bad from the get go, and I never questioned the machine. I kept blaming myself for it’s disfunction. Please be aware that faulty parts can be a problem as well. Now I have to figure out how to fix the tension disks
Hey there, So I used to see all the time w h my machine, like making full costume for my kiddo and creating my own clothes. I lost the time to do that and my sewing machine sat and now I cannot get the tension right. I e tried everything you said here and took it to someone to clean and check out the bottom loading bobbin section for problems. It’s all good. What’s the problem? It just does not work like used to.