"How to Get Your Sewing Machine Thread Tension and Stitch Quality Right"

One of the greatest annoyances for us sewists is tension. But sometimes, when it looks as though the tension is off, it may be something else. There are four things which seem to primarily affect the stitch quality: the tension, the needle, whether you have correctly threaded the machine, and the thread.

Tension
The thicker the fabric, higher the tension must be to lift the lower thread up to the middle of the layers of fabric. You will usually be alright with a 4 or 5 on medium to medium-heavy fabrics like linen and twill weaves such as drill and denim. Thick upholstery fabrics may require a higher tension setting and a longer stitch, and lighter fabrics like cotton or even sheers will require a lower tension setting.

Correct Threading
Make sure you thread your machine correctly. All the little milestones are there for a reason and missing one could totally ruin your stitching.

If the thread is bunching up under the fabric and you machine won’t sew, you may have missed the take-up lever or “goose-neck”. Without that, the thread will just stay down there and not make a stitch. It’s kind of hard to explain it, but if you miss it on purpose, and turn the hand wheel with the machine switched off, you may be able to see what I mean. Until I missed the take-up lever I didn’t appreciate it’s importance; now I do. : )

Note: If you machine keeps locking up and the thread is tangled underneath, you may have sewn over a loose thread. Turn your machine off, snip the threads and remove the ones that are stuck. Then you can switch your machine back on and sew again, keeping all loose threads out of the way. : )

Needle
If you have been spending hours (or possibly days) trying to get the tension correct then it’s probably not a tension problem. Try a bigger needle. A size 14/90 is a good average size for medium to medium-heavy cottons etc. and for when you use Sew-all thread.

People will usually tell you that to sew fine fabric such as lining fabric you must use a fine needle, e.g. size 80 or below. What they don’t tell you is that that is only correct if you are using a fine thread like fine silk as well, or possibly if you are sewing a loose-weave fabric. Otherwise the needle won’t make a big enough hole for the lockstitch and it will look like you have too loose upper thread tension. I seldom go below a size 14/90 unless the type of needle doesn’t go up that high.

Thread
If that still doesn’t fix it, make sure you are using quality thread. For some reason, even polyester cheap thread doesn’t give the desired results. Use Gutermann or Coats. They are kinder to your machine anyway because they are smoother and don’t leave so much fluff on your machine.

“Good in, Good out”
Remember, if you want your machine to give you good results and to last a long time, you have to look after it and that includes giving it good ‘food’ i.e. thread. It’s the same as any other appliance, or even you. You know that junk food is bad for you. Well, junk thread is bad for your machine.

This is just what I have found out recently through experience. I don’t know if it’s just my machine, but my Brother XR6600 seems to be rather picky and likes to have the best. : )

Other things you can do
For tricky fabrics, like sheers and leathers etc., it helps to have the right foot, but if you don’t have one, you can put tissue paper, such as Burda make, on top to help the feed, or underneath to stop fabrics from getting pulled down the needle hole. Putting it underneath also helps to get embroidery stitches to look right. You can use stabilizer if you prefer.

Save Time with This Helpful Tip
When you sew a new fabric, find the correct needle and tension and write it and the fabric’s name on a swatch of the fabric. As you go along you will build a little encyclopedia of fabric. Then you won’t have to keep trying to find the right tension and needle for the fabric. You can save hours! You might even try a blind hem and various stitches to find the best stitch settings and the colour and type of thread and write that down. Then you know what thread to shop for when you sew something else from the same fabric.

Until next time, happy sewing!

Sabrina Wharton-Brown

P.S. What problems have you had with your machine, and how have you fixed them?

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71 thoughts on “"How to Get Your Sewing Machine Thread Tension and Stitch Quality Right"

  1. I am trying to sew denim, repair of some blue jeans. But when I get into the multiple layers like the edge of pockets my top thread must break for some reason. I only have tension at around 3, which seemed fine at other places.

    This literally my first attempt at sewing. I borrowed the machine from a friend.

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  2. I was sewing a zipper using a zipper foot and the needle broke. I put a new needle in and the thread kept getting bound under the fabric, making the needle stuck. I changed the bobbin and rethreaded the machine several times and this continued to happen. It's a friend's machine and I'm worried I may have broke it. Any suggestions?

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  3. Hi,
    Great tips!! Your tips have been soooo helpful in sewing my home decor cotton fabric. Now I am working with heavy upholstery fabric…some has a chenille pattern so it is thick. What would be the correct needle size, tension and thread length? I know you said to use a longer stich but am not sure how long. Any help would be so appreciated.

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  4. Hi,
    The short answer is: I don't know. The only way to find out is to test on some scraps of fabric until it looks right. 🙂

    If it's thick, you would probably want a needle of at least size 90, a tension of at least average (the middle as marked on your machine), and a stitch length of at least 2.5-3.5mm. That's the starting point.

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  5. It's unlikely that you've broken it.

    First off, clean out the machine as the instruction book directs.

    When you start sewing, have long threads (about 5 inches) coming from the needle and the bobbin and hold them out of the way. If you don't, the bobbin thread can sometimes get sucked back into the machine and tangle up.

    If those things don't work, I don't know what do. Does your friend know if the machine was working properly when s/he lent it to you? When was it last serviced? Is it very old and has been in a damp place for a long time?

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  6. Sorry I've taken so long to reply; I've just moved house and we've only just got the Internet working again.

    First advice is to use a new needle and quality thread. The tension for thicker places must be a bit higher than the thinner places. I would say at least a 5 or 6. You will also find it helps to lengthen your stitch by a millimetre or two.

    When you sew over “speed-bumps” you usually have to have a humper-jumper or some rolled up fabric or something to keep the presser foot level and maintain the thickness of fabric under it. Otherwise it's like driving on road-wide pot holes; if you can imagine how unpleasant that would be you can imagine what the sewing machine is going through! 🙂

    Also, slow down at the thicker parts. It really is a lot like driving a car. 🙂

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  7. Hi, trying to take a hem up in 100% polyester dress. Material is catching and puckering – it the tension? I'm a total novice using a machine that was my mums. It's a singer 257 and the tension setting is 3-4. Should it be a higher number? Thanks in advance

    Maggie T

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  8. It could be the tension, but better carefully rethread your sewing machine top and bottom as the manual instructs first to make sure nothing is caught. If you don't have a manual, you should be able to find it on Singer's US website.

    If it is the tension, see which side of the material the tight thread is – if it's the top one, lower the tension; if it's the bottom one (and you dare), try lowering the bobbin tension. There will be a little screw somewhere on the bobbin case near a sort of metal flappy thing that holds the thread in place. Turn the screw about an eighth to a quarter of a turn anti-clockwise and see if that makes a difference. You can find out more about bobbin tension by Googling it; it's a of bit trial and error.

    Different machines take different fine tuning and even changing your needle size/type could make all the difference. Try a Universal size 90/14 needle.

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  9. _Please help!
    I was recently given a Kenmore Ultra Stitch 6. When I try to sew zigzag (rehemming napkins) the tension slips the thred out and it subsequently breaks. Also the stitches do not look like satin stitches.Any suggestions before I tackle slipcovers for my camelback couch.
    carolmounier, Orlando, Florida

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  10. Ive read through all the comments to find someone with similar problem to mine but no luck 😦 so i thought id comment myself.

    My sewing machine sews fine on majority of fabrics except for this one cotton T-shirt that i wanted to make. It was orginally an old t shirt that i wanted to change the cut of but the machine wont sew on it properly. I tried zig zag and straight stitch but it comes out loose and the thread doesnt even go through the fabric (i can pull it right out)
    Its kind of stretchy and its 100% cotton, maybe because its too old?

    thank you in advance 🙂

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  11. Hi,
    Sorry it's taken so long to reply; I've just started college. 🙂

    It sounds like the first thing you should do is change needles. Try a universal needle, size 80 or 90. If you still have now luck, try sewing with the fabric between two layers of tissue paper. Also, check the tension is on a “normal” setting (usually 3-5).

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  12. Thank you, thank you, after 2 days of messing I read your article! Changed the needle, no luck, altered the tension (I didn't actually think 4/5 were to use, bit like 100 mph on the car!), still no luck, one new reel of cotton later, perfect!
    Guess I won't be buying anymore bargin packs of thread.

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  13. Thank you so much for your help, just saved me loads of time was about to start hand sewing as didn't think my machine could handle my heavy fabric but changed my foot and tension and voila all sorted, thanks again Rebbecca.

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  14. I am going to give the tension a try tomorrow – I've been sewing with no issues and all of the sudden after like two or three stitches the needle won't hold the thread and comes totally undone – I cannot make any progress! I'm sewing with thick fabrics so I will try the tension. ARG!

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  15. Hi there! Thank you so much for this. I do have a question though…
    Lately every time I sew, the thread seems to bunch or be too loose – I have changed the tension setting and each time there is something wrong with the sewing (one side will look perfect, but the other side is all knotted). No tension number works! I have cleaned out my bobbin & underneath. I also changed the needle, but I am stumped since I am using the same needle and thread type as when it was working perfectly. help!

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  16. Hello Taylor,

    Usually when that happens to my sewing, I have missed something in threading or the thread has come out of place somewhere. I was using a sewing machine at college the other day and it happened; someone had miss-threaded the bobbin.

    I have tried to learn how to service my own machine but the smell of the oil and the strength required with a screwdriver suggested to me that mechanics is not my forte. The information I used was from Trumble, but it wasn't all that helpful for me.

    This woman is quite good for beginners on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONcv50OoQYk

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