Last week, I struggled mightily with my longarm sewing machine.
I don’t know what the problem was. All I know is that the thread tension was bad, and it was impossible to fix. I was so upset, I even dreamed about it! It was the weirdest dream. First, I was a wigwam, then a teepee, back and forth, all night long.
I guess I was two tents.
Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Love that old joke. And I definitely was too tense.
I love my longarm sewing machine. But it’s a frustrating piece of equipment. It can be working just fine, and then, boom, out of the blue it gets cranky and won’t sew a decent stitch. Temperamental, I’d say. My husband might say it reminds him of a girl he knows…but let’s not go there.
The trouble is, I’m still new to longarm quilting. It’s difficult to know the difference between a mechanical problem and simple lack of experience.
But Stacey, you might be thinking, sewing machines are fairly simple – put thread in and go, right?
Sadly, no. The longarm is different than a domestic sewing machine. I can’t decide if it is a more sophisticated machine or a more primitive one, but I can safely say that it’s more complicated. On a domestic sewing machine, the top thread tension is controlled by the presser foot. Presser foot up releases the tension, presser foot down, thread is tensioned and ready to sew. Not so on the longarm, which has no presser foot. On a longarm, the top thread always has tension. Which means you have to adjust it as needed.
If you can’t get the thread tension adjusted (balanced), your stitches aren’t just ugly, they aren’t secure. So — tension is important. And a problem adjusting the tension could have any number of causes: lint in the bobbin, a poorly wound bobbin, a bad needle, a needle turned the wrong way, thread out of the guide, fabric pulled too tight, defective encoders…the list goes on and on.
It’s no wonder I’m too tense.
And so, last week I made a cup of tea and sat down in my comfy living room chair with my Longarm Quilter’s Guide to the Galaxy of Excellent Machine Quilting, looking for an answer to my tension problems. Using that trusty guidebook (never leave home without it), I quickly diagnosed my problem and toddled off to the sewing machine to get back to work.
Sorry, couldn’t resist another joke.
Of course, that book doesn’t exist. In fact, there are no guidebooks (that I’ve found) that help you with longarm quilting problems – unless your “problem” is picking a quilting design. It’s like when you watch House Hunters, and the folks buying the house are only worried about the paint color — they never ask about the huge crack in the foundation. Crazy. How can I worry about which pattern to stitch when my machine can’t make a good stitch? Foundations are important.
But – I can’t say there’s no help at all. There are a gazillion YouTube videos, blog posts, Facebook pages, and chat boards out there, and every longarmer with a media outlet has a different idea about how to fix your tension. Why no one wants to compile all that information into an awesome book is beyond me. Maybe I will someday.
But first, I had to figure out the cause of my current tension problem. Was it the wigwam or teepee?
Lacking a comprehensive guide book, fixing my tension problem meant a lot of internet research, shout outs to my Handi Quilter Facebook group (such a great bunch), and a LOT of trial and error. Two days later (!) I resolved the issue. I have no idea exactly what the problem was. All I know is that I adjusted about ten different things on my machine and quilt, and something (or some combination of things) worked. The good news is that the fix didn’t require a service call from my local quilt shop.
If you, by chance, have found this blog post in your own search of tension solutions, here is a list of adjustments to try when your tension is a mess. I’ve listed them in order of what I think was most likely the culprit – and included some links to articles and videos on the web. Good luck!
- Loosen up the quilt. Keep it a bit looser than you think it should be. The longarm frame can stretch the fabric too tight, causing poor stitches and bad tension. If you are trying to keep the quilt perfectly flat, it’s probably stretched too tight. APQS has a great blog post on tension that says “When you move the quilting machine around on the fabric, your machine’s throat should look like a “mole” crawling underground.” I take that to mean you should see a hillock – a hump in the fabric as the machine moves. If the quilt is too tight, you won’t see that.
- Change the needle. Even if you did, just five minutes ago. Seriously. There could be a small imperfection – a slight bend or burr that is throwing things off. And while you’re at it…
- Use a larger needle. Size 18 works best for me, on most fabrics. It makes a slightly bigger hole for the thread, so you get less shredding and fewer skipped stitches.
- Change the bobbin. I use a lot of pre-wound bobbins. Usually they work better for me, but once in a while I get a dud. Before you tinker with the bobbin tension, trade out the bobbin and see if that helps. If a new pre-wound doesn’t help, wind your own and try that.
- Re-thread the machine, exactly the way the manual says. No skipping holes or double wrapping the tension disks.
- Beware jumping thread. Thread being pulled through the machine at high speed can, and will, jump out of the thread guides occasionally. You can feel, and sometimes hear a difference in the machine when this happens – the thread feels like it’s yanking or holding you back. If you feel it, stop fast, and get the thread back where it belongs and you might be able to save your stitches.
- Need more help? Handi Quilter has two excellent videos on tension: Common Tension Issues and TNT (Thread, Needles, and Tension).
For general fixing of any quilt problems, I recommend two blogs that I’ve discovered in the past week. Both of the writers are good candidates to author the Longarm Quilter’s Guide to the Galaxy of Excellent Machine Quilting:
- Carole Carter at From My Carolina Home. I’ve emailed with her (she’s super) and bookmarked several of her posts. If you are a new quilter, you’ll want to check her out – especially her Fixing Quilt Problems page. She helps you understand the foundations of good piecing and quilting, and she’s responsive – ask a question, and you’ll get an answer. I love that.
- Kim Brunner at Kimmyquilt is a Handi Quilter educator. She has two videos that no longarm quilter should miss: Straighten Up! and Stabilize, Straighten, and Stitch. You can also find printed versions of these lessons (and many more) on her website.
I hope some of this will help you get out of the wigwam and/or teepee and back to quilting. If not, well – I hope you at least know that you aren’t alone.