figuring out top thread tension!!!
Here is the answer. Are you ready for this? Are you absolutely sure? Here it is in southern terms. THERE AIN’T
NO WAY! It’s what some call a black art that only the original prophets with their miracle working and hands on ousting of the tension demons could ever hope to fight and conquer. Feel any better yet? Don’t let it worry you. Read on and I will explain why.
In my last article I wrote “Excessive top thread tension can increase the gap while you are pushing your machine backwards (toward the pantograph area). To achieve the optimum stitch, run the least amount of tension on the top and bottom thread. This is an article in itself and will be discussed in more depth in the future.” Well, this is the future. At least it was until you started reading which makes it the present doesn’t it. If you were in
Australia, you would be in tomorrow which would make it your future present. If they were here, they would have already read it tomorrow which would make it their past future. If you understand this, then top tension is a no brainer for you and this article will make a great liner for the bird cage or to house train a new puppy. If not, continue on and we will discuss the issues of tension.
Tension in general is probably the least understood of any of the adjustments on your machine. What is tension used for and why is it important? Strange you should ask. Most people think that tension is used to pull the fabric backing and top together through the fiber fill. The more tension applied, the tighter the top and backing are pulled together and the better the sewing. WRONG!! This is the end result, not the purpose. The purpose of tension is to hold the fabric together closely after it is compressed, not pull it together. Pulling it together will cause too much stress on the thread and make it break or shear. It is sort of like trying to tie your shoes without pulling the slack through the holes first. You just end up with a mess and possibly breaking your shoe laces if they are weak. It’s just not how a regular sewing machine was designed to work or how you are supposed to lace your shoes.
So whuz up with tension and why can’t I keep it consistent? Oh boy, how do I say this without getting 2 million death threats? Ah heck, I’ll just say it. All of the Longarm machines are designed to pull tension wrong. WHAT??? Yes sir, I said it. They are all wrong. Don’t believe me do you? Well, try this. Turn your machine by hand as if you are sewing a stitch and watch the foot in relation to the needle. Is there ever a time when the needle is in the fabric and the foot isn’t holding the fabric. In other words, the foot is traveling up while the needle is in the fabric. You betcha it is. Sounds like trying to tie your shoes without pulling up the slack doesn’t it? Well, that’s what it’s doing. That is why it is so hard to keep your tension the same, not because you have a temperamental machine, you just have one of the many machines designed to do something it wasn’t meant to do. Now do you feel better. You should because it’s not your fault. It just the nature of the beast.
Let me explain how a machine is supposed to operate. The fabrics and fiber fill are between the presser foot and the throat plate (plate with the hole the needle goes through). The presser foot goes down ahead of the needle to press together the materials. While the materials are pressed together, the needle goes through and back out forming a knot or stitch. After the needle exits the materials, the foot begins it movement up to release the pressure. At this point the tension is used to hold the knot or stitch in place, sort of like having someone put there finger in the middle of a bow to help you tie it. The thicker the materials, the greater the tension needed to hold them together. Now do you see how the tension is not to pull the materials together, but simply to hold them together. Cool, huh? I think so.
Soooooo, here are some things that may help in your venture to perfect tension.
1) Lower your foot so that it compresses your fabric the most without putting your machine in a bind. Most of the motors used on the Longarm machines are very small (not powerful enough) and will bind or run hot if they are put into a bind, so you don’t want to do that. Also if the foot is too close to the throat plate, it will cause your machine motion to feel tight or less easy to push. This will cause you to flatten out round movements. Not too good for a cloud pattern.
2) Use a consistent and good grade of fiberfill. Consistent refers to the thickness of the material. If it varies in thickness, it will cause your tension to vary and possibly cause your motor to heat up. It is true that you get what you pay for.
3) Use a consistent and good grade of thread. Consistent refers to the linearity of the thread. If your thread varies in thickness, it will cause your tension to vary and possibly cause it to break. Look at your thread under a magnifying glass, preferably 15x or more and see if you see any thickness changes and/or bumps (yarn bunnies) in it. There will always be some variance, but make sure it is not greater than 1/5 the thickness of the thread larger or smaller.
4) Use the largest needle possible. The thicker the thread or the more inconsistent the thread, the larger the needle. This gives more room for the thread to move through the needle because the larger the needle, the larger the hole. Remember that the tension is measured by how hard it is to pull through the needle, not the tensioner.
5) Make sure that your thread path through the machine is flowing and not making sharp turns or moving across sharp corners. The more even and rounded the turns the thread makes, the more consistent the tension. Some people wrap their thread around and through the thread guides. I have never been a real fan of this because it’s just too tight a radius and too sharp of a circular movement. Some threads don’t bend the same and are wound (twisted) tighter than others. This circular movement tends to screw the thread around the thread guide and tighten it to the guide. The more twist, the tighter it will get and the tighter your thread tension will be.
6) The use of silicone will affect tension sometimes. Silicone on your thread will decrease the drag of the thread through the thread guides and the needle thus decreasing the tension on the thread. However, if you are using a rotary tensioner, you may want to refrain from using silicone as it decreases the friction needed to turn the wheel. You may find that your thread slides around the tension wheel instead of turning it. If so, wrap the thread once or twice more around the tension wheel to increase the friction. If that doesn’t work, you will need to stop using silicone.
7) Sometimes it is better to use a tensioner with plates instead of the rotary tensioner. The only problem is if you are using a bumpy thread, your tension consistency will be harder to maintain. You should use a high grade of thread , at least on a Longarm, when you use a tensioner with plates.
Tension is just a tricky subject. Tension itself is the reason most machines don’t sew well. Everyone keeps trying to time their machines and adjust the hook and the spacing and the height of the needle and this thing and that thing and scooby dooby dooby when really all they probably needed was a little tension adjustment. I tell all our customers that if the machine is picking up the thread, chances are it is timed right. SO QUIT MESSING WITH THE HOOK!!! Adjust your tension first and see what happens. It won’t work the first time or maybe not the second, but just stay at it.
My advice is to get it in your head that tension will totally frustrate you, it will take years off your life, and fry your brain. After absorbing that, get back to tweeking the tension and keep on quilting. Maybe next time we’ll talk about bottom tension. It’s really fun. Ha ha.
Let me know if I can be of any assistance in the future. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time, quilt like there’s no tomorrow.