How to Fix Tension on Your Sewing Machine

3:53 PM

Check out Sewing School's post on tension
Hi Everyone!  If your following this class, good to see you back again.  If your new welcome to the class! If you need to catch up you can see at the bottom of this post or click here to what our prior lessons were if you need to catch up  Today we are going to learn how to fix tension on your sewing machine.

Having proper tension on your sewing machine is very important because it ensures that your stitching will be even and look the same on both sides.  It also helps to ensure that your thread will flow easily (tension that is to tight can stop thread from moving as you sew) as you sew. 

Tension is what keeps your bottom and top stitches in equal tension with one another.  Or in other words what keeps your front and back stitches looking the same.  If both your top and back stitches don't look the same it may be due to your tension not being right either on the top or bottom.  Both the top and bottom tension must work together.
Threads Magazine has a great tension guide: notice where the tension points are

How Do You Know If Your Tension Is the Problem?

If your stitches look perfect and your sewing machine is sewing great, do not touch your tension knobs!  However if your follow the below check list from Threads Magazine and it's still not right, I would suggest starting to try adjusting your tension slowly using a test scrap piece of fabric (never your project)! 

Please Check the Following Before Touching your Tension Dial
    • A drop of oil has been added to the hook area (when applicable).
    • The correct presser foot is attached for the technique and fabric.
    • Incorrectly threaded machine:  Did you use all thread guides? Did you thread with the presser foot down,which would keep the thread from slipping fully between tension discs? Is thread unwinding freely from the spool, or catching on the spool’s slash? Are you using a bobbin as a spool (which can interfere with the thread flow)? Is the bobbin inserted correctly?
    • Dirty machine: Lint and thread ends lodged between the tension discs, under the throat plate, or around the bobbin case and bobbin, increase the resistance and restrict the thread flow. “Floss” between the tension discs with a lightweight, lint-free cloth, and check in the bobbin area for thread ends and lint.
    • Damaged machine parts: Bent needles and bobbins, and rough or damaged surfaces on the needle eyes, thread guides, tension discs, take-up lever, throat plate, presser foot, bobbin case, and in the bobbin area can all cause problems. If you drop a metal bobbin on a hard floor, throw it away, even if it looks fine; the smallest damage can distort tension. Avoid damage to the bobbin-tension spring by cutting the thread close to the case before removing the bobbin. Raise the presser foot before removing thread from the upper tension.
    • Needles, threads, and fabrics: Different thread sizes and types on top and in the bobbin can throw off basic tension settings. A needle that’s too large or small for the thread can also unbalance your stitches, because the size of the hole adds to or reduces the total top tension. If you find that you’re getting puckers on lightweight fabrics try changing to a straight-stitch foot and needle plate, and shorten the stitch length to 1.75 mm (15 sts/in.), before you reach for those tension dials. 
    How do You Fix You Tension?
    Tension is like a game of tug of war.  When both sides are equal neither sides are winning.  When one side is winning and one is losing your tension is off.   The key to finding out which way to turn your tension dial is to find out what side is winning and losing.  Is your top thread loose and bottom too tight?  Or is your top thread tight and your bottom loose?  One way that makes this easy to tell is to use a light coloured piece of fabric to test with two different colour threads that will show nicely against one another. The below graphics I think are a great way of illustrating this tug of war.  I would actually suggest printing the below picture and keeping it with your sewing machine for a quick reference.  Trust me it will come in handy!

    Love this graphic showing how tension works from Superior Threads
    Here's another great graphic showing tension.  Image is from Kite Sewing 101

    In order to understand tension you need to understand which way it is off.  I have found that understanding it is the best way to learn this.  If you look at the illustrations above and think it out I'm sure you will understand which way you need to adjust your tension. 

    If you look at the above graphic you can see illustration number 1 (far left) shows a fabric sample that shows the top thread on the bottom, unlike the perfect tension in illustration 3 (the far right).  This means that the top tension is to loose and the bottom to tight.  In illustartion number two there is the opposite problem.

    How Do You Increase or Decrease Your Tension

    So now that you know how to determine which thread is tight and which is loose how do you adjust it?

    How to Adjust Top Tension
    First you need to find your tension regulating dial (see illustration of sewing machine above).  It will be in a different place on every machine so if your not sure which knob it is, check your sewing machine manual.  If you do not have a manual it will be the knob with numbers on it that does not change your type of stitches or length.

    If Your Top Tension is to Loose
    To increase your top tension (if your top tension is loose) turn your knob so that the numbers are increasing.  Try 1/2 to one number lower, then test on a light piece of scrap fabric with a different colour thread top and bottom.  Continue until it looks even on both sides and you can no longer see the bottom thread on the top.  If you seem unable to do this keep it where it is closet to balanced and proceed to how to adjust your bobbin tension below.

    If Your Top Tension is to Tight
    To decrease your top tension (if your top tension is tight) turn your knob so that the numbers are decreasing.  Try 1/2 to one number lower, then test on a light piece of scrap fabric with a different colour thread top and bottom.  Continue until it looks even on both sides and you can no longer see the bottom thread on the top.  If you seem unable to do this keep it where it is closet to balanced and proceed to how to adjust your bobbin tension below.

    How to Adjust Your Bobbin Tension (Your Lower Thread Tension)
    You should always try to adjust with your top tension first if possible.  You should not need to adjust your bobbin tension unless you are using a heavier or lighter thread than usual.  Heavier fabric needs more tension (turn the dial to a higher number) and lighter fabric less tension (turn the dial to a lower number).  According to Mainely Sewing Machines too many adjustments with the screw in the bobbin could make it loosen it's grip.

    Every machine will have either a top loading drop in bobbin, or bottom loading with a bobbin case (the sewing machine pictured above has a bottom loading case).  The below picture shows how to adjust the tension by tightening or loosening the bobbin case screw.

    Here are a few things to keep in mind to trouble shoot before adjusting your bobbin tension. 
    • Is your bobbin winded right?  Meaning is it would too loose and loopy or to tight?  
    • Do you have the right bobbin for your machine?
    • Has your bobbin case fallen on the floor?  If so it might be damaged and therefore affecting the tension.
    Check out these great videos to see how to adjust tension on your sewing machine.  Sometimes it just helps to watch someone. :)

    How to Adjust Tension | Sewing Machine How Cast (4 min)
    This is a great quick video about how to adjust upper thread tension

    Sewing Machine Thread Tension - Updated Professor Pincushion (9 min)
    This is a VERY through explanation of adjusting top and bottom tension (bottom loading only) 

    Bottom Loading Bobbins
    One simple way to test if you need to adjust your bobbin tension if you have a bottom loading bobbin is to take the thread hanging from your bobbin case (if you don't have a bobbin case you have a front loading bobbin).  If the thread unwinds and the bobbin drops a few inches, your tension is perfect. If the thread doesn’t unwind at all, your tension is too tight and will need to be loosened. If the thread unwinds with no effort and the bobbin drops easily, your tension is too loose and you’ll need to tighten it. Use a tiny screwdriver and turn the screw on the side of the bobbin case by 1/4 turn. As seen in the illustration below the good old righty tighty lefty loosey applies here.  Test the tension again. Repeat until the thread only drops a few inches.
    image via singer
    Top Loading Bobbin
     Below is a picture of a top loading bobbin case.  For how to adjust tension on a sewing machine like this (top loading) in the video below.

    Top Loading Thimble: image via Yesterday's Thimble
    Check out the video below to learn how to adjust tension in top and bottom loading sewing machines.  She describes everything great and is very to the point!

    Top and Front Load Bobbin Explained (5 min)

    Here is a great pdf on tension from the University of Kentucky.  I suggest that you print this and keep it with your sewing machine for a quick reference.

    Found This Post Because You are Having Problems With You Machine? 
    Since starting this sewing school I have had many people trying to ask my questions about problems with their sewing machines. I will not answer any specific answers to your machine questions beyond this so please don't ask.  Here is my general advice: "Have you read the above my article and applied what you learned? If not try that. If your machine is still not working check out my troubleshooting guide, also check your sewing machine manual which usually while have a troubleshooting guide as well.  If this does not work you can try a sewing forum such as Threads magazine's or try a search online describing your problem.  If this all fails you need to take your machine in to be repaired, unfortunately sometimes you just have to.   

    With a white piece of fabric and two different colored threads sew a straight line and look at it compared to the tug of war pictures in this lesson.  How does your tension look?  If it is not perfect work until you can achieve perfect balance (neither top nor bottom is tugging more than the other). 

    Next Lesson: How to Read a Pattern Envelope ©Oh You Crafty Gal! All rights reserved.

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    1. I love the graphics! I've been sewing forever and still occasionally have problems with tension, like everyone else... Thank you for sharing!

    2. Thank you! Your bobbin testing trick finally ended my hour of frustration!

    3. Do you have any other suggestions? I have tried to fix both tensions and my bottom thread looks ok but the top thread literally looks like a straight line with little loops over it. It appears to be tight. But it is definitely not a pretty straight stitch...

      1. The answer is in my lesson. Look over the graphic of the stick figures playing tug of war and think about which one looks like your seam. I'd tell you more specifically but I think it's better to learn the concept of tension and the only way to learn is to figure out by looking at the seam if the top tension is to tight or loose. Understanding tension is in my book one of the top 3 most important things to learn about your sewing machine. Hope this helps!

    4. Hi! I'm loving your easy-to-follow sewing instructions! I just started yesterday and can't stop, already here on lesson 10! Question: When you say to add oil to the hook area before messing with your tension dial, what are you referring to? Where is the hook area? Thanks! This is so great!

      1. Hi Liz. I'm glad you are enjoying my lessons. I just logged on to contemplate my next lesson so be sure to follow or check back for that since you're already done with all of them. The part that mentions oiling the hook area was copied from Threads Magazine. It is a trouble shooting guide for when things are going wrong with your machine, so that you make sure it is in fact your tension that is off before you mess with it. The hook refers to your bobbin case area, so just make sure you oil that along with the rest of your machine regularly. Check out the video how to care for your machine on my site if your not sure how to do that. Hope this helps!

    5. I'm a bit confused in the section on how to increase or decrease tension. I think the second option is supposed to say, if your top tension is too tight. But if so, isn't that the opposite? Based on your tug-of-war illustration, aren't you supposed to decrease your number to loosen top tension and increase your number to tighten top tension? So much to remember!! Thanks for any guidance!

      1. Hi Liz, Sorry to confuse you. I double checked this post and I believe I had a few typos (which I have now fixed). To increase tension you turn the dial higher, to decrease tension you turn the dial to lower numbers, like in the tug of war graphic. I double checked on my machine because you can actually see the tension disc move while you move the dial. Thanks for the feedback to help make my lessons easier for others to understand! :)

      2. Thank you so much for the response. And thank you for all you do! This site is great, keep it up!

    6. Hi, your post is really helpful, but I'm still struggling! My tension seems to change whilst I am sewing - it starts out fine and then gets looser and looser (top thread so I don't notice until I've finished and check the bottom) until the bottom thread is literally sitting flat on the surface with big loops coming through. No amount of adjustment seems to work. The machine has been back to Brother and also for a service and when it comes back it is fine for a bit and then the problem happens again. Really frustrated and can't figure out if I'm doing something wrong (threading and bobbin all seem okay) or if I just have a dodgy machine. Surely if I'd got something wrong it would be wrong from the start, not get worse as I sew?? Help!!M

      1. While tension can be off from small reasons like the wrong thread or a different fabric weight, the fact that it is starting off fine and then not working would lead me to think it is likely something wrong with your machine. Please keep in mind I'm not a sewing machine repair person, so I could be wrong. That is just my best guess. I would bring in your machine to a repair place that does it in house so you can actually talk to the person, rather than sending it out. Have them show you what is actually wrong. Also I would look to see if when you had it fixed before if you receipt or anything said what was wring with it. Hope this helps!

    7. So useful! I just hit a snag in the middle of a project and found this. I had to scrap what I was working on before, but actually fixed the problem so the second one came out without a hitch. Thanks!

    8. The most helpful information in the history of ever! Thanks for making it simple and stuff! :)

    9. Please,I appreciate what you teaching. Finally,I can talk to someone.I have been using this sewing machine for months now and it jus suddenly stopped sewing on fabrics. Its running well but at the end of a sewing pattern,i realised have jus been exercising my thighs and nothing done on the fabric...what do I do please.thanks

      1. If your machine is sewing but you could just pull the sewing out, it could be your tension. If it is sewing but doesn't form any stitches you could just be out of bobbin thread, check that first. If your machine is not sewing or the above suggestions don't work check out my troubleshooting guide , also your sewing machine manual usually while have a troubleshooting guide as well. Hope this helps!

    10. Hi Julie! I am going crazy! I have been sewing like a madwoman the last couple of days and all of a sudden my machine is messing up. The bottom stitch is very loopy and using about 5 times the thread it should. I have tried everything! What could be the problem? Thank you for your time.

      1. Hi Denise. Have you read my article and applied what you learned? If not try that. If your machine is still not working check out my troubleshooting guide, also your sewing machine manual usually while have a troubleshooting guide as well. Hope this helps!

    11. THANK YOU, you just saved my cosplay project, because my bobby-bin was to loose, i had no idea about tiny screw having such big effect on overall seam.

    12. Help. My thread keeps breaking. Sometimes it breaks on the first stitch & sometimes it will take 5-10 stitches before it breaks. It keeps getting stuck in the top tension knob--even if I have the tension turned to "0". I cleaned and oiled my machine and I still can't get it to work. I'm not a sewer--just use my machine for mending and minor things. I don't have a repair store nearby, so I'm trying to find a solution myself. Any suggestions?

      1. Look at my response to Denise. If this doesn't help you will need to have it repaired.

    13. Congratulations, what an informative and helpful article for all - from beginner to advanced. Love that you've covered the basics and have great diagrams.

    14. hello i was searching for tips on tension i have a new home sewing machine and can never get the top and bottom stitches the same. so looking for tips this website is amazing so full of info etc thanks.

    15. Hi!
      Sorry if this went through twice - it didn't tell me if my comment posted.

      I was wondering if the wrong tension can compromise the integrity of the stitching? IE fall apart quicker. Or does it just look bad? Of course the goal is to get the stitching perfect. I was just curious.


      1. Yes Taylor incorrect tension can cause your seam/ stitching to fall apart if it is very off.

    16. The one thing you don't mention is the AGE of the thread. There is such a thing as thread that's been sitting in a place that's too damp or too hot. Thread DOES age! If you take some thread and wrap some between your fingers of your opposing hands and pull, as if you're going to floss say, and it breaks easily, you might have thread that's too old or fragile with which to sew. At least that's what my seamstress Nanny taught me. Was she wrong? She'd actually throw out spools of thread if she tried this through several lengths of a spool and it broke through.

    17. Hi
      I have been sewing since a longtime. But now I've bought a new sewing machine from Brothers. Now the problem is with the stitches. I read your page thoroughly , made changes in the machine accordingly but nothing has happened. Still the stitches has loops on the wrong side. Please help me out.

      1. Hi Nitika. Please read the section "Found This Post Because You are Having Problems With You Machine?" in this post. This should answer your question.


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