Many times, when a machine is having trouble with its stitch quality, people think they need to adjust the top tension on their sewing machine. They are sure that will make everything better. Before you reach for the tension dial, let me give you some things to check first that you may not have thought about.
First and foremost, make sure you have threaded your machine properly. I know it sounds like a “no brainer” but I can’t tell you the number of times a machine has had a problem and the owner swore the machine was threaded correctly only to discover it was not. The bobbin tension and upper thread tension work as a team to create the stitch and if one of those team members is not in the correct position, things are not going to get better the longer you sew! Even if you think all is well, but there is a stitch quality problem, take out the bobbin and top thread and start again. A bobbin that is in backwards will produce some pretty strange results and even skipping one area in the upper thread path will cause chaos for your machine.
In my experience, the needle causes more than its fair share of issues in the sewing machine. A dull, bent or burred needle can cause a whole plethora of issues that changing tensions just will not fix. I start every project with a new needle, no exceptions. A new needle is about $1.00. My project material, time and energy are worth much more to me than that. Even if I have just replaced the needle with a brand new one and it causes me trouble: out she goes! For this reason, I tend to use regular universal needles for my everyday sewing. They are reasonably priced and tend to last about six to eight hours, which is about what my project tends to need. Remember, that six to eight hours is actual sewing time, not the amount of time the machine is turned on or the time it takes you to finish a project. A project that requires a lot of detail work can actually have a surprisingly small amount of machine time. If you have a machine that allows you to track your time, set the timer and see what I mean (you will find this in the Settings Menu if your machine has this capability).
Next, make sure you are using a good quality thread. Less expensive threads tend to have irregular areas or small “nubs” in the thread that create problems as they go through the tension disks. The type of thread; be it cotton, polyester, a combination thread or a specialty thread, doesn’t really matter. What matters is the quality. If you got a great deal on thread and paid only $1.00-$2.00 per spool, you can just assume that you did not really get as great a deal as you may think. Some bargin threads may not even be able to go through a machine’s tension disks without breaking due to their lack of strength. Just ask me how I know this! Once you understand value versus price, you will steer clear of the bargin threads and only use high quality thread for your projects.
Lastly, make sure your presser foot pressure is correctly set for the material you are using. Having the pressure too high can cause the fabric to feed too slowly and having the pressure too loose can cause the fabric to barely feed at all. If you have a Husqvarna Viking, make sure you refer to the Sewing Advisor for all the correct settings. If you have a Pfaff, you can check your machine under “i” for information. Other makes of machines will usually have some type of information in the owner’s manual to help sort out the best presser foot pressure for the type of material you are using.
I hope these ideas are of help to you the next time you feel you need to reach for the tension dial on your machine. If you really do have a tension issue, head on over to Sewing Mastery and look up your machine to see if Sarah Snuggerud has a video showing what you need to do. This particular video comes from the series for the Pfaff Performance 5.2.