“Sewing Machines and Top Thread Tension”

For many years, I just didn’t understand the role of tension on a sewing machine.  If my stitches looked good, I was happy and if my stitches didn’t look good, or if my thread started to “nest” I thought there was something wrong with my machine.  Now that I better understand machine thread tension I’d like to pass that understanding along to you.

First of all, whenever you begin to sew on your machine, no matter what machine you own, please remember to hold the threads!  You may hold them with your hands  or under the presser foot of the machine, but there needs to be some tension on the thread as it starts to create a stitch.  If you neglect this step, chances are you will have a “bird’s nest” of thread on the back side of your fabric.  Second, you will want to make sure you have threaded the top thread properly through your machine.  This video may help to explain the importance of this step!

Lastly, understand that even though top thread tension is referred to in terms of “tight” and “loose”, it may help to think more about where the thread is being placed during the stitch.  Correct tension balances the top thread and bobbin thread so an equal amount of each shows on the front and the back of your fabric.  This is referred to as the stitches being balanced.  Increasing top thread tension brings more bobbin thread to the top of your fabric and decreasing the top thread tension takes more top thread to the back of your fabric.  If you think in those terms, you may begin to look at top thread tension in a whole new way.  This video may help to show what happens as you adjust the top thread tension. The principles are the same, whether your machine is an entry model or a top of the line machine.  Where do you adjust the top tension on your machine?  For mechanical models, there is usually a dial at the top or on the front of your machine and for computerized machines, the top tension adjustment is usually found in the “Set Menu”.

“It’s the Little Things…”

I have been sewing for a very long time.  Because of that fact, I often take for granted the amount of “little things” I have learned from all of my fabulous teachers:  family, friends, sewing programs, other sewers, etc.  Sometimes knowing some little things can make all the difference between a successful project and one for which you may not be extremely proud.  One of those little things that may be helpful to know is how fabric is displayed in stores.  Quilting fabric is almost always displayed on the bolt with the right side of the fabric showing.  The fabric is folded wrong sides together and then wound on the bolt so the customer can see clearly how the material looks and how it may coordinate with other fabrics for the project.  Pre-cut fabrics follow the same rule, being folded with the right side out to clearly show how the fabric looks.  This is a very appealing way to display fabric and gives the customer colorful eye candy to browse in each aisle.  While quilters are most focused on colors and prints, garment sewers have the added interest of how the fabric will drape when worn on the body.  For this reason, most fabrics used for garment construction are folded with right sides together, having the wrong side showing when wound on the bolt.  There is an added step to their display with the fabric being turned to the right side and then draped over the end of the bolt.  As a customer goes down each aisle, the right side of the fabric can be seen as well as the drape of the fabric. In the case of knit and fleece fabrics, both right and wrong sides usually look exactly the same.   To tell the difference, take a small piece of fabric along one cut edge and slightly stretch the fabric in the crosswise direction.  The fabric will roll towards the wrong side of the goods.   Another category of little things involves cutting out a garment pattern.  Grain is very important to the drape of a garment once it’s finished.   This step cannot be overlooked if you would like your garment to be pleasing to look at and comfortable to wear.  The best way I have found to insure the accuracy of grain placement is to measure from the grain line on the pattern to a reliable spot off the fold of the fabric.  In this example, two measurements have been taken from the grain line to the fold in two different places along the line:  both measuring 8 inches from the printed line on the pattern.

   If this measurement is the same in at least two places, you can be sure the fabric will be cut accurately on the grain line.  Lastly, you will notice my pins are running parallel to the edge of the paper pattern pieces.    When cutting around fabric pieces, pins are always running parallel to the scissors.  When sewing, on the other hand, pins are placed perpendicular to the edge of the fabric.    Pinning perpendicular to the cut edge allows easy removal of those pins as they go through the sewing machine.

I hope these “little things” prove helpful and I hope you have fun creating something special this week.

“‘Tis The Season for Felting!”

I have such fun felting on my machine with the Felting Embroidery Set.  Although felting can be done using almost any weight of material, it is usually most closely associated with woolens, roving, etc. and cooler weather.  Felting is a process where materials or threads are meshed together rather than sewn together by using barbed needles.  The threads become a part of each other, creating beautiful new fabric.  Felting can be done on a fabric or can be done as a free-standing form.  Felting on the back of plain denim using only the denim itself, for example, gives a beautiful white design on the front of the denim.  Felting on the back of a sweat shirt brings the color of the fleece side to the front.  Free-standing felting is usually done using wool roving, creating shapes for home décor or 3D accents on flat surfaces.  There are felting machines that have multiple needles, there are sets such as are available for Husqvarna Viking and Pfaff machines and there are hand felting accessories available.  Felting is even a wonderful tool for creating texture in quilting fabrics to add variety and uniqueness to quilt blocks!  For a few examples of this art form, take a look at this Husqvarna Viking blog link.  The YouTube link is a demonstration of the Felting Embroidery Set for the Husqvarna Viking, but the set up and use is exactly the same on the Pfaff machines.

“Flat Construction Sleeves”

Last week I had just starting making a fleece top for the cooler fall evenings. Today was the day to finish everything, starting with inserting the sleeves.   If you have always inserted sleeves by using a set-in method, I encourage you to try set­-in sleeves using a flat construction method. As explained in the pattern, the sleeves are sewn in before the side seams are sewn.   I now always use this method, whether called for in the pattern or not, if the sleeve requires ease but no gathering. I remove my Interchangeable Dual Feed foot and replace it with my Clear Seam Guide foot.  I then, increase my presser foot pressure from 3.0 to 3.5.   (If you are using a Pfaff machine, you would disengage the IDT system and increase the presser foot pressure up one half step). When inserting the sleeves, you will want to have the sleeve on the bottom, closest to the feed teeth. The feed teeth will ease in the extra fabric for you and, without the dual feed, will allow you to ease the sleeve without using any extra gathering stitches. Before sewing the sleeves, remember to press up the hems!  After inserting both sleeves, you will have sleeves that have been eased in with no gathers or tucks in sight!  I then change my presser foot ankle from a Husqvarna Viking ankle to a Pfaff ankle so I can use their Knit Edge foot  to create perfect topstitching on the sleeve seams.  Make sure you have pressed in the hem for the bottom of the garment and then sew the side seams from the hem up the body of the garment and through to the wrist.  After the sleeves are in, finish the hems and you are done!


“Fleece Tips”

With these first days of nippy weather, I decided to start making a fleece top to keep warm. Fleece is such a forgiving fabric with which to work that it is a favorite of novice and experienced sewers alike. I thought I would share with you the machine settings I use to make sewing this fabric a joy. First, I use my Interchangeable Dual Feed  with the Open Toe Foot

This allows me to sew multiple layers for my seams and see clearly where I am stitching. (If you own a Pfaff machine, you would want to use the IDT System with the “Sewing Star Foot for IDT”, allowing excellent visibility.) 

I set my presser foot pressure to 3 and I use a 90/14 Schmetz Stretch needle. My seams are sewn using a straight stitch set between 3.0 and 3.5, depending on the seam I am sewing and I use my Clover clips instead of pins to keep the fabric flat while still being secured.  Again, the different sized clips are used according to the seam I am sewing. Topstitching is kept to a minimum so as not to crush the loft of the garment. None of the seams need to be finished on the inside of the garment since fleece does not fray. Finally, I will use a 4.0 to 4.5 stitch length for my hems to allow the fleece a small amount of room to stretch at the bottom edges. There you have it! I hope you sew something with fleece this fall.

“Included Accessory”

Many times, in the excitement of unboxing a new machine, customers skim over their manual’s description of included accessories. They know the accessories they want to use and they focus on those. Many don’t realize there is a very simple yet valuable tool included in the accessories of almost every machine, even their older, possibly inherited machines. That tool is the Edge/Quilting guide.  Most machines will come with one guide and some machines come with more (this is true with Husqvarna Viking machines that come with the Interchangeable Dual Feed Foot as an included accessory).  I have both an older Husqvarna Viking machine  and a newer machine  and both included this valuable accessory. This guide can be used to sew equidistant lines for quilting, topstitching, garment sewing, home décor, etc. It is especially helpful when you require rows of stitching that are greater than the normal seam allowances. Both older and newer machines use this accessory equally well, with how it attaches to the machine being the only difference. My 1994 machine uses the guide attached with a screw that fits into a slot on the ankle’s back.

  The large screw is tightened against the bar of the quilting guide to hold it in place. On my newer machine, the guide also attaches on the back of the ankle, just in a slightly different way.

      The Interchangeable Dual Feed foot that came with my machine uses two guides: one that rides to the right of the presser foot   and one that rides to the left of the presser foot. 

These guides attach, again, behind the foot, but instead of using a screw to hold them steady, the foot has a slot into which they rest snugly.     On all machines, all makes and models that use this type of guide bar, these guides can be used for both straight stitching and decorative stitching. They are perfect to use for any project which requires equidistant rows of stitching or stitching that is needed at a particular distance from the edge of the fabric. One suggestion when setting the distance for the foot: after setting the desired distance, lower the presser foot so the Edge/Quilting guide is touching the needle plate before you tighten the holding screw. 

If you do this when securing the guide, the guide’s position will generally not change as you raise and lower the foot or as your fabric moves over the feed teeth.

“Metal Hoop Know-how”

It was great to see so many of our customers at the Quilt and Sewing Expo in Fredericksburg this past week! Many of you came by and shared pictures of your current projects and of events important in your life. Some of you purchased one or more of the metal hoops for your embroidery machine, so I thought I would share with you some resources for using them. I love my metal hoops and use them often. I find them most useful when adding embroidery to pre-sewn items such as towels, tote bags and ready to wear clothing (in the embroidery world these items are known as blanks). I also use them when adding embroidered quilting designs to the quilt sandwich.  Basically, anywhere I find a traditional hooping difficult, I use my metal hoops. I do not tend to embroider designs with an extremely high stitch count, but for designs that are not overly dense, my metal hoops are perfect. If you would like to watch a how-to video on the use of the metal hoop, please follow the links below. Both videos show some interesting projects, so if you have time, you may want to view both. Husqvarna Viking                                 Pfaff

“Flat Felled Seams”

I am making a long vest for the coming fall season and one of the steps requires me to make a flat felled seam. Since I will be making this seam in the neck area of the vest, I thought I would simply use flat felled seams as a design element in the rest of the vest. Flat felled seams are the type of construction elements used in jeans jackets and on the outside leg seams of a pair of jeans. They are also known as French Seams and are found on high end men’s dress shirts. Many sewing machine manufacturers have a foot that can be very helpful with this technique. Some of you may even have one of these feet in your accessory box and simply have not known what to do with it. Flat felled seams allow you to have no raw edges; neither on the wrong side nor the right side of the project. They are excellent for materials that are prone to fraying such as linens, tweeds and other woven materials. These feet come in different sizes depending upon what size felling you are using.   Pfaff has two sizes of felling feet,

and Husqvarna Viking has one size.   (In each picture, you see the foot and the ankle that is used with it, included for those of you who have purchased two different ankles for your machine.)

In case you have never used one of these feet or in case you need a refresher on its use, I have included links to two how-to videos that you may find helpful.

Pfaff.                          Husqvarna Viking                                                                                  Happy sewing!

“Pressing Curves”

My sewing is very eclectic. Because my sewing is so eclectic, so too is my collection of sewing tools: I have countless rulers, types of scissors, clips, pins, blocking mats, etc.   You name it, I probably have it. There is one tool in my collection that, I believe, is a must if you will be working on any type of projects that involve sewing curves. That tool is a pressing ham. I have two, actually. Each one has different curves available to handle anything on which I might be working. Since I like to use all the different curves and surfaces of the hams, I also have a stand into which they both will fit.

A pressing ham allows the pressing of curved seams without creating creases, as would happen if you pressed curved seams on a flat ironing surface.

Usually there is a wool side to the ham and a cotton side, allowing different amounts of steam and temperature to penetrate the fabric for your project. Since the ham is usually filled with sawdust or an equivalent material, you are able to pin directly into the ham, fixing your curve directly to the surface of the tool.

This makes it great for working with anything on the bias too (such as this jacket’s curved back neck).


Though this tool is used most often by garment sewers, I have also used it in home décor and quilting: anywhere I have needed to press a curved seam. I even use it to press flat seams that become curved when they drape over the body, such as those for darts.

By the way, I am all for saving money, but this tool should be one of quality. The two hams I use have been with me for over 30 years and have been used countless times, but are both in excellent condition. If you buy quality here, you will probably never have to replace it.

“The Look of Hand Quilting”

Newer sewing machines have so many unique stitches for quilting. As you explore the ones on your machine, I encourage you to try out the hand-picked stitches that resemble quilting by hand.  This stitch uses monofilament (clear) thread for the needle thread and regular thread in the bobbin. The stitch works best when the top thread tension is increased so it pulls the bobbin thread to the top of the quilt sandwich.  This technique also works best when using 50 weight thread in the bobbin that matches the color of your quilt’s background fabric.  As you can see in this example (using no batting), from left to right, I kept increasing the top tension until the red bobbin thread was clearly visible on the right side of the fabric.    You will need to stitch examples before you use this stitch on your project in order to achieve the results that are pleasing to you.  These are the settings I settled on to create the rows of stitching on my sample.    I found I did not like the stitch as much when I increased the length from the factory setting.  I encourage you to try this stitch and look at it in person since the monofilament thread tends to have a sheen to it when photographed.  This is not noticeable when looking at it in person.  This technique cannot be used in free motion mode, since the machine needs to go forward and backward to create the stitch:  feed teeth must be engaged.  This stitch is best used for channel quilting, either in straight channels or in diamond patterns.