How to Balance Needle Thread Tension

by Leanna Levine | Last Updated: March 1, 2017

How to Tame Thread Tension Troubles

Normally when your sewing machine is humming along happily, your stitches will look exactly the same on the top of the seam as on the bottom. They will be beautifully balanced. What a satisfying feeling!

But then it happens! Tension troubles!! And I don’t mean a sense of stress and building frustration in your neck and shoulders. No, I mean the thread tension in your sewing machine goes haywire and you start to see your bobbin thread pull through to the top or your upper thread peek out on the bottom. It looks sloppy and it doesn’t hold the seam together well.

When this happens try to refrain from throwing your machine out the window and take a deep breath. It could be a really simple fix. And there are a few things to check first before you start trying to change tension dial settings.

Maybe you missed something when you threaded the machine. This is the most common reason for tension problems. Every one of those little hooks and holders matters. So take the thread out and start from the beginning, following your machine’s threading diagram found in your manual.

Did you wind the bobbin correctly? Winding more thread over some leftover thread on a bobbin can save a couple of minutes, but it can lead to messed up stitches too. So it’s not worth doing. Unwind all the thread and make sure to follow your manual instructions to wind a fresh bobbin. And don’t run the machine too fast while bobbin winding. That can stretch the thread and cause a sloppy stitch too. One more thing about the bobbin — Is the thread in your bobbin the same as the thread on top? Different threads can vary slightly in weight and can send your stitches astray too.

Mismatched needles, threads and fabrics can also be the cause of unbalanced stitches. You can check the internet for guidelines on the needle size and type, thread weight and fiber content, and fabric types that go together best.

Sometimes just changing to a fresh new needle and/or a new bobbin will fix the problem too. Even slight invisible nicks in needles and bobbins can ruin your stitches.

Another often-overlooked cause of tension problems is lint accumulation. Concentrating on your creativity, you can easily forget about cleaning out your machine. Lift the throat plate and you might be shocked to see how much lint is packed in and around the bobbin case. Follow your machine’s instructions for cleaning the tension discs and around the bobbin and bobbin case.

After you’ve tried all these solutions and your stitches are still not looking right, it may be time to make some slight adjustments to the tension dials. First check the tension dial (look it up on your manual’s diagram to find it) and make sure it is set at the middle point. Maybe it got accidentally turned and that’s the cause of the trouble. Most fabrics will be fine on this setting. But you may be using a lighter or heavier fabric that requires turning the knob to a higher or lower number. Experiment on scraps of the same fabric you’re using for your project until you see balanced stitches.

The best place to see the stitch is on the back side. So take the project or test scrap off the machine and flip it over. If you’re seeing puckering in your fabric along the seam, the tension is running too tight. Set the dial to a lower number. If you’re seeing a lot of loose loopy thread along the seam, the tension is too loose. In that case, set the dial to a higher number.

Finally, if all that doesn’t fix the problem, you may need to take your machine to a repair shop to have it checked by a professional. Interior damage could be the cause. But thankfully you have a good many no-cost solutions to try first!