it’s not the tension: troubleshooting steps to get your sewing back on track

by Valerie

in sewing,the syndicate,tutorials

In the last several years, I have taught hundreds (thousands?) of people the basics of sewing, and helped many of them improve their skills beyond the beginner level.

I’ve seen a lot of frustration with bent needles, dull scissors, stubborn fabric, and the myriad other woes that sewers of all experience levels regularly must deal with.

What I have NOT seen a lot of is incorrect tension. Often when something goes wrong, the first thing you want to do is mess with the tension dial. Y’all LOVE to fiddle with that little dial! But guess what: 99% of the time, it’s not the tension.


snarled bobbin thread


Once you have the tension set properly, you will rarely have to change it. I don’t remember the last time I adjusted the tension on my Viking, and I sew on denim, leather, jersey, shantung, tweed, satin, linen, and so much more.

Next time something goes wrong with your sewing (the stitches look weird…the thread is nesting underneath the fabric…the fabric is bunching up…the machine makes a scary noise…if anything at all goes wrong), I want you to consider these problems first before you even think about messing with the tension!


problem #1: your machine is threaded incorrectly


Friends, the truth is this: whenever something goes wrong with your sewing machine, it’s probably the threading. In fact, it’s probably the bobbin. I know what you’re thinking.

Valerie, I’m not some kind of *noob* I think I know how to thread a machine!

I know you do. But still: check the threading. Just because it looks right doesn’t mean that the thread is hooked around every little hook, and sliding into every little groove inside the machine. Re-thread the machine, and you will see it’s just like re-booting your computer. Suddenly whatever was wrong is now fixed!

The biggest trouble area is the bobbin. For top loading machines, your bobbin thread should be making a diagonal line across the bobbin like this:


correctly threaded top-loading bobbin


That diagonal line is how you know you’ve done it right. The same is true for front-loading machines, but of course you can’t see it. Here’s a tutorial for threading a front-loading bobbin.

Additional threading tips:

  • always thread your machine with the presser foot UP
  • always leave a long tail of thread after finishing a stitch (snip threads away from the machine)
  • always lift your bobbin thread through the hole in the throat plate (as seen above)…don’t just pop your bobbin in and start sewing.

Okay, you’ve double and triple-checked the threading path…but are you putting the right type of thread in your machine?


problem #2: you are using the wrong thread


Patterns and tutorials rarely mention thread. But choosing the right thread is just as important as choosing the right fabric! Your thread, fabric, and needle all have to be working together properly for successful and drama-free sewing!

Like fabric, there are hundreds (thousands?) of different thread types available in various style/fiber/weight combinations. The good news is that all-purpose thread (100% polyester) is in fact all-purpose. You can use it for anything, on any type of fabric, in any machine, and it will always be appropriate!

The bad news is that sometimes, it’s still not that simple.


an assortment of common types and brands of thread


Using the wrong type of thread can gunk up your machine, cause your thread to break repeatedly, or tangle in your machine, all of which can in turn damage your fabric (and your calm…you might want to throw your sewing machine out the window).

We could be here all day talking about different types of thread, their various properties, and the best time to use each. But for the purposes of this post on machine troubleshooting, let’s focus on what you shouldn’t do. For best results, you should never:

  • use 100% cotton thread on anything but 100% cotton fabric (same for silk thread and silk fabric) in your machine;
  • use machine embroidery thread (that shiny nylon stuff) in your regular sewing machine;
  • use waxed thread (like hand quilting thread) in your machine;
  • use topstitching thread or buttonhole twist for construction seams (unless you’re sewing something really REALLY, REALLY heavyweight…like a sailboat sail – something really heavy);
  • use cheap thread of any type for any reason.


Gutermann thread all in a row!


I like to pretend I’m not a thread snob…except that I totally am, and you should be, too. If you came to my house and saw my thread collection, you’d see it’s 99% Gutermann.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Coats & Clark or Mettler, and I own and use all three (which are the three brands you’re most likely to see in your local fabric store). Aurifil is another brand you might see. I have never personally used it, but I understand it’s quite lovely, and some people swear by it!

What you need to avoid and be “snobby” about, is that off-brand stuff that comes in emergency sewing kits, bargain bins, and from the dollar store. The frustration of constant breakage is not worth it!

Okay, you’ve threaded your machine flawlessly with your high-quality, appropriate-for-your-project thread, but something is still wrong! Now what?


problem #3: you are using the wrong needle


Machine needles come in different styles and different sizes. Like the thread, it’s important to make sure you’re using the right needle for your fabric, and also the right needle for your thread.


Schmetz needles of different types and sizes


Universal needles will probably be fine most of the time. I find it worth it to switch out my needle for some types of fabrics and tasks, however. When I’m working with knits, I’ll switch to a ballpoint needle. Denim needles have a stronger shaft, so they are handy when sewing on stiff, heavyweight fabric, or over very thick seams. When I’m sewing on real leather or suede, sometimes a beveled leather needle is necessary (but not for vinyl or ultrasuede). Decorative topstitching, of course calls for a topstitch needle (and thread!).

The next question is the size. Your machine probably came with 90/14, so I’m guessing that’s what you use the most. It’s worth it to size down to an 80/12 or 75/11 for finer, thinner fabrics, otherwise, you’re going to leave giant holes in your fabric. Imagine the damage you’d do to a fine cotton lawn with an enormous 90/14 needle!


Organ brand needles of different sizes


The reverse is true, of course. You would want a bigger needle for thicker, heavier fabric. But (and there’s always a but, isn’t there???) sometimes, even with thick, heavyweight fabrics, you’re going to want a skinny, sharp needle instead of a bigger one.

Fabrics that are thick but very soft (e.g. thick tweed, wool felt, cotton webbing, even some denim) actually sew up better with smaller needles. The same is true for thin leathers (think kidskin gloves). A fine universal needle would be a better bet than a leather needle that’s too big.


an example scenario

Maybe I have a finely woven silk blend twill for the lining of a bag. I might use a size 80/12 universal to sew up the lining, to avoid leaving huge holes in the fine fabric.

Then the outside of the bag features leather stitched on top of other fabrics, so I size up to a 90/14 leather needle for the bag construction. But the area where the denim straps are attached require me to stitch through 4-8 layers of fabric and interfacing, so I size up again to a 100/16 denim needle just for that step.

All totally worth it for the frustration, broken needles, and damaged fabric it would save me!


Beyond the type and size of your needle, consider it’s health. When was the last time you changed the needle in your machine? If you can’t remember, it’s probably time to change it!

Needles that are bent, dull, or have little nicks in the shaft or on the point will wreak all kinds of havoc on your sewing, and these flaws are not necessarily visible. Switching to a new needle is always worth it!

Once you know all your notions and tools are on point, what about your machine settings?


#problem 4: you are using the wrong stitch


I don’t know what type of machine you have, but I’m willing to bet that the default stitch length is very small. Most of the time, you’ll need to lengthen the stitch, for practically every seam, and every project.

Stitches that are too small can damage your fabric, or cause the thread to tangle or break. If your needle is also too big, and your thread is the wrong type, you can imagine the hot mess you’ll end up with! Get into the habit of lengthening your stitch and you will see how your seams look better on practically everything!


a sample of straight stitches of different length


The first stitch in the above image is the default stitch on my Viking, which is labeled 2.5. I normally sew at 3.5 for regular sewing, and I’ll move it up to 4.5 for most topstitching, like the surface designs on my latest handbags.detail of the topstitching on the anjelica 517 tote from Holland Cox


Thread is a lot stronger than you think it is, and tiny stitches are very rarely better. Test out different stitch lengths on a swatch of fabric to figure out what’s best for your project!

For specialty thread like topstitching or metallics, you will almost always want a longer stitch length than what you usually use.


BONUS problem #1: the presser foot pressure is wrong


presser foot pressure dial on my Viking


This is a bonus because not all machines can even make this adjustment! This is the presser foot pressure dial on my Viking. It controls how hard the presser foot is pressing the fabric against the feed-dogs. You can see that “4” is the default on my machine. Unlike the tension dial (which on my machine is further down to the right), I find myself adjusting this all the time.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule for this; I’ve found that experimenting with a swatch of fabric is the best way to figure out where to set this dial. If your machine has this option, sometimes the dial is flat on the left side of the machine. Sometimes instead of a dial, you’ll have a screw on the top of the machine. Consult your manual if you’re not sure!


BONUS problem #2: your machine might be dirty!

Believe it or not, regular old dust and oil can be the culprit. You should be regularly cleaning out your bobbin casing, and using a Q-tip or paint brush to clean out the nooks and crannies of your machine. Dust, thread lint, frayed fabric, machine oil, tailor’s chalk, and all kinds of stuff builds up in all kinds of places, and can cause you all kinds of grief if you don’t stay on top of it.


topstitching on denim


I hope this helps! The bottom line is that the tension only means anything if you’ve already done everything above exactly right! “Tension” in general refers to how the top and bottom threads are being pulled through the machine’s interior mechanisms.  If you don’t have everything threaded right, with the right needle and thread for your project, messing with the tension dial itself will do absolutely nothing.

Moreover, if you DO adjust your tension dial (which I hope I’ve convinced you should be your LAST RESORT), remember to do it with your presser foot DOWN. The machine can only adjust tension with it properly threaded, the needle up, and the presser foot down.


Happy sewing, and please share any other troubleshooting tips you’ve found helpful in the comments!




{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

peg Sullivan September 16, 2017 at 7:18 pm

WOW. What a splendid put together source of information.
Thank you for doing this. I am just beginning to teach a learn to sew class. These tips will be a great reference to show students. In the past the tip about the age of the needle has always been seen as “You want to sell more needles” But you have made it easy to say even Valori says change often. I usually recommend a new needle with a new project.
Well enough for now. Thanks again.


Valerie September 17, 2017 at 4:12 pm

Peg, I’m so glad you found this useful! I used to doubt the change-your-needle advice for a long time…then skipped stitches and mangled fabric made me see the light! You are very welcome and please feel free to share.


joan Baumgardner September 17, 2017 at 9:55 am

Oh, this is wonderful information! Well done! Thank you.


Valerie September 17, 2017 at 4:12 pm

Joan, thank you and you are very welcome!


Trinh Banks September 18, 2017 at 8:53 pm

This was *sew* very helpful! And I don’t make that comment lightly as I’m a daughter of a tailor & seamstress & I’ve been seeing since I was a kid. Thanks for information. What if my threads only jacks up during the zigzag stitch??? I can’t figure this one out on my Janome.


Valerie September 19, 2017 at 12:15 am

Trinh, without seeing it in action, I’m guessing it’s a needle problem. Does it happen on any fabric? Is it the top thread only? Machines can get really finicky, it’s amazing how many things can go wrong! I’m glad you found this post helpful and I hope the steps help you figure out the zig zag mystery!


sheila September 19, 2017 at 9:04 pm

I have been sewing for many years… I do the clean out often but have to admitt not change that needle as often as I should Bet you I will now… and I love the part about using a bigger stitch length.. I have done that a lot.. just not that big..
thank you thank you
this was super good advice… I too help preteens to sew.. we put together lap quilts for them from the arm hole cuts from the 100’s of little dresses for africa I sew and send to NANCY’S NOTIONS.. FOR THE KIDS OVER THERE….. I CUT THE STRIPS WITH MY ROTARY CUTTER AND THEY DO THE REST…………the thrill I get just seeing them learn to work my machines.. is past wonderful….I do love the kids of all ages……


Valerie September 21, 2017 at 1:18 am

Sheila, I’m so glad you’ve found this helpful!


kathleen codyrachel October 24, 2017 at 2:10 pm

Thanks for all the notes – I wish to just start out doing a little mixed media sewing – fabric only or fabric with paper – I know paper will be hard on needles or at least I think I know as it is hard on scissors! But these tips really help!!!


Valerie October 30, 2017 at 5:02 pm

Kathleen, that will be a perfect project to save your old needles for – if you need to put in a new needle to sew on nice fabric, you can save your old ones for your paper projects! I’m glad you found this helpful!


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