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Adjusting Tensions on a Longarm Machine

Posted: 9 April 2015 at 6 a.m.

Bobbin Tension

Hurray!  You have loaded a new quilt onto your longarm machine and you’re ready to quilt a beautiful design into the fabric. As you thread the machine, you realize just how many places the cone of thread comes into contact with the machine. With nearly a dozen or so contact points, this can add quite a bit of tension on your top thread. Let’s go through a few quick and easy steps on how to achieve excellent stitch quality by making a few adjustments to your machine’s tension settings.

Unlike a home sewing machine, there are no automatic tension settings on a longarm machine.  Some of the brand new Handi Quilter longarms reflect a number on their digital readout to place a value on the top tension, but all other longarm machines do not have any system in place to display the amount of tension which is placed on the top thread. A home sewing machine will either have a digital or analog method of displaying the top thread tension. It may take some extra practice to get the feel and flow of proper tension settings for your longarm.

Adjusting tensions on a longarm is simple, here’s how:

  1. Tensioner – Remember this sentence: righty-tighty, lefty-loosey.  Don’t be afraid to loosen your top tension by turning the tension knob several revolutions.  If  my top thread is snapping, chances are my tension is too tight. I crank my tensioners several revolutions to the left, almost to where the knob falls off, and then start tightening it as I stitch until my stitch quality is perfect.
  2. Contact points – each instance thread touches the machine (via threaders, tensioners, sensors etc.), friction and drag is increased. We know that the more friction which is added to a moving object, the more resistance the object will face. This means that thread will have a greater chance at breaking, the higher the number of contact points the thread is passing through.  Decrease the number of contact points to decrease tension.  My favorite place to do this is at the three hole tension plate.  I usually pass the top thread through two of the three holes but if I’m working with a more sensitive thread (like MonoPoly or Metallic) I  pass the thread through only the center hole.
  3. Handy Net – This is a great notion which helps keep slick threads on the cone. Trilobal polyester threads are high-sheen and with that sheen comes slickness. Fantastico, Magnifico, and Monopoly are examples of slick threads. Place a Handy Net on the bottom half of the cone to keep the thread from puddling down.  Watch our short video on how this works here.
  4. Bobbin Tension – It’s fun to mix up bobbin thread when quilting.  When switching thicknesses in threads, it may require adjusting bobbin tension.  If you bobbin is too lose you may see your bobbin thread collecting in a large gob on the underside of your quilt. This is called a  birds nest. If  your bobbin thread is too tight, your threads may break.  You can see a video on adjusting bobbin tension here.

My recommendation:  learn to tame your tension with ample practice and not being afraid to try reducing the contact points, top tensioners, adding a Handy Net, and adjusting bobbin tension.  Once you are confident in adjusting your machine’s tension, you can run any quality thread through your longarm.

What are you rituals for successfully using a wide range of threads in your longarm?

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  • 3. Vicki Barlean (18 March 2017 at 4:47 p.m.)

    I am having thread issues on the back of my quilts. I get little loops of the top thread to the back and I may be fine for a while and then it's like the tension changes and I get loops & really loose tension on the bobbin thread. Any suggestions??
  • 2. Jan Ramey (17 March 2017 at 1:19 p.m.)

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!! Now that I know the center hole hint, I can give metallic threads another chance.
  • 1. Gayle Mitchel (10 April 2015 at 7:29 p.m.)

    Just had that "a ha!" moment when you were talking about only running monopoly and metallics thru the center hole of the 3-hole tensioner! Thank you! I always enjoy and learn SEW MUCH from all of you.

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