Threads and tension: Practise before quilting

26 04 2014

On the Yahoo! Groups forum for the HQ_Sit_Down_Model, J asked for some advice on what sort of threads (top and bobbin) I use in my Sweet Sixteen, and how I get the tension right. She also wanted to know whether I used the same size/colour/weight thread in the top and bottom threads.

Here’s my (long) reply… You might want to get yourself a coffee…


I know that the purists say to use the same colour top and bottom, and even the same thread top and bottom. But I wasn’t taught by a purist and I didn’t know ‘the rules’, so I do what works for me. The bottom line (no pun intended!) is that I use whatever thread I want in the top and whatever thread I want in the bottom. I always stitch on a small practice sandwich first to make sure the tension is right, and then off I go.

So with that said, here are some of the things I do when deciding on a thread to use and then testing it out:

  • I pick one or more colours for the top thread. I don’t really care what brand – it’s the colour I’m looking for. I tend to favour the trilobal polyesters over cotton (far less lint!), and favour Glide and Isacord over other brands. But if the colour I want to use is only in a rayon or cotton, then I’ll use that. I’ve even used DECADES OLD overlocker/serger thread in the top! See also: Threads I’ve used in my Sweet Sixteen
  • Most of my top thread stash is 40 wt thread, no matter what variety.
  • I’m lazy so I don’t like winding/changing bobbins too often. So I’ll try to use either a pre-wound Magna Glide Classic (no cardboard sides) bobbin (made by Fil-Tec; 60 wt, size M), or a bobbin filled with a lighter weight thread (a bobbin takes a lot more light weight thread than 40 wt, for example). I’ve used these sorts of threads in the bobbin – Deco Bob (80 wt) and Invisifil (100 wt) from Wonderfil; Bobbinfil (70 wt I think); and 40 wt threads as per the top. My preference is the Magna Glide Classic pre-wounds (I only have their ‘white’, which is really a light creamy colour when you look at it; part # 12445), followed by Bobbinfil, followed by Deco Bob and then Invisifil. I’ve never used Bottom Line in my bobbin as it’s hard to get where I live and is very pricey compared to the others.
  • Mostly, my top and bottom threads are totally different in brand, weight, and type – as I said, I’m not a purist.
  • My top and bottom threads often aren’t the same colour either. Depending on the quilt, I may try to match the bottom thread with the backing fabric. But I find that except for really dark backs, the white Magna Glide Classic pre-wound just disappears into the backing fabric and is hardly noticeable. Then again, I’m not quilting show quilts, so I’m not so fussed about the colours being slightly different.
  • If I’m using a dark thread on top and the top is also dark, I might use a darker bobbin thread (e.g. black Bobbinfil), but only if the bobbin thread starts to show on the top.
  • I ALWAYS drop-test my bobbin thread tension before threading the top of the machine. I use Jamie Wallen’s method and it works every time for me. Once I have the bobbin tension adjusted, I rarely, if ever, have to change it for that bobbin.
  • I thread the machine using 1, 2, or 3 of the holes, depending on the thread. Cottons and trilobal polys seem to do OK through 3 holes, but the rayons mostly do best through just 2 holes. Metallics, monofilaments, or fine threads like 80 wt or 100 wt, seem to do best for me through just one hole.
  • I use a thread net over the cone/spool for fine threads and metallics to help prevent them spooling off too quickly and getting tangled.
  • I brush out the bobbin area at every bobbin change, and put one drop of oil in the bobbin area then too. But with the Magna Glide Classic pre-wounds, there’s not a lot of lint in the bobbin area.
  • I try to change needle with every quilt I do (but if I have a couple of small quilts, I might use the same needle for a while).
  • I mostly use a size 16 or 18 needle. I have 14s but I only use them for very fine thread.
  • I usually have the needle in the 5:30 position – that seems to work best for my machine; 6:30 position sometimes works too, but I don’t have a lot of luck with the 6:00 position.

Once all that’s done (hopefully I didn’t forget anything!), I grab my practice sandwich and:

  1. Stitch a couple of loops and points at the speed I’m likely to use on the quilt.
  2. Pull the sandwich away from the needle and turn it over to see the back – I’m looking for looping thread and eyelashes at this stage. Looping thread (see 2 and 3 in the photo below) and eyelashes (1 in the photo below) mean my top tension is too loose, so I turn the top tension knob at least one turn (depending on how much loopiness/eyelashes) to the right (away from me) and test again. And repeat until I can’t see any top thread on the back (actually, that’s not quite true – I use a cream practice sandwich mostly, so if I see tiny pinpricks of the top colour, I’m OK with that as my practice sandwich is a usually a little thinner than the actual quilt)
  3. Once I can’t see top thread on the back, I’m pretty sure that everything on the top will be OK, but I look at it anyway. If the top is puckering or I can see more than a dot of bobbin thread at the points, there’s a good chance that my top thread is too tight, so I turn the knob a little to the left (towards me) to lighten off a little. And test stitch again. And loosen. And stitch. And look at the front and back. And adjust the top tension knob in smaller increments until I have stitches that lay flat on both top and bottom and that don’t pucker the quilt.

And then I’m ready to put the quilt under the needle. Even so, I start stitching on the quilt and after a few inches, I stop, lift the quilt to see the back and check my stitches (it helps if you have excess border fabric etc. to do this test stitching in). If the top thread is looping/eyelashing on the back, then I tighten the tension knob (and if it’s bad, I pick out the stitches and start again), and start stitching again. And then I check the back and front again to make sure it’s all lying flat. Once I’m happy with my test stitches on the quilt, I’m off and running.


Yes, all this sounds an awful lot to check/test, but in reality it might take me just a minute or so.

That’s not to say that I don’t get frustrated with tension issues at times, but the worst of those have usually been related to something else, like the timing going out as a result of a needle breakage/jam, and thus the machine can’t make a proper stitch.

When nothing seems to work, I try a new needle, different thread top and bottom, and switching the power off and walking away for a while. Wine helps too 😉

If all that doesn’t work for you, can you take your machine back to your dealer and get them to use it (in front of you) and you use it in front of them to see if it’s you or the machine. Sometimes it’s the machine! And it may need a service or the timing adjusted.





9 responses

26 04 2014

Rhonda, you always have the best tips!! Thank you so much…Happy to be part of your blog!

26 04 2014

Yup… routine, also!!! My bobbin thread does change colors quite a bit depending on top thread but the brand/type is, most always, Connecting Threads Essential Pro poly (70 wt). The bobbin holds lots of it and there’s no lint!! I haven’t tried Invisafil on the bobbin, but I do like it for the top when the stitching gets heavy (my most recent client’s star quilt). A #14 needle for 100wt thread is perfect, otherwise #16 for me, too. Your advice is great and seems to cover all the bases!!!

26 04 2014
Connie Griner

Rhonda, thanks for your comprehensive review, and thanks for including a picture so I can post it to Pinterest. 🙂

I’m living the good life in Paducah this week!

Connie Griner

27 04 2014

Thank Connie — it was your comment to me a while back that made me post a pic with each blog post so that there’s something to add to Pinterest 😉

27 04 2014

great post Rhonda, I’ve just bought a Sweet Sixteen and while I have had no tensions issues as yet, I’m sure they will happen eventually, so your post will be bookmarked.

27 04 2014

very comprehensive post Rhonda, a good check list for those problem times. I have been using a #12 needle with invisafil in the top and bottom line in the bobin, with good success, and finally managed to get a good tension between cream thread in the bottom and black or red in the top.

28 04 2014
Donna Chambers

Rhonda, thank you for your review – it is so helpful, especially using one hole for 80 weight thread. Now I know! Thank you for your blog – I learn so much. Cheers from Donna in Brisbane, Australia.

29 04 2014
3 05 2014

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