Blog, Sewing for Beginners

Sewing Machine Basics: How to Adjust Tension

By Jessica Strohlson

For sewing newbies and those looking to increase their knowledge about the craft, sewing machines can be daunting learning experiences. The stationary and moving parts of a sewing machine work together to crystallize the vision of a seamstress, seamster, or tailor into a beautiful reality. 

When certain parts of a sewing machine are out of whack, the whole operation is compromised. This includes the tension of a sewing machine. If you’re not sure how to adjust the tension on a sewing machine, you won’t be able to maximize the efficacy and precision of your particular device. Rather than leaving you to figure out sewing machine tension adjustments on your own, we’ve done the legwork for you and created this handy how-to guide! Let’s get started, shall we?

How Do I Adjust Needle Tension On My Sewing Machine?

sewing machine tension adjuster

There are two different sewing machine tension adjustments you can make — one for your needle thread and one for your bobbin thread. With a few simple twists and turns, you can loosen or strengthen the tension of both to balance your stitching to your liking. While some tailors and seamstresses worry about ruining a piece by improperly adjusting sewing machine tension, it’s not as scary and troublesome as one might think!

You will have to adjust the tension of your bobbin thread and needle thread separately, combining the results of those adjustments to get to where you want to go. To adjust the needle thread tension on your sewing machine, you can manually loosen and tighten things by finding the proper knob and/or using the help of your sewing machine’s instruction manual. 

Your sewing machine might also have an “automatic” setting that will work to calibrate tension on its own accord. It may not produce the desired needle thread tension effect, so manual calibration might be necessary for those instances. 

How Do I Adjust The Bobbin Tension Of My Sewing Machine?

two sewing machines with different types of tension adjusters

While adjusting bobbin tension might seem like a headache at first, it’s a snap! There should be a small screw located on the flat side of your bobbin case. Turning your bobbin screw slightly in a counterclockwise direction should relieve tension. Turning a bobbin screw clockwise will increase overall tension.

If you’re worried about losing your stock bobbin tension, you have options. Some seamstresses and tailors use two bobbins for tailoring and crafting — one which remains at stock tension and one they adjust for varied projects.

If using multiple bobbins for different sewing projects isn’t doable for you, you can also use a permanent marker to draw a tick directly across from the bobbin screw in its original configuration. By doing so, you can easily return the screw to its previous position after adjusting.

Why Is The Bobbin Thread Visible On The Top Of The Piece I’m Sewing?

presser foot near where tension adjust is located

If your bobbin thread is showing on the top of your piece, two issues could be at hand. For one, your needle thread tension might be too pronounced. If that’s the case, your bobbin thread might be getting pushed up to the top.

If the needle thread tension of your sewing machine is properly set, your bobbin thread tension might be too weak. Turn your bobbin screw clockwise to increase tension, balancing it with the needle thread tension as best as you can. 

Why Is The Needle Thread Visible On The Bottom Of The Piece I’m Sewing?

strong tension on a sewing machine

If your needle thread is popping out on the bottom side of your piece, you’re encountering a similar-yet-opposite problem to that of the previous section. Either your needle thread tension is too weak and is allowing the bobbin thread tension to take over, or your bobbin thread tension is much too strong for this particular piece.

If simply counterbalancing your bobbin thread tension and needle thread tension doesn’t work, you may need to clean out the bobbin area of your sewing machine. You may also need to properly clean all sewing machine thread pathways to ensure that they can be struck into cloth unencumbered and with the correct force. 

You’ll likely have to pull the threads out of your sewing machine needle to make this happen, so consult your sewing machine manual for easy deconstruction and reconfiguration. A clean sewing machine is much more likely to be balanced and efficacious. However, figuring out whether or not your sewing machine stitches are balanced in the first place also takes a critical eye on your part.

How Do I Know If My Sewing Machine Stitches Are Balanced?

sewing machine working on a zig zag pattern on a piece of cloth

The trick to spotting balanced sewing machine stitches is uniformity. Machine stitches should look identical on each side of the seam of a patchwork piece. Sewing machine stitches should also look the same on both sides of a quilt’s top, backing, or batting. 

Furthermore, balanced sewing machine stitches should be evenly and uniformly spaced on each side. The threads should sit flush against the fabric with little to no protrusions. All knots should be embedded in the fabric and invisible to the naked eye.

Machine threads that are loose and easy to pull are a sign of imbalanced sewing machine stitching. If you encounter this problem, make the proper bobbin thread and needle thread adjustments to rectify the situation.  

Do I Use The Same Thread For The Bobbin And Needle Of My Sewing Machine?

woman adjusting tension on a sewing machine

It depends! It’s advisable to use the same thread for the needle and bobbin of your sewing machine when working on a patchwork piece. However, it pays to use different threading for your bobbin and needle when working on a more complex piece such as a quilt.

If you’re unsure whether or not to change out your threads (or whether or not to adjust the tensions of your bobbin and needle), it’s a good idea to have a practice quilt sandwich or patchwork piece on hand. Use that to monitor your sewing machine stitches before you begin work on your actual project, adjusting machine tension and thread type to guarantee the balance you’re looking for.

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