Monday, January 7, 2013

Let's Talk About Tension!

I have noticed that tension is one of those subjects that the mere mention of can send shivers down a quilters spine.  For me, tension is something I'm constantly learning.  I used to really struggle with finding the right tension for each project, because when I began seriously sewing, I didn't realize that just as you would adjust your needle or thread to each project you're working on, you also need to consider your tension.

I try to think logically about my sewing machine and it's functions.  It does what I tell it to do (most of the time).  If I have puckering or uneven stitches, it's not because my sewing machine is in a bad mood, it's because I haven't given it the right instructions or tools to perform a job!  :)

We all know that tension is happening in two places...there is tension on the top thread and tension on the bobbin thread.  Tension is sort of like the grasp the machine has on each thread.  If you crochet, think of it the way you would wrap your yarn around your fingers before making a stitch.  You couldn't make a very nice stitch pulling the yarn directly from the skein without tensioning in through your fingers first.

When I first mustered up enough bravery to play around with tension, I sat down with two different colors of cotton thread and stitched. 

In most cases I have been able to leave the bobbin tension alone and solve most of my problems with the top tension dial alone.  I tried to remember these two things:

If you see your top thread poking through to the bottom, your top tension is too loose. 

If you see your bottom thread poking through to the top, your top tension is too tight.

While working on my Dresdens I had to go back and forth between invisible thread and regular cotton thread a lot so I was changing my tension frequently.  In an attempt to use up some thread I left tan thread in my bobbin to finish it up, and put cream in the top.  Below is a picture of OFF tension - what is happening here?  Remember...tan is my bobbin thread...

Above - the bobbin thread tension is TIGHTER than the top tension thread.  I had just switched from invisible thread to cotton - invisible is finer so I had my top tension dial at nearly 0.  For cotton you  need a bit higher tension than that - usually for me it's between 3 and 4.  Can you see above how the tan bobbin thread is LITERALLY pulling the loose cream colored top thread down to the bottom of the fabric?  I  used small stitches so you may have to click on the pictures to get a good view.  YOU CAN achieve perfect tension to where you don't see that cream thread at all.

Now look below, I have adjusted the top tension to match the bobbin tension.  I moved the dial to almost a 4, and if you click on this picture you can't see that top thread at all.  Now both the top and bottom are pulling at the same tension.

Some things to think about:

- Every fabric/batting/thread/needle combination is going to require a certain tension.  For us as quilters, we work a lot with cotton.  Cotton fabric, cotton thread, cotton batting.  When you sew with this combination you're going to find the appropriate tension, and in a sense that is a baseline.  That's the base tension you're going to go to whenever you use that cotton fabric/cotton thread/cotton batting combination.  If you change that combination up with say, polyester batting rather than cotton, you're going to need to find your NEW baseline.  Depending on the thickness of your batting, or the brand thread your using, or THREAD WEIGHT, or even the weight of just your fabric you may have to adjust your number a bit.

For me, this combination of cotton fabric/cotton batting/cotton thread requires about a 3.5 on my upper tension dial for piecing.  Every machine I use is slightly different, and any minor difference can create the need for adjusting, but EVERY TIME I am sewing with this combination I automatically set my tension at 3.5 then I do a test stitch.  I may need to tighten or loosen the top slightly to get to a perfect tensioned stitch.

- The THREAD you choose is going to make a difference in tension too.  I have found that thin and fine threads like polyester or monofilament need a lower tension for straight stitching.  Again, I find my baseline, do a test stitch and go from there.

-  Free motion quilting requires a totally different tension than straight stitching.  I rarely straight stitch with polyester, but a lot of people do piece with it.  I do a lot of free motion quilting with polyester, and for me my baseline is about a 2.  Every fabric/needle/thread/batting combination I adjust that baseline just a tad.  Don't be afraid to use a drastically different tension either.  For free motioning with cotton, like Essential threads, I use an 8 or a 9 on my Simplicity.  But for my Brother, it only requires a 7.

I won't give any advice for adjusting your bobbin tension because, well first of all I don't think it's necessary most of the time.  I have never had to do it with my drop in bobbin machines, and the machines that have metal bobbin cases, I just adjust it with tiny turns of the screw in the bobbin spring.  I RARELY have to make this adjustment though - the only times I've ever really had to adjust my bobbin tension is when I first came to own a few vintage machines and they hadn't been sewn with in years.

For a more in depth explanation of the mechanics of your sewing machine's tension I found a really great article put out by Threads Magazine and I will link it below:

Understanding Thread Tension

...and of course Superior Threads always has great articles.  Theirs is linked below:

Thread Tug of War - How Tension Works

There is my sort of a preliminary primer on tension, as it pertains to quilting and thread.  As I learn more I will share more!  I hope it is helpful to some of you out there who still fear the tension dial!  :)

Edited to Add:  I should mention that it is perfectly fine to use two different fibers together, one in the top and a different in the bobbin.  There are many cases that this is preferable.  There are some combinations however, that seem to be no fun to play with.  I will save that for another post and discuss a little about tensioning those types of combinations!


In other news, my Dresdens are coming along!!  I am almost ready to add borders and some additional applique.  I will definitely do a tutorial on the glue stick applique I am doing, as I had promised a few posts ago, as well as offer a few other tips, but I have decided to save it.  I'm participating in the Dare to Dresden blog hop hosted by Sew We Quilt and so I will show you on my designated day - January 25th.  You can find the entire list of participating bloggers and their days to share by clicking here.


Anita said...

I think people need to know about tension. I received something recently, where you could immediately tell the person's tension was off. The threads were all showing on the top of the project, where they ironed each seam.

I attempted to fix some parts and had no issues just grabbing the end of a seam and pulling the thread out with ease. I'm not sure the piece will hold up over time, but tension is definitely important!

Kathy said...

Great post on tension. You are right, it just makes my skin crawl -- LOL!!!!

Erica said...

I really appreciate this post. I don't think tension is addressed nearly as much as it should be. I remember my mom was very uptight about ever touching her tension dial and as a result, I was afraid to touch mine forever. But finally, I realized it's just an adjustment and you can put it back if it doesn't work and now I am pretty brave about it!

Michele said...

This is always a very important part of every project. Great post.