Tension on a Sewing Machine

Achieving the right stitch tension is one of the keys to successful sewing. Tension refers to how tightly the machine is feeding both the upper and lower thread. Fabric and thread choice affect stitch tension, and you will have to test and adjust your tension with each project you sew. If you understand tension and how to correct it, your stitches will be neater and more even.

Symptoms of Incorrect Tension

Many sewing problems can be corrected by manipulating the tension on a sewing machine.

Tension that is too tight or too loose causes stitches that look uneven. These stitches often have loose loops on one side of the fabric or are so tight that the fabric begins to pucker. Improper tension also causes the machine to periodically skip stitches. Thread breakage, coming from either the upper thread or the lower bobbin thread, is another common sign of tension that is far too tight.

Testing Tension

It is important to test your tension before starting your sewing project so you don't waste any valuable fabric. Cut a small scrap of your fabric and use the machine to sew the stitch pattern you plan to use for your project. Remove the swatch from the sewing machine and carefully inspect the stitches on both sides of the fabric. If your tension is correct, the stitches should be identical in size and will appear to be interlocking with each other. If the stitches on the top side of the fabric appear straight and are not interlocking with the bottom stitches, your upper tension on your spool thread is too tight. If the stitches on the bottom side of the fabric are straight and not interlocking with the top stitches, the upper tension on your spool thread is too loose.

Correcting Tension

You can adjust your sewing machine's tension by manipulating either the upper tension on the spool thread or the lower tension on your bobbin thread. Most machines do not feature tension dials for lower tension, and you will only be able to adjust the lower tension by tightening a screw. For this reason, unless that screw is unusually loose, you should try to correct tension by manipulating the upper tension dial, which is usually located on the control panel of your machine. If your upper tension is too tight, turn the dial to a lower number. If your upper tension is too loose, turn the dial to a higher number. Sew another test swatch to see if your tension is now correct.

Other Sources of Tension Problems

Incorrect tension dial settings are not the only cause of unbalanced tension. If changing the tension setting does not solve your tension problem, look closely at your machine to make sure you don't have a different problem. Incorrect threading from either the spool or the bobbin will cause tension problems. You will also experience tension difficulties if your machine is not clean or if lint is present on the tension discs.

About the Author

As a professional journalist since 1998, Lisbeth Booth has worked as a writer and an editor at several magazines. Her career has focused on music and film criticism but she has also written about lifestyle topics such as parenting and home design. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Calgary.