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When you learn how to sew many sewing machine users overlook the essential skills required to adjust bobbin tension.  This is a critical part of knowing how to sew.

Tensions are a common source of problems in sewing. Understanding how tensions work is essential for every sewing machine user. It is not as complicated as some believe, and not as simple as some might think.

Tension is the amount of drag or resistance on the thread as it moves through the sewing machine. When the tension on top and on bottom are balanced properly, the threads will join in the middle of the fabric with no excess thread on top or the bottom of the fabric.

Upper Tension

The thread on the top of the sewing machine is threaded from the thread spool over and through a series of thread guides, through the tension assembly (a set of discs with adjustable pressure on the discs), through the take up spring, through the take up lever, and finally through the eye of the needle. There are minor differences in how sewing machines are threaded, but there is amazing similarity too.


1. Make sure the thread on the spool is evenly flowing off the spool.

2. Follow the prescribed thread line through all guides.

3. Look for any abnormality that might snag the thread. Fix it.

4. Always thread the take up spring and take up lever properly.

5. Thread the needle as manufacturer recommends. Most thread front to back, but some older machines thread right to left or left to right.

6. ALWAYS thread the machine with the presser foot UP until you are ready to thread the eye of the needle.

7. Test the thread tension with the presser foot up. Make sure it easily flows through the machine.

8. Put the presser foot down and thread the eye of the needle.

9. Test the thread flow by gently tugging on the thread. Avoid bending the needle. You should feel a serious drag on the thread.

10. Lift the presser foot and retest. There should be little or no resistance.

The upper thread tension is adjusted by tightening or loosening the tension adjusting knob. You may have been told that on your machine, the tension is right when the knob says 3 or 4. This is not necessarily true as we will soon see.

Lower Tension

The lower thread system is even a little more mysterious than the upper thread system, but it is in many ways even more simple. The lower thread system may involve top loading bobbins, front loading bobbins, or even side loading bobbins. Older machines often used shuttles mounted underneath the machine. While there are a variety of different designs, the essentials are the same. Thread is wound on a bobbin (older machines used shuttles the same way). The bobbin is placed into a case or holder. The thread in the bobbin is drawn through a tension device and up to the top of the sewing platform.


1. Be sure you have the right bobbin.

2. Be sure the bobbin thread is properly wound.

3. Be sure to place the bobbin in the bobbin carrier exactly the way your sewing machine manual says. The bobbin thread usually moves from left to right or clockwise around the bobbin as it turns.

4. Thread through the lower tension. Usually, this means the bobbin thread will peal back through the bobbin tension rather than follow along or just flop in the wind. Notice the piece of metal on top right of the carrier. A small metal spring usually built into the bobbin carrier applies pressure or resistance to the bobbin thread. This is the bobbin tension spring. A tiny screw holds the tension spring in place. Turning this screw to the right will tighten the lower tension. Turning it to the left will loosen the bobbin tension. (“Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey”)

5. Some bobbin carriers are built in, but many are inserted after loading the bobbin.

a. In the later case, test the tension by doing the following. Pull off about six inches of bobbin thread through the tension. Dangle the bobbin carrier with the bobbin in it while holding the thread above it. The lower tension should hold the carrier so that it does not drop. If it does, just turn the screw a quarter turn to the right. If it does not drop, try bouncing the carrier a little. If the tension is properly set, the carrier will drop a little and stop. If it does drop a couple of inches and stops, all is good. If the carrier does not drop at all even after pretty good bounce, the tension is too tight. Turn the screw a quarter turn to the left. Try again.

b. Many machines have a drop in bobbin that fits into a bobbin carrier below the needle plate. Once the bobbin is placed in the carrier, the thread is drawn under a tension spring. The same gentle pull test used in the front loading bobbin can be used with the drop in bobbin, but it is a bit less precise. If you continue to experience difficulties with the bobbin tension, it may be adjusted by turning the small tension screw on the spring of the bobbin carrier. You may also seek the expert assistance of your local sewing machine technician if needed.

6. Make sure there are no snags in the thread line after you bring the thread up through the needle plate hole.


When the thread from the top and the thread from the bottom meet and form stitches in the center of the fabric with not excess thread on top or bottom, tensions are said to be balanced.

Think of your fabric like a stream of water. There are two teams with ropes (threads) tugging in opposite directions. Sew a straight stitch seam four or five inches long. Look at the thread. Where does the stitch tie off or connect? Do you see small loops, nubbies, or other signs of excess thread on the top or bottom of the thread. The team that pulls the hardest wins the excess thread. If the upper tension is tighter than the lower tension, excess thread will appear on top of the fabric. If the bobbin tension is tighter than the upper tension, you will see excess threads underneath the fabric.

To balance the tensions, simply adjust the upper tension in relation to the lower tension. If you have tested the bobbin tension as indicated above, you should not have to adjust the bobbin tension unless you significantly change the size of thread.

If there is excess thread on the bottom of the fabric, increase the tension on top by turning the adjustment knob to a larger number (usually turn clockwise). If there is excess thread on the top of the fabric, decrease the top tension by adjusting the tension knob to a lower number (counterclockwise).

If you continue to have tension challenges, take the machine to your local sewing machine service center for a thorough service.

Important When You Have Tension Challenges:
1. Rethread & Double Check threading.
2. Test lower and upper tensions as you thread.
3. Test sew and adjust upper tension – increase or decrease.
4. Have a professional sewing machine technician service the machine.

When you learn how to sew many sewing machine users overlook the essential skills required to adjust bobbin tension.  This is a critical part of knowing how to sew.

Donna Trumble is a professional designer, seamstress, author, sewing educator, and sewing business owner.   She leads several Sewing Show And Tell groups in her stores guiding participants to shop sewing machines and learn about sewing and quilting.

David Trumble is a sewing professional, author, semi-retired minister, sewing machine technician, and CFO of Temple Sewing And Supply, Inc.




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