Sewing Machine Thread Tension Issues | Madam Sew

How To Deal With Thread Tension

Even though thread tension is a mystery for a lot of people who sew, and it gets the blame for a lot of sewing problems, most issues are caused by things other than tension related problems. Did you know that incorrect threading is responsible for more tension problems than any other factor? In this post, I’m going to show you how to adjust the tension on your sewing machines, and explain the different factors that have an influence on your thread tension.

What Is Thread Tension?

Making nice and even stitches is what we all want, right? A balanced row of stitches looks the same on both sides of the fabric. To make this happen, the same amount of thread needs to flow from the spool and the bobbin simultaneously. These threads need to work in harmony with each other. If there is an imbalance, then one will pull the other through to the other side of the fabric. This will cause a poor quality stitch that may look ugly and not hold. When your stitches do not look right, thread tension may be the issue.

Balanced Row of Stitches
Straight Line of Stitches

Thread tension is the amount of thread that passes through the machine to create a stitch. The more thread in the stitch, the looser the stitch. The less thread, the tighter the stitch. Your sewing machine will have a tension dial somewhere near the top that you can adjust up or down.

The bobbin thread tension is usually factory-set on a household sewing machine and you normally don’t have to touch this. So, I’ll focus on the top thread tension in this article since that’s where most of you will make adjustments and will be able to solve tension issues. If you do want to make changes to the bobbin tension, check your machine's manual first. In most cases, you’ll need to remove the needle plate, and when you take out the bobbin case, you’ll have access to the bobbin tension screw. If your machine uses a separate bobbin case, the little screw is built in on the spring of the case.

What Controls the Thread Tension on Your Sewing Machine?

Diagram of Thread Tension on a Sewing Machine
Sewing Machine Tension Regulator

Threading your sewing machine correctly is vital to good thread tension. Every thread guide on your machine puts pressure on the thread. A correctly placed bobbin and spool are also part of the balance. The most important part are the tension discs that control the top thread. They are commonly hidden in the right slit where you guide your thread down before it goes up in the thread take-up lever. On older machines, they can be visible, as you can see in the photos below.

Thread Tension Dial on Old Sewing Machine
Vintage Sewing Machine with Visible Thread Tension Dial
Thread Tension Dial on Front of Vintage Sewing Machine
Sewing Machine Tension Dial

Whether you’re using an old machine or new machine, the thread must sit correctly between the tension discs when you’re threading your machine. If it doesn’t, then the machine won’t be able to sew properly. When your presser foot is up, the tension discs are open and there is no tension on the top thread. That’s why you get lots of loops when you try to sew with the presser foot up. It’s also the reason why you should thread your sewing machine with the presser foot up.

Tip: One tool that’s really nice to have on hand when you have a tangled mess of thread is Madam Sew’s Bird Nest Toolkit! It comes with a hook and a knife to help you carefully remove unwanted thread that gathers underneath your fabric.

Presser Foot in the Down Position
Presser Foot in the Up Position
Thread Loops Formed from Incorrectly Threaded Sewing Machine

On most sewing machines, the top thread tension can be adjusted with a little wheel close to the thread take-up. It is usually referred to as the tension regulator or tension dial. This wheel controls the amount of pressure on the discs and thus the top thread tension. The settings run mostly from 0-9, with 4 or 4.5 being the default position for a straight stitch on most fabrics. Some machines, like my Pfaff, only have a + and - indication. Tension settings vary slightly between machines. When adjusted to a higher number, the discs move closer together, increasing the amount of tension. When the tension is turned to a lower number, the discs move apart, decreasing the tension. Some new machines can even adjust the upper tension automatically.

Tension Discs and Tension Regulator on a Brother Sewing Machine
Tension Discs and Tension Regulator on a Bernette Sewing Machine

Factors that Impact Thread Tension

Many things affect thread tension and stitch balance, such as the thickness of the threads and the weight of the fabric you are using.

  • Densely woven fabrics will expose the top thread to a greater degree.

  • Batting adds drag on the top thread.

  • Cotton threads tend to have more grab to the fabric compared to a smooth filament polyester thread.

Different stitches require a different tension as well.

  • A zig-zag stitch, or any other stitch that has width, can pull the bobbin thread through to the top more easily than a straight stitch.

There are no general rules and predefined settings for different threads, fabrics, or stitches. You will have to test every time. Don’t be afraid to experiment and find the setting that’s best for your specific project.

Troubleshooting Your Sewing Machine? Check this First!

As I said at the start of this article, most issues on sewing machines are caused by factors other than purely tension. So, when you have problems with the thread tension, go through this checklist first before you start turning the tension regulator.

Sewing Machine Checklist

1. Is your machine threaded correctly?

    • Did you pass through all the thread guides?
    • Never thread a machine with the presser foot down. The tension discs should be open to fully grab the thread. So put the presser foot UP when you thread.
    • Is thread unwinding freely from the spool? If it is catching somewhere, it will lead to a very tight top thread
    • Is the thread string coming from behind the spool?

2. Is the bobbin inserted into the bobbin case correctly? On front loading machines, make sure the thread is going clockwise as you drop it into the bobbin case. On a top loading sewing machine, check the bobbin thread has tension on it. If not, take it out and pop it in again, following the directions indicated.

Top-Loading Bobbin
Front-Loading Bobbin
Correctly Threaded Bobbin
Direction of Bobbin Thread

3. Is the presser foot lowered? You don't want to know how many times this happens, especially if you are working with thick layers.

4. Is your bobbin wound evenly? Remove any thread from the outside of the bobbin. Messy bobbin = messy stitch!

5. Clean your machine! Check for lint and thread ends between the tension discs, under the needle plate, around the bobbin case, and on the bobbin.

6. Check for damaged machine parts. Change your needle. The smallest damage on a needle or bobbin can distort the tension.

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How to Test Thread Tension

If you want to test or troubleshoot your thread tension, take a piece of fabric, thread your machine and use two different threads for the top and the bottom thread. This makes it easier to diagnose problems, so you can see where the trouble is coming from.

Now start with a thread tension of 4.5 and sew a row of stitches.

There are three scenarios that you can encounter:

  • The top tension is too loose: You can see the top thread underneath. You can pull out the bottom thread easily. Put the thread regulator a little higher, on 5 for example, and test again. If it is still showing, put the tension on 5.5 and test again. Repeat these steps, adapting in little increments, until you don’t see the top thread underneath any more.

  • The top tension is too tight: The bobbin thread is showing on top. Put the thread regulator a little lower, on 4 for example, and test again. If it is still showing, put the tension on 3.5 and test again. Repeat these steps, adapting in little increments, until you don’t see the bobbin thread any more on top.

  • You have perfect thread tension: What you see is a beautiful symmetrical stitch, a row of stitches that looks the same on both sides of the fabric.

Thread Tension Test with Zigzag Stitch - Front
Thread Tension Test with Straight Stitch - Front
Thread Tensions Test with Zigzag Stitch - Back Side
Thread Tension Test with Straight Stitch - Back Side

If you’re sewing on really thin or lightweight fabrics, both threads may show on both sides when the tension is balanced, simply because the fabric is so thin.

Getting the thread tension right is a trial and error process with your specific sewing machine, your fabric, your thread, and your stitches. You will have to figure out what tension works best for you.

I hope this little introduction gives you a better understanding of thread tension and will help you fix some common issues with bad stitches all by yourself!

Questions? Don’t hesitate to leave a comment or send me an email! I’ll try to help you the best I can!

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The bobbin on my sewing machine always gets all messed up. The thread gets all tangled up. I will try and adjust the bobbin tension and hope that solves the problem. Do I make the tension looser?

Laurie Guy

Thank you for that information. I always have trouble with the tension of the threads on the machine. I fallow your instructions and it works beautifully.😊👍

Matilde Szlavik

Thank you so very much for this tutorial. I’ve been sewing for 55+ years and I have never heard such a clear and concise tension explanation as yours.

Dee E

Thank you so much for the great video and instruction. I have been sewing for years but I did learn a few things that I had never really thought about that would mess with my tension. This is a great resource for beginners and others :)


This was very informative. My machine doesn’t have an even stitch. They look
Crooked. I will follow your directions. Hopefully I’ll be stitching pretty again soon. Thank you

Penny pruitt

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