How to Troubleshoot Tension Issues on a Longarm

Tension issues are one of the most annoying things to deal with on any machine. Quilting on a longarm may require adjusting the tension more often than you are used to. Watch this video to see how I check my tension and troubleshoot issues when they crop up:

Quick links to the tools and supplies shown in this quilting video:

Grace Qnique on the Continuum Frame

Couching Foot Set

9 Piece Foot Attachment Set

Quilt Clips

Tension on sewing machine 
Tension on a Sitdown

Note: Grace Company has discontinued the table-mounted version of this machine. We now have a sit down frame instead. Click Here to check out the Q-Zone Hoop Frame.

Building a Tension Checking Habit

When quilting on a longarm the most important thing to understand is that tension adjustment is going to be a regular thing. Unlike home machines that don’t often need tension changes, longarm machines will require small adjustments on a regular basis.

Troubleshooting tension on longarm 

The best thing to do is build a habit for checking your tension often.

Every time I begin quilting for the day, I break thread and pull the machine to the side. I place a small 2 inch precut square on the batting area of the quilt and stitch out a few simple wiggly U shapes to check how the tension looks on the machine.

It's easy to see the stitches on the top and you can roll the edge of the quilt over to see the stitches on the back. It saves a lot of time to check your thread tension on a little scrap square in the batting area than to check on the quilt and have to rip out the stitches if they are not looking balanced.

Troubleshooting tension issues

The first thing I do when I notice a tension issue is to check the threading of the machine. Tension is created by the top and bobbin threads coming together so most often hard pulling of one thread to one side of the quilt or the other is the result of that thread not feeding properly.

I find this very rarely happens with the bobbin and bobbin case, and far more often with something happening with the top thread. I make sure that the thread is feeding evenly through all the guides on the machine.

Grace threading

I included a tip in the video about how I wind the thread slightly differently from what's instructed in the manual because it reduces the twist being added to the thread. I like using the back left spool spindle also because I find it feeds the thread more evenly.

Once you've checked your threading and made sure it's properly feeding through all the guides, the next step is to test your stitching again.

Please don't change fifty things on your machine and then test your tension!

You need to test after every single change to help isolate exactly what issue is happening on the machine. If you change fifty things, then you have absolutely no idea what was causing the problem.

If the tension and stitch quality doesn’t improve after checking and adjusting the thread, I usually change the needle on the machine and check the height of the foot.

Grace qnique foot

It might sound crazy but if your darning foot is setting too high over the quilt, it can create skipped stitches or subtle tension issues. To set my foot at the right height for a quilt I drop the needle into the down position, loosen the screw and adjust the foot up or down until the bottom of the foot is resting flat on the surface of the quilt.

Longarm machines have hopping feet so setting up the foot in the needle down position results in a foot that will rest at the perfect height on your quilt.

The speed of the thread feeding can also cause tension issues if the thread is spooling off in large loops this can cause lots of problems for your machine.

Put a thread net on your cone of thread and make sure to tuck in the edges around the bottom of the cone so the plastic sleeve doesn't slip right off the thread and get tangled in the machine guides.

Another issue that can affect tension is the type of thread you're using and the type of fabric your quilting over you may have to adjust your attention when switching from cotton printed fabric to cotton batik fabric.

The height of your quilt can also affect tension. On the Grace Qnique I have to adjust my take-up rail, the top rail where the quilt rolls up. If I don't adjust this bar upward as I advance my quilt, it will rub against the machine bed and make it difficult to move the machine.

However, if I adjust the frame too high it can cause tension issues or skip stitches as the quilt bounces around too much under the needle.

Again, make sure to change only one of these things at a time, and check your tension with each adjustment. That way you can easily identify the issue, correct it, and gain insight into how your machine works in the future.

One last note – don't try to troubleshoot a major tension issue on your machine when you're feeling tired and cranky.

You're only going to become more frustrated. Take a break and come back to the quilt when you're fresh and rested and I promise you will find the issue and be able to correct it quickly.

Have you been running into tension issues on your machine? Share your thoughts or tips in the comments below.

Let's go quilt,

Leah Day

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Comments

  • Leah Day - June 24, 2019

    Hi LilyB – That sounds like skipped stitches, which is typically caused by the needle. Make sure your needle is fully seated in the machine, as high as it can go. Also make sure that it’s facing the correct direction. This is harder to do on a longarm because the needle is round instead of flat on one side. Try a new needle and triple check it’s facing the correct direction and fully seated inside the machine.

  • Leah Day - June 24, 2019

    Hi Lilian – If the machine was working fine before, and it sounds like it was for years, what exactly changed? My best advice for your Avante is to think back through anything that could have happened, anything that you changed that might have caused this issue.

    Because there is definitely something causing this problem! Did you change thread? Did you change the brand of needles? Did you quilt a particularly thick quilt and lift your foot height and not reset it?

    All of these things can effect your machine’s tension and they are all easy to overlook. BUT make sure to only change one thing at a time as you test your machine to figure out what is going wrong with it.

  • Leah Day - June 24, 2019

    Hi Lee – LOL! I can’t believe I had the wrong video set up here this whole time. I’ve fixed it now so it’s correct. Thank you for letting me know about that.

  • LilyB - June 24, 2019

    Tension issues, no technician available in my state. Problem: Checked one step at a time. Top thread is not picking up bobbin thread. What causes this? Lots of thread nests on bottom. Changed needle. Thread. Checked threading. Loosened/Tightened tension disc. Have had machine since 2012; over 500 quilts; new problem. Going nuts!! 6/21/2019

  • Lilian - June 24, 2019

    Hi, Leah: I’ve had my Avante 18 since 2012. This year is the first time I’ve had tension issues with it. I’ve tried everything (as I am mechanically inclined), but nothing works. In fact, the tension knob only turns so far to the right. I thought maybe I need a new tension knob? I haven’t yet loaded the thread on the left side of the machine, so I’ll try that next. But, I’ve tried most everything as patiently as I can be. Now I’m beginning to tear my hair out. The nearest quilt store doesn’t do home calls, and I’m thinking mine will be too heavy to bring it to them. Any more suggestions? I’ve made about 500 quilts without tension problems I couldn’t fix. I’m at a loss now. Help.

  • Lee Heilicher - June 24, 2019

    Do you have a tension video?? Seems to be a quilt loading video in its place

  • Leah Day - May 02, 2019

    Hi Joyce – Wow! That is weird! Are you sure it’s not the bobbin itself that’s going in a bit heavy or full? It might even be a slightly bent bobbin. The BEST thing is you are aware of it and know how to deal with it. Sure, it’s annoying, but it would be even more annoying if you didn’t know what was causing it!

  • Joyce Cederstrom - May 02, 2019

    When I oil my bobbin hook, one drop, it is a tension adjustment every time. I assume it causes the bobbin to spin too freely. I have to tighten at least 3 full turns and sew a swatch on side, then gradually loosen. It make for frustrating time. Suggestions?

  • Leah Day - September 30, 2018

    Hi Cindy – I believe I have the speed at the highest it can go! This is exactly how I check the tension on the machine and run tests. I have another video here on checking tension on the machine as a sit down: https://freemotionquilting.blogspot.com/2017/02/quilting-tension-test-sit-down-quilting.html

  • Leah Day - September 30, 2018

    Hi Kay – Yes, that’s a whole different video! Thread tension issues are far more common (at least from what I’ve experienced). As for tension between the rails, I like the quilt backing to be tight, but not so tight it causes skipped stitches.

  • Cindy - September 28, 2018

    Do you have any tutorials on the machine itself, with the tension? Love my machine, but having lots of tension issues. Going to try a couple of ideas you have listed above. At what speed do you set your machine when in regulated cruse?

  • Kay - September 27, 2018

    I’m confused thought it was a tutorial on the actual machine tension not on the tension of the quilt on the bars after advancing it. Am l looking in the wrong place?

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