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:

free motion couching yarn quilting

Free Motion Couching


Isacord Thread

Frame Quilting Friday

Tension on sewing machine 
Tension on a Sitdown

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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  • 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:

  • 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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