6 Steps to Perfect Tension

April 29, 2023


Perfect tension – it is the #1 skill you should learn when starting your longarm quilting journey. Tension can either make or break your quilting results. It can be scary to think you have to adjust your bobbin tension, especially since most modern sewing machines have automatic tension features. And we’ve been told to NEVER touch the bobbin tension.  Longarm machines are a whole different animal.

Believe me, it is not hard to do, and once you get the hang of it, you’ll wonder why you were so scared. If you are just getting started, read the blog post titled Tension Headache.

At Handi Quilter we have filmed lots of videos and written lots of blog posts and articles about the subject. We really want you to be successful and enjoy your HQ longarm machine. So we’ve boiled it down to 6 steps.

Step 1:  Match needle to thread

It is important to match the needle size to your thread weight.

Thread sizes

You can usually find the thread weight somewhere on the spool or cone.  For example: You might see #50 (as in the photo) This is a 50 weight thread.


Or you might see TEX 30, this would be approximately a 40 weight thread.

Consult the website of the thread manufacturer. The information should be listed there if it is not on the cone.

Superior Threads has an excellent website with tons of great information.  Under the Education tab you will find charts to match the weight of your thread to the needle size required.  Here’s an example of a chart you will find there:

Here is a very clear and easy-to-read chart from my friend and fellow HQ educator, Debby Brown.


Needle sizes

Take a close look at your needle packages. All the information you need is right there on the label. You just need to know where to look.

The needle size is in the upper right on the label. You’ll see 2 numbers separated by a slash. We refer to the needle size as the 2nd number. These are 12’s.  If you see a package like this in your local shop:

You can easily see the size in the upper right. These are 16’s.

If you have a newer HQ machine you can find a chart matching thread and needle size right on your machine display. Go to the Information tab, the button that is a letter “i” at the top right. Then click the button that looks like a needle.


Step 2: Match the color of your bobbin and top thread

Although this isn’t a hard and fast rule, it will make things easier while you are learning. The top and bobbin thread do not have to be the same type, fiber, or weight. But having them be the same color will make it more forgiving if your tension is slightly off. For example, I often use Omni, a 40 weight polyester thread on top and a Super Bob pre-wound bobbin that is a 60 weight polyester thread. But I still match the color or at least get close to a match.


Once you get proficient at balancing tension, you can go wild and use different colors top and bobbin. If you do this, my tip is to check both sides of your quilt several times as you are quilting through the bobbin. Sometimes bobbin tension can change slightly as it becomes less full, so be vigilant!

Step 3: Set the bobbin tension FIRST

We have a video that shows these 6 steps to perfect tension. Follow the video to learn the “drop” test to set your bobbin tension.   Set it, put the bobbin case into your machine, and forget it.

Remember this: righty tighty, lefty loosey.

And turn the screw in TINY increments as you adjust.

Once you have the bobbin set properly, you can balance the tension with adjustment of the top thread tension knob.

Step 4: Carefully thread the machine

If the machine is not threaded properly, it can cause havoc with your stitches. The 6 Steps video shows the precise thread path very clearly. Always check your thread path before starting to stitch.

The most important part is getting the thread between the tension disks and flossed all the way in.

If you have one of our newer machines, the proper thread path can be shown right on your machine’s display in case you forget. Consult your User Guide to learn how to access this information.

Step 5: Test your tension by stitching

Your sample stitching needs to be small curves and points. I stitch 1/2″ to 1/4″ loops and a small zig-zag.

Straight lines of stitching might look like the tension is good. But when you start quilting curves, you can see “eyelashes”. And when you quilt points, you can see “gobs”. (See illustration below for definition of eyelashes and gobs)  Testing by quilting small loops and points will expose bad tension so you can make adjustments and achieve perfect tension.

The photo below shows the back of the quilt with the top thread (blue) getting pulled to the back. The yellow thread is the bobbin. This indicates the top tension is too loose. It is allowing itself to get pulled down to the bottom of the quilt.

You should also know that if your stitches look like the following photo, (thread throw-up), the likely cause is the thread has come out from between the tension disks.

Step 6: Adjust the tension and test again.

Adjusting tension is trial and error. Stitch a little…examine top and bottom…make an adjustment using the top tension knob…stitch a little more…re-examine…adjust a little more…   Rinse and repeat until your stitches are perfect.

Another video, The ABC’s of TNT, you might find useful can be seen here.

These 3 infographics are great to print out and keep near your machine. Clicking on the graphic will take you to our page where you can download the pdf’s.






Tension – once you get it, you got it. And there’s no better feeling!


Quilt Every Day!


by Mary Beth Krapil


Written by

April 29th, 2023

Perfect tension – it is the #1 skill you should learn when starting your longarm quilting journey. Tension can either make or break your quilting results. It can be scary […]

14 responses to “6 Steps to Perfect Tension”

  1. I notice that the monofilament thread can be used with 3 different needle sizes. How do I know which one to use?

    • Karen, I always start with the smallest needle recommendation. The smaller the needle, the smaller the hole. And the smaller the hole the quicker and more likely that hole will close up after quilting is done. If I have issues with shredding or breakage, I move up to the next larger size needle.

  2. Why don’t you ever recommend the use of a TOWA gauge? It has changed the whole process for me and is so much more accurate that the process you outline in this post.
    Just Wondering???

    • I agree Linda. The TOWA guage is a very nice tool that lends speed and a degree of accuracy to adjusting bobbin tension. However, it is not a necessity. The drop test for setting bobbin tension works quite well. It’s kinda like power seats in your car. They are really nice to have and make it so easy to adjust your seat. Especially if two people drive the same car. But power seats are not a necessity.

  3. What is a TOWA Gauge? I sew on a Sweet Sixteen without the stitch regulator. Sometimes I see things that don’t pertain to a non regulated machine.

    • Maureen, it is a gauge that measures bobbin tension. It is not a necessity. Just a tool that helps to keep your bobbin tension consistent. I might write a blog post about it soon to explain it more thoroughly.

  4. Hi your chart has a lot of different threads. I am in Canada and have the Avante. I don’t see anything on the chart for glid thread. Thanks Connie

    • The chart I included is from Superior Threads. If you are using a different brand of thread, all you have to do is determine the weight of the thread you are using and find a comparable weight on the chart.

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