thread tension

More Tools for Tension

February 24, 2024


Last week we learned about the Towa gauge, the best tool for help setting your bobbin tension. There are a few other simple tools I use when adjusting and monitoring tension that I want to share with you. Once again, these things are not necessary to achieve good tension. They just help.

Scrap Strip

This is an easy and (practically free) tool.

We all take time to be sure our quilt pieces are loaded perfectly. This is an essential step in getting beautiful results. I pay special attention to make sure my backing fabric is loaded straight, square, and smooth. I sure don’t want wrinkles or tucks in the back that I won’t see as I am quilting. It’s on the bottom and I’m looking at the top. If I start off smooth and advance my quilt carefully, all goes well.

The old way

Many instructors will tell you to place a piece of scrap fabric next to the quilt top on the extra batting and backing as a place to test tension. When you do your test stitching (remember small loops and points? read 6 steps to perfect tension here) you’ll want to look at the back of the sandwich to see the stitches there. If you use the side of your quilt for testing, this means you will grab the edge of the backing, pull it up and twist it, so that you can see the stitches underneath. Every time you do this you stretch your backing fabric a bit. We know that tension adjustment requires test…look…adjust…test…look…adjust…repeatedly. All this stretching of the backing fabric can cause sagging on that side of the backing. Sagging can result in puckers, wrinkles, and/or tucks. Not good.

The new way

Instead, I use a long scrap strip sandwich. I make a quilt sandwich 3-4 inches wide and long enough to stretch from the leveler pole to the belly bar, plus as much extra as I have. The longer the better, you can keep using it until it is filled up. I stretch it from the leveler pole to the belly bar.

If you have a busy fabric, turn it over and use the wrong side so you can see your stitches better. I try to use the same batting that I am using in the actual quilt.

Wrap it around the leveler pole and pin it, like this:

Stretch it across your frame. In standard mode thread it through the two front poles. Under the top pole and over the belly bar. The same way the real quilt (on the right) goes.

In Clearview place it over the poles, just like the real quilt top. Since I have a quilt on the frame in Standard I cannot show you a photo, but I’m sure you understand.

Bring your machine off the quilt and onto your test strip.  Hold the close end of your strip in place by leaning gently on the belly bar trapping the strip. A nice alternative is to use Easy-Grasp Clamps. They come in 3 different sizes so make sure to order the size you need for your frame.

Stitch your tension test small loops and zig-zag. Then you can easily turn your strip over and examine the stitches on the bottom.

You will not have disturbed your perfectly loaded backing fabric at all!

Once you have perfect stitches, simply let the strip hang down from the leveler pole and push it aside, til you need it to test the next bobbin change. Once your strip is filled up, just toss it and make a new one.

Finger Nail

This tool is something you have with you all the time. And it is 100% free. 😉

Run your fingernail along your stitches under the quilt. If you can feel and/or hear a “pop, pop, pop” you’ll know your top tension too loose. It is a quick and easy way to double check that nothing has gone awry with your tension as you work your way through the bobbin.


Mirror, mirror

Sometimes you want to see your actual stitches on the bottom of the quilt as you are working your way through the quilt. But you don’t want to crawl under the quilt to do that! A simple low tech way to see your bottom stitches is to use a mirror. I go to the back of my frame and hold a hand mirror under the quilt. Sometimes it’s too dark to see the detail of the stitches, so you can shine a flashlight onto the mirror. The light will reflect up onto the back of the quilt and illuminate your stitches.


Higher tech

There are a couple of higher tech options for seeing stitches under the quilt.


Because I have an HQ Infinity, I have a built-in camera that will show me my stitches on the bottom of the quilt. It mounts on the machine and is connected to my display. When I turn it on, I can see the image right there on my display. You need to focus it and it is helpful to turn off the machine lights to get a better view of your stitches.


There are after-market cameras that can be added to machines other than the Infinity. These do not come from Handi Quilter. There are many options so you can Google it if it is something you might think would help you.


Some quilters use an endoscope, a small camera with lighting, used as an inspection tool for places that are hard to reach. There are some available that wirelessly connect to your smart phone to show the image, some have their own display.  Google it. The price range varies greatly, but it is possible to get one for under $30. You would have to figure out how to attach it to your machine in a way that it will not interfere with your quilting motion. I know a few quilters who use this method.

These tools are not necessary but can help, in one way or another, to let you see your stitches on the bottom and to keep tabs on your tension.

Quilt Every Day!


by Mary Beth Krapil


Written by

February 24th, 2024

Last week we learned about the Towa gauge, the best tool for help setting your bobbin tension. There are a few other simple tools I use when adjusting and monitoring […]

6 responses to “More Tools for Tension”

  1. I will definitely be buying a mirror to keep by my machine. This has been one of my biggest regrets in choosing a long-arm over a sit-down machine- I couldn’t see what’s happening on the back. Problem solved! Duh!!!

  2. So much great information. Great tip not to use the side of a loaded quilt but to use a separate strip. The mirror and light or the endoscope are wonderful ideas to check the back of a work in progress. Thanks for the tips.

  3. Mary Beth, I just watched the video of Vicki and Kimmy Brunner on straightening your leaders with a level, sharpe, messy chalk line. My suggestion is that Handiquilter, at the factory, draw a straight line down the poles, or etch a line to be used as registration line for attaching the velcro. What do you think?

  4. I have a 5’ long mirror (one that would normally go on the back of a door) on my longarm table. Same principle as a hand mirror. I can slide the mirror all along my table, and use a flashlight shining on the mirror to check my stitches. No more performing any gymnastics to see the back of the quilt!! Have done this for YEARS. I have too many things UNDER my longarm table to even get under there to look.

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