Thread-Tension Troubleshooting

Get more balanced embroidery by achieving optimal upper and bobbin-thread tension.

By Nancy Mini, Contributing Writer

Innovative digital tension gauges for embroidery machines ensure proper tension with precision. Once you have zeroed in on your personal numbers, you can set the tensions for all needles.

January 31, 2022
You almost can’t glance at your newsfeed or check social media without seeing something about the importance of finding balance. When anything — from the tires on your car, to work or life itself — is off-balance, we are certain the outcome won’t be good.
The same is true with proper thread tension when using your embroidery machine. When you find the proper balance, you can create beautiful designs, crisp logos and stunning works of art. When thread tension is out of balance, productivity slows and the outcome is less than desirable.
Our team fields many calls from customers looking for guidance when their embroidery projects aren’t working out as planned. Many of the issues encountered can be explained and eliminated by focusing on thread tension. In fact, one of the most common reasons for thread breaks is improper tension settings.
In addition to thread breaks, poor tension settings can cause looping, puckering, stitches that appear squished and an overall substandard product. Proper thread tension produces consistent, better-looking results. Do you have balance? Are the upper and bobbin thread tensions working with or against each other?
Correct Tension Settings
The default tension settings on your machine will be appropriate for most embroidery purposes. However, after elapsed time, use and application, you may see signs in your embroidery that indicate you may need to troubleshoot tension issues. In addition, you may need to adjust settings for optimal performance with specialty threads or fabrics.
A tension gauge is recommended for setting both top and bobbin-thread tension, and can be found in both analog and digital models. Analog tension gauges have a spring-loaded needle that will measure the tension as you pull the thread through. Digital tension gauges are a great alternative and many embroiderers find the digital display to be more precise and user-friendly.
You can purchase separate tension gauges for top and bobbin-thread adjustments, or a single instrument — such as the Towa Digital Top Thread and Bobbin Tension Gauge, which will measure both.
Set bobbin-case tension between 22gf (gram force) and 25gf. Since you will have several needles working with a single bobbin, it’s important to adjust the bobbin tension first.
Less is more when adjusting bobbin tension — a quarter-turn or less at a time is recommended. The tension for the top thread will depend on the kind of thread you are using; check the tension for each thread on your multihead machine. Following are some commonly used threads and the recommended tensions for them:
1. Rayon #40: 150gf
2. Polyester #40: 170gf
3.Metallic #40-50: 150gf
4. Poly-Metallics #40: 170gf
5. Thicker Wool Blends: 190gf
These numbers are guidelines and may need adjustment depending on your specific machine. Make sure your gauge is set to the gram force setting and follow the guidelines for threading your particular gauge.
There’s a certain amount of trial and error as you adjust the tension. Machine speed can affect tension requirements — the faster the speed, the more exact you will need to be with tension settings. You also should check tension periodically, as it can “wander” a bit as you embroider.
Once you’re satisfied that thread tension is set correctly using a tension gauge, run a few tests before you begin a project.  Some people run an “I,” “H” or “FOX” test; embroidering these letters will allow you to check tension as the top and bobbin threads work together in various directions.
If the top tension is too tight, you will see more white bobbin thread on the underside of the embroidery. If it’s too loose, you’ll see much more of the top thread. You’ll know tension is set correctly when the lines on the bottom of the embroidery are equal — each about one-third. Some embroiderers even run a test pattern before moving on to the actual piece.
Not All Threads Are Equal
When it comes to tension settings, consider the properties of the thread you are working with and adjust tension according to manufacturers’ recommendations. The following guidance offers tips about a few thread types.
1. Rayon: This thread type is made from renewable resources, such as wood pulp/cellulose. Embroiderers choose rayon thread for its wide range of colors and high sheen, which lead to brilliant designs and details. It’s one of the most flexible embroidery threads due to its high tensile strength.
Rayon will run well at a lower tension setting and requires a tighter variance than polyester, so be mindful if you switch between different thread types thread for your projects. Rayon’s unique properties make it versatile enough for most applications. It creates less stress on the fabric and lays nicely in any direction.
2. Polyester: This thread type is made from man-made products. It’s vibrant and comes in a wide range of colors that hold up well to commercial laundering and the use of whitening/brightening agents on the final product.
Polyester also has higher elongation properties and will stretch if the tension is too high, making it less prone to breakage but can cause puckering in the final design. Polyester does well at a higher tension setting and allows for more variance than rayon to achieve optimal results.
3. Specialty Threads: Proper thread tension is especially important when using many of the specialty threads like metallic, thick, thin, fuzzy, conductive, etc. that are available on the market today. Typically, these threads will need a tighter tension to run well and it’s best to review recommendations from the thread manufacturer before getting started on any project.
If you’ve gone through all the steps above and still are experiencing issues, there are other items to consider:
1. Are you using a worn needle? Older needles may produce burrs that lead to thread breaks. Monitor the wear and tear on needles and replace as needed.
2. Check the thread path to ensure your machine is threaded properly.
3. Ensure the bobbin case is properly cleaned. Over time, lint and dust will build up, affecting your ability to get good tension.
4. Is the bobbin case worn out and in need of replacement?
5. Have you kept up with routine maintenance on your machine? Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to keep your machine running at peak performance.
Working through all of these steps should eliminate the most common causes of thread breakage and tension issues in your embroidery, creating the balance needed for optimal results.
Nancy Mini is Madeira USA’s product marketing manager. She has 30 years of experience conducting training for Madeira USA employees, as well as producing online training through Facebook Live on a variety of topics of interest to new and seasoned embroiderers. Self-taught to run singlehead and multihead commercial embroidery machines, Nancy often is called upon to help customers overcome embroidery challenges within their businesses. For more information or to comment on this article, email Nancy at nmini@madeirausa.com.

Don’t Forget Your Base

The materials on which you are embroidering also will affect tension settings. Thicker fabrics may require you to adjust the tension settings on the upper thread since it will meet more resistance. Working with thinner materials will require you to pay closer attention to overall tension settings.