How to Free-Motion Quilt with the Best of Them: Helpful Hints from Susan Brubaker Knapp – Quilting Daily

Susan Brubaker Knapp sewing on the set of Quilting Arts TV.

I don’t know about you, but summer is the season when I get inspired. I’m not sure if it’s all of the plants in bloom or the time spent at the pool when my mind is allowed to wander. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that the long days make me feel like I’ve got more time to create.

This summer one of my goals is to improve my free-motion machine quilting skills. The last time I sat down to quilt stippling, curved, and geometric designs on potholders for practice, I ran into so many tension issues I wanted to pull my hair out.

Luckily summer also marks a new season of Quilting Arts TV, so not only do I have plenty of new techniques to try, but I’ll also be able to get the encouragement and helpful hints that I need to expand my free-motion quilting horizons.

Who better to get me started on the path to perfecting my machine quilting than the host of Quilting Arts TV and expert machine quilter Susan Brubaker Knapp? Here is her advice for taming your thread tension headaches:

Machine Quilting Tips: Adjusting Tension
by Susan Brubaker Knapp

Good tension in machine quilting means that the thread coming from the top of the machine and the thread coming from the bobbin interlock in a balanced way–your stitches should look identical on both the front and back of your quilt.

When thinking about tension, I often envision a tug of war going on between the top spool and the bobbin–if one pulls too hard, the stitches will be out of balance.

“Still Life with Cherries” by Susan Brubaker Knapp.

If you’re having trouble with tension, here are some ideas to fix it.

    • Remove the top thread entirely and rethread the machine. Check your machine’s manual if you have questions on how to thread the machine. Sometimes, if you miss even just one element or disc, the stitching will not be right.
    • If your bobbin case has a little arm extending up, that arm probably also has a small hole in it. Try threading the bobbin thread through that hole before pulling it up to the top of the machine. This will increase the bobbin tension a little bit and may help balance your stitches.
    • On most bobbin cases, there is a tiny screw that can be adjusted to tighten or loosen tension. Be careful, though, when doing this frequently as the case is not designed for that and may fail at some point. Take a photo or make a small mark on the case with a permanent marker to note where you started from so that you can adjust it back later. This increases the bobbin tension.
    • Start with the top tension on the machine’s default. Practice with a quilt sandwich that mimics exactly what you plan to quilt–same weight of fabric, batting, etc.–so you get an accurate picture of what the stitching will look like on your quilt. If you see too much of the bobbin thread on top, the top tension is too tight. Try going down one notch on the top tension dial. This decreases the top tension. Test the stitching. If it is still too tight on top, go down one more notch. Make subtle adjustments, one at a time, and test the stitching in between and before making additional adjustments. Conversely, adjusting the tension disc up to a higher number increases the top tension.
  • Use the same weight thread in the top and in the bobbin or, sometimes, a little lighter in the bobbin.

If you want to learn more from Susan and her fantastic guests including Cathy Wiggins, Victoria Findlay Wolfe, Esterita Austin, Jane Dávila, and many more talented artists, you won’t want to miss out on Quilting Arts TV Series 1800. Order the DVD or start watching right away when you purchase the video download.

Happy learning,

Brenna's Signature

P.S. Did you know you can watch past episodes of Quilting Arts TV with a subscription to QNNtv? Visit to learn more about streaming your favorite episodes.

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