I recently began to work a large whole cloth quilt. In my eternal search for The Most Difficult Thread Combinations, I have settled upon a doozie. I chose black Aurifil Mako for the top and gray Superior Kimono for the bobbin. This presents a challenge not only in the different thread weights, but also in the combination of a light thread color with a dark. And that requires dead. on. tension.
I thoroughly tested this and many other thread combos before settling on this one. One of my missions for this piece is to actually be able to see the quilting from a good distance, something that is atypical of whole cloth quilts.
That’s why I chose black Aurifil thread to stitch upon white cotton sateen-visibility. For the bobbin I chose silk: I love, worship and adore silk thread, it’s so just so beautiful and it behaves so well. It’s luscious. I put light grey silk upon black cotton sateen-yummmmm!
Keep in mind I fully tested this before committing to such a challenging combination. If my tension was off just an oochie, it would be obvious. This is not a combination for the faint-hearted. So all was going well, my quilt was gorgeous, my tension was perfect, the project was just a delight and I was skipping around the house for my quilting breaks.
Then, the inexplicable happened-I started getting loops on top. The tension was good before and after the loops. Loops on the bottom-easy peasy. Loops on the top-what’s up with that? The answer to that question took 4 days!
I first suspected the needle. I use Superior Titanium Topstitch needles almost exclusively for quilting. The first thing I did was reboot the machine, rethread and put a new needle in. I would guess 70% of the time that helps a lot. Not. I was using a size 70/10 needle so I bumped up to an 80/12. No go. I even went down to a 60/8 sharp and then I got skipped stitches (needle too small) in addition to the loops-oh that was fun.
Presser foot, tension?
I thought my presser foot height might be a little high so I lowered it-I was sure this was going to fix it-not! I played with my tension. One at a time I cranked up and lowered the tension on both top and bottom, just to see if the loops would go away-no. I added a Little Genie Magic Bobbin Washer-I just knew that would be it-my bobbin must be back spinning-no.
I wrote Diane Gaudynski, The Best Domestic Machine Quilter On The Planet, and she gave me some great advice about the tension, needles, etc. I systematically worked through that and still had loops. I called Superior Threads-a great source for answers to thread/tension/needle problems. I had already tried all that they suggested. Both Diane and Superior seemed to feel that the problem might somehow be connected to the tension in the bobbin. But, if none of that worked, it could be that the machine needed servicing.
I concluded that my machine needed servicing. I use my machine (Bernina 185) almost daily, but I keep it in great shape. It had only been a few months since I’d had it serviced. Nevertheless I bundled up my baby to go see the doctor. But I thought, first I’ll try this same thread combo on my older machine (Bernina 153)-that way I will know if it’s the 185.
It looped on the 153 also! Holy cow, now what??? I thought, I’ll play with the tension a little bit more just to see if I can’t make a go of it. I could see it getting better. The BIG difference between my newer 185 and older 153 is that the 153 has an infinite tension dial whereas the 185 has an electronic choice of only 4 stages between numbers.
And sure enough, it was the tension. By using tiny little micro adjustments to my upper tension dial and increments of less than 5 min on my bobbin (think of your bobbin tension screw as a clock dial), I was able to zero in on the correct tension-no loops-yippee! Apparently the challenging situation of the threads I chose required Truly Perfect Tension-and the Perfect Tension was in between the electronic settings on my 185-who knew??
So I guess I will be finishing this quilt on my older Bernina 153!
Take away lessons:
-Do all your testing on a scrap piece of exactly the same batting, fabric and thread as your real quilt.
-Correct tension is critical to beautiful quilting. Although 4 days is the longest time I’ve fiddled with tension (!!!), don’t be surprised if it takes you a couple of hours to get the correct thread/needle/tension combo if you’ve got a challenging combination.
-If your stitching looks like it got hit with an Ugly Stick, do the Three Step: turn your machine on and off to reboot it, rethread it being very mindful of the right thread path, and change your needle-even if it’s a new one, needles can be bad. Then work your tension.
-If you’re using icky thread (oh I could do a whole book on that!), switch to a brand you can find in your local quilt shop and NOT find in your big box store.
-If the problem is particularly vexing, consult with someone with lots of experience: write me, call your dealer, ask an experienced quilter in your area, etc.
-Work through one thing at a time. If you change the thread and needle and tension all at once and it worked, you don’t know what caused the problem. If it happens again you want to know what to do.
-Persevere-it will make your work beautiful!
And I do hope that it never takes you 4 days to get the right tension!