Are you friends with your sewing machine?

Life is much more creative if you have made friends with your sewing machine!


Every so often we receive a call for help from a quilter who is struggling with her project because the thread is breaking as she is stitching, so I thought that this was a topic worth talking about here.

Even good quality thread will break if it subjected to too much friction as a quilt is being stitched.

Quilting involves “pushing & pulling” a quilt sandwich around under the presser foot, forcing the sewing machine to do more than simply stitch two layers of fabric together, so the sewing machine set up can contribute to the friction on the thread.

The friction caused by the sewing machine can be from:

  • A needle that is too small for the thickness of the thread
  • A needle that is too big for the thickness of the thread
  • Machine tension out of balance
    • Top tension too tight
    • Top tension too loose
    • Bobbin tension too tight
    • Bobbin tension too loose
  • A burr on the needle
  • Dust in the bobbin race causing the bobbin to rotate at the wrong speed
  • Machine needs to be oiled
  • The machine timing not in balance

This list looks frustrating but, apart from the last point, where you might want to take the machine to a technician, you can teach yourself to recognise, and solve, all these issue by getting out your sewing machine manual.

You’ve already learnt how to make a quilt, so add to your skill set by learning how to “drive” your sewing machine.


Choose a needle that is appropriate for the thread, a finer needle for thin threads and a heavier, bigger needle as the threads get thicker.


  • You need to be able to thread the eye of the needle
  • The needle must make a hole big enough for the thread to travel through the quilt sandwich.
  • Get into the habit of changing the needle regularly so that it always has a good point free of burrs
  • Choose a needle dedicated to a particular task. eg: Quilting needles are designed to stitch through the three layers of a quilt with ease.


Machine Tension:


Be brave, read the machine manual & learn how to adjust the tension.

  • Before you start, record the pre-set tensions with a photograph and now play.
  • Start with one adjustment at a time, and stitch a sample.
  • Change to another setting, stitch another sample & record the setting for future reference
  • Build up a stitched record of what happens as the tension is changed.

The ideal result is a stitch that makes a good lock in the middle of the seam or quilt sandwich and a line of stitching that looks relaxed without being too tight or loose on both sides of the fabric.

PS:  Always use two layers of fabric when stitch testing the tension:


You can read more about adjusting the machine tension in this post I wrote in 2011

Clean the machine regularly:

It will reward you with good stitches

  • If you can, remove the needle plate and bobbin and brush out the dust & fluff that has accumulated in the bobbin race from the fabric, batting & thread
  • Add a drop of oil to the bobbin race & run the machine to spread it into the bobbin race and spin out any dust.
  • If your machine handbook advises that the machine does not require oiling, add a drop of oil to a cotton bud and swirl it around the bobbin race to pick up the last traces of dust.

You can read our hints about cleaning your sewing machine in this earlier post.

Non mechanical causes of friction can be:


  • Lumpy, bumpy seams on the patchwork top
    • Press the seam allowances flat, and  to one side of the seam line
  • Batting that has a harsh feel
    • Use good quality batting
    • Avoid coarse polyester “craft” batting
    • Pre-wash cotton batting when ever possible to soften the handle

Lastly, choose the right thread for the job:


A really fine thread eg: Cotton Mako’ 50 will give a good result for show quilts that are stitched  with heavily detailed feathers and close background fills but it is not necessarily the thread to use to quilt a utility quilt with an open quilting pattern.

Cotton Mako’ 40 is more suitable for day to day quilting. The ditch stitching will stay tucked in the ditch and the thread will produce great quilting texture and shadows.

Quilting with Cotton Mako’ 28 will be more visible and a slightly larger needle may be required than the needle that is used for Cotton Mako’ 40 & 50.

See Judysewforth’s Zentangle project using Cotton Mako’ 28

Use Cotton Mako’ 12 to stitch decorative designs that are very visible. This thread is thick, so the machine needle and tension settings will definitely have to be adjusted.

I match the same thread in the bobbin for all thread weights EXCEPT Cotton Mako’ 12. For this thread I use Cotton Mako’ 28 to give a well balanced stitch without having to modify the bobbin tension.

Now, start making friends with that sewing machine today!

More reading to get you enthused:



2 Responses

  1. Very helpful post, thanks

  2. Agree with the comment about craft batting … I only hand quilted when that was the only stuff available, but would hate to put it through a machine.

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