Quilting Tips for Dealing with Free-Motion Bobbin Thread ISSUES! [Troubleshooting Tips]

Imagine these scenarios: 
For the beginning quilter: 
You’re free motion quilting for one of your very first times. You’re SO excited about it because you’re finally getting the hang of moving the quilt underneath the darning foot. You finish your work… take the quilt sandwich off of the machine.. turn it over as FAST as humanly possible… to find a horrible MESS on the backside of the quilt. [Like pictured above]
For the experienced quilter: 
You’re working on your project. You know exactly what each stitch is supposed to feel like and look like as you’re free motioning. All the sudden… everything is acting a bit “bouncy”… tugging in all the wrong places… and you just KNOW that something is not right. You stop, turn your quilt sandwich over, and boom. Ugliness. 
Devastation. 
Frustration. 
Irritation. 
These are all words that I feel EVERY TIME this happens to me. When I was a beginner quilter, this happened to me nearly constantly. As I have progressed as a quilter, I have learned a few techniques to fix the problem and prevent it from happening throughout the entire free motioning process. 
Although I do not know the set “cause” as to WHY this happens — I do have a couple ideas as to what might help prevent it from happening. 
  1. Do not use low Quality Thread
  2. Do not use low Quality Batting : I always use Warm & Natural — I used to use the polyester batting all the time (because it’s cheaper). However, I have found that using a high quality batting prevents the majority of this problem!
  3. Work on getting the timing between how fast you’re moving your fabric through the machine and how fast you’re pushing your pedal on your machine down to a science. Play around with your machine and practice free-motion quilting. Sometimes, moving the fabric too fast under the machine can cause bobbin thread issues. 

Whether you’re a beginner or a pro, here are a few things I look and feel for while free motioning to indicate if my bobbin stitches are going crazy:

  • Within about 20 seconds of beginning your free motioning, take your hand and feel under the quilt along the stitches that you have already made. [For the most part], good clean stitches should not be easily “felt”. However, when there is a problem with the bobbin thread (or, the back side of the quilt), it is easily felt. It has a distinct texture. 
  • If you are not sure about if what you’re feeling on the bottom of your quilt is “good” stitches or “bad” stitches, simply lift up your quilt sandwich and take a peek. 
  • For the frequent free-motioners: You know what your specific machine is supposed to sound like, look like, and feel like while free motion quilting. So, be on the lookout for ANYTHING out of the ordinary. It could indicate bad bobbin stitches. If so — you want to catch it as early as possible so there are not as many stitches to rip out and re-do! 

Here are a few things to try if/when this happens to you. I put these in order according to how I try to fix the problem. If the second tip fixes the problem — I just continue free-motioning. However, sometimes it is just not that simple and I am forced to continue trying different things.

  • First: Remove the quilt, grab your seam ripper, and take out all of the bad stitches. You only need to remove [starting] where the bad stitches begins and [ending] where you quit free-motioning. 
  • Second: Remove your bobbin and re-insert it into your machine. Sometimes, bobbins just act strange in the free motion process. They get a little “off” and just need refreshing. Try to free-motion again. If you continue to get “bad” stitches, move to the third tip.
  • Third: Remove your bobbin again. Re-insert it into the machine. Then, remove your top thread completely and re-thread it into the machine. Try to free-motion again. If you continue to get “bad” stitches, move to the fourth tip.
  • Fourth: Remove your bobbin and top thread. Try and clean your machine as best as you can. Sometimes, particles from batting, fabric, and thread “lint” gets into the machine and clogs it up — causing problems. Try to free-motion again. If you continue to get “bad” stitches, move to the fifth tip.
  • Fifth: Get a fresh bobbin! Sometimes, although I don’t know why… bobbins just don’t cooperate. So, at this point, just try a completely new bobbin. Try to free-motion again. If you continue to get “bad” stitches, move to the sixth tip.
  • Sixth: Change your needle. Sometimes a dull needle can cause a lot of unwanted problems while quilting. Although I am NOT a proponent of changing the sewing needle on every new project — sometimes needles do get too dull to do a good job. Try to free-motion again. If you continue to get “bad” stitches, move to the seventh tip.
  • Seventh: Make sure your tension is set to “auto” or “0”. **Depending on your machine, this tip might be a slight bit different. Make sure to look in your machines’ manual to see if it has any instructions on the bobbin tension while free-motioning. Try to free-motion again. If you continue to get “bad” stitches, move to the eighth tip.
  • Eighth: Let your machine rest. If you have tried ALL of the other tips above and your thread is still not behaving right, there is a pretty good chance that you are EXTREMELY frustrated and burnt out of trying to fix this problem. So, if possible, put your quilt away… shut your machine off… and come back to it later. 

I have had times that walking away from the machine was the ONLY option. I had already tried all of the other tricks — and none had worked.

Although I am an experienced quilter — these tips are not a “fix all” strategy. These are just things that I do to try and fix the thread problem when this happens to me. The majority of the time, all it takes to fix the problem is to re-do the bobbin. However, sometimes fixing the problem takes alot more time and effort than simply changing the bobbin.

These tips are strictly from my experience while free motion quilting.

If you have any additional tips and tricks to fix this problem — I’d love to hear about it! Feel free to comment!

19 comments

  1. Carol Cronk says:

    Your post is very helpful to the new quilter. When I first tried to free motion quilt I had all the problems you talk about and tried most everything you have suggested with no success. My machine was 8 years old at the time and had never been serviced. I took it to a factory service center and they tuned it up and cleaned it “all under” and I have had no problems since and quilting has become my new love. I also take my machine in every year now as I learned the importance of doing so. Your tips are also good to try for other machine problems to. They can serve as a “go to list” Thanks and God Bless You!

  2. Kathy says:

    I have had this problem quite a bit lately. I adjusted the top tension to help, also I was careful not to add extra tension when winding the bobbin. I even adjusted the tension of the bobbin thread. In the end I practiced on scrap quilt sample after each bobbin change. The sample being exactly like my quilt. That saved me a lot of work un sewing.

  3. Judy says:

    I always have a practice sandwich to start my free motion before I start my actual project. Helps me get the tension corrected first.

  4. Nadine says:

    You can try to tighten the bobbin thread tension 1/4 turn. Just remember to return it to the original tension when done quilting.

  5. Rebecca Roach says:

    You should make sure your bobbin thread is not too tight nor too loose. Lay the bobbin in your hand and pull up ( as tho it is a spider at the end of its web) and if your bobbin can be slightly lifted off your hand, it is good. Secondly, if the bobbin tension is correct and you still have “railroad” track on the bottom your top tension is too strong. If there are “tracks” on the top, the top tension is too weak. If your bobbin tension is correct the adjustments should be in you top tension. If you are getting skipped stitches, it is the wrong size needle. Superior Threads has great charts about needle sizes. Trial and error and listening to experts have never led me wrong

  6. Monica says:

    Thanks for the tips. I have done one quilt with no trouble but had nothing but trouble with the second. I think it could be polyester mix batting because that is the only difference. I will try all your tips and see if I have success. I didn’t know experienced quilters had these problems too. I don’t feel such a failure, thanks.

  7. Sherry says:

    Thank you SO much for your helpful tips. I’ve done a few small projects where I did some free motion quilting and never had any problems. I began to free motion quilt some hot pads for Christmas and I’ve had nothing but problems. I began working systematically through your tips and found that my machine didn’t like the bobbin thread so full. Imagine that! Everything is MUCH better now and I can finish my Christmas presents!!
    Sherry

  8. Marjorie says:

    Those issues on the back side of your quilt are, most likely, caused by the needle thread, not the bobbin thread. If you had different colours of thread in the top and the bobbin, you could see that all the thread loops on the bottom are the top thread.

  9. Suzan says:

    If the loops are being pulled as in your pictures, the top bobbin is most likely the problem and the tension is too tight. Grab a piece of batting and some fabric and make a test sandwich. Try loosening the top tension first and then give it a look. If it is still pulling, back off the tension again. If you feel little knots on the underside, the tension is too loose. Always try to test your stitches on a practice (using the same fabric and batting you have in your quilt if possible) sandwich. It saves a lot of ripping and frustration!

  10. Nanci says:

    Thank you for all your tips. When I am having problems I just pull out your list and it seems to work.
    This is the first place that I have seen tips like this.

    Nanci

  11. Kirsten says:

    One thing that also helps (and I always tend to forget) is to cover your feed dogs. Most sewing machines come with one but you can just tape them off as well. :) Also I turn my machine perpendicular to me so my arms are free to grab the blanket and curve freely.

  12. Sierra says:

    Great post! However, this is actually a thread tension problem. And while it is definitely good to change your needle and clean the machine, this type of issue is extremely common in free motion quilting and unfortunately is something that needs adjusted from quilt to quilt. There is typically a knob somewhere on your machine that will adjust the tension discs in your machine. Check out the manual for which direction it needs to be changed. Also, try a test piece that is the same fabric sandwich as your quilt so that you do not need to rip stitches out. Thread tension is a big pain in the butt, but it’s part of the free motion quilting deal (long arm quilting and home machine quilting). Once it is set for the quilt and thread that you are currently using, you shouldn’t have anymore issues until you move onto a different quilt or change thread type. I hope this was helpful!

  13. Audrey says:

    I use ALL of your tips and it makes me feel vending tend that others have these issues as well. One thing I was told at a quilting store, and this has helped a great deal too with my thread breaking, is to use denim needles. I always quilt now with strong, large opening denim needles. It was explained to me that the speed of the machine (in free motion sewing) causes friction which creates heat, which causes the thread to expand, which causes it to break. So by having a larger space for the thread to expand inside the needle, you get les breakage. This had worked wonders for me.

  14. Kris says:

    Those slipped stitches are actually caused by turning the quilt when doing free motion. Although you move the quilt when quilting, you dont TURN it.

    • Finola says:

      Helpful tips for dealing with any stitch quality “issues”. I agree with Kris, the motion of the quilt vs. the needle will result in “eyelashes” on the back of the quilt. This happens with free-motion longarm machines also. I have been able to minimize this particular problem by changing my speed when I find my “curves” or loops are creating “eyelashes”. I drop my shoulders, breathe slower and move my quilt more slowly while I run the machine somewhat faster. I somehow seem to forget that free-motion quilting means the stitch length depends entirely on the person, not the machine. When the machine speeds up and the quilt underneath slows down, the stitches are shorter/smaller and have the ability to “lock” together more smoothly, Try this for for quilting loops and curves and it may help!

  15. Linda Ralston says:

    Once when this happened to me I had not lowered the foot all the way. I didn’t even know my machine could sew without the foot down, but when I checked it, sure enough, it was still partially up and not engaged fully in the lowered position. Now I always check that the foot is fully down. I have not had problems since.

  16. B crump says:

    Infre motion on a Pfaff. I was advised to reset the machine after it travelled form Virginia to Iceland. Remove the needle, clean and oil and let the machine run for about ten seconds on full speed. Set a new needle, retread and fresh bobbin. Work likes a charm!

  17. Mary says:

    Thanks for the post. I have just started quilting. The first quilt I made…I did not have any problems with the “backside”. Since then, I have had nothing but a horrible mess on the “backside”. I have walked away and searched many sites to try and correct the problem. I will give your steps a try!!! Thanks Mary

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