Embroidery Library

How to Avoid Thread Nesting and Tension Troubles

Most of the time you and your embroidery machine will be perfectly in sync with each other. But sometimes you'll encounter tension headaches, such as thread nesting (where the top thread is pulled under the fabric and forming a knot or nest) or bobbin thread will float to the top of the embroidery, or looping of the thread.

To determine if your machine's current tension settings are correct, hoop a piece of cotton with a medium-weight cutaway stabilizer. Stitch a design that has a column of satin stitches -- like a letter "I." You should see 1/2 to 1/3 bobbin thread on the backside, and no bobbin thread on the front side.

If you see bobbin thread on the top, then your bobbin thread tension is either too loose, or your top thread tension is too tight. Sometimes it is a combination of both factors. Adjust the settings on your machine, and restitch the design until the balance is correct.

Conversely, if you see no bobbin thread on the backside, that means that the top thread is too loose, or the bobbin thread is too tight. And, sometimes it's a combination of both. Adjust the settings on your machine, and restitch the design until the balance is correct.

When adjusting the bobbin thread tension, it may be helpful for you to mark the "starting position" with a pen or dab of nail polish. Turn the screw 1/4 turn at a time until you have the correct balance. One embroiderer, Joyce, sent in this helpful hint:

Remove the bobbin and casing intact, keeping the bobbin thread in the tension springs. Dangle the casing by the pigtail of the thread. If the casing remains in place and doesn't move, give the thread a light jerk, like a yo-yo, to see if you can get the casing to slide down the thread. If it rapidly slides without stopping, it's too loose. If it doesn't move at all, it's too tight. If it slides a couple of inches and stops on its own, it's just right. Use the corner of a business card to clean between the springs.

If the above does not resolve the problem, then more information is below:

Digitizing of a design does not affect thread tension. Frequent or chronic problems with thread tension are due to incorrect stabilizer, a threading problem on the machine, or a problem in the bobbin area.

First, incorrect stabilizer. Thread tension problems can occur when using tear-away stabilizer. Tension on embroidery machines is set with the assumption that you'll be stitching through two layers -- fabric, and stabilizer. If you are working with a complex design and using tear-away stabilizer, then the needle perforations will disintegrate the stabilizer during the embroidery. That means that you're stitching through just one layer, and you may find thread tension troubles. If this occurs, try cutaway stabilizer instead of tear-away.

Second, a threading problem on the machine. Always thread the machine with the presser foot up, and make sure that you're catching all of the guides along the way. If you miss one, you'll have numerous thread breaks as well as tension problems.

Third, a problem in the bobbin area. If you've had a thread nest, there may be stray bits of thread remaining in the bobbin area. This may cause a tension problem. Open the bobbin area and use a small vacuum (like the kind for keyboards, or use a flexible straw with a regular household vacuum cleaner) to remove any lint, dust, or stray bits of thread. (We have used compressed air before, but some machine technicians recommend sucking with a vacuum rather than spraying.)

Other notes and tips:

If your thread spool has two positions (vertical and horizontal), use the vertical position. Also, a thread net (like the ones here, or use florist's mesh and cut to size) will help to keep the thread from puddling around the pin.

Use a dollar bill, or unwaxed dental floss, to "floss" the thread guides and tension disks on the machine. This helps remove any stray bits of thread that have been caught. One embroiderer, Sue, takes a long piece of floss and threads her machine with it. Then she pulls it through, several times. After doing that, she had no more thread or needle breaks, and the bobbin thread stopped being pulled to the top.

When changing colors, always pull the thread forward through the needle, not backwards towards the spool. That way no fuzz or lint will remain in the tension disks.

Sometimes polyester thread can cause looping. This is because polyester thread has a stretchy core.

Looping may also be due to using sticky-stabilizer. Sometimes the adhesive from stabilizer (or adhesive spray) can gum up the needle, and the thread will catch on that and loop.

Store thread out of sunlight, and in an air-tight container, to avoid dust, fading, and weakening of the fibers.

Clean the bobbins! One embroiderer, Joyce, found that her looping and birdnesting was due to a sticky adhesive residue that was on the bobbins. She cleans the bobbins regularly with rubbing alcohol and a fabric scrap.

When your machine is not in use, cover it to keep dust from settling.

Check the needle plate, needle tips, and thread spools for any burrs. Use a piece of fine sandpaper to smooth the burrs before stitching.

If you are working with specialty designs, such as freestanding lace or in-the-hoop designs, then take note:


When stitching freestanding lace, it is important to use a heavyweight water-soluble stabilizer (we recommend Sulky Ultra Solvy) and a sharp needle (not an embroidery needle). Freestanding lace designs tend to be more dense than other designs, in order to give weight and body to the design. Using a heavyweight water-soluble stabilizer, and a sharp needle, should avoid all thread looping and nesting issues.

In-the-Hoop Designs

Thread nesting can occur when using a low-quality tear-away stabilizer. Use a soft fibrous tear-away, nothing stiff or paper-like. Also, use a sharp needle, not an embroidery needle.

If you have problems with thread nesting, and using the above tips and information does not help, then please send an email to stitch@emblibrary.com. Include:

**Your order number
**Name of the design
**A description of where the thread nesting or problem occurs
**Type of fabric (if applicable) and stabilizer that you are using
**Needle type

Include all of the above information.