Sewing Machine Tensions

Lets talk about sewing machine tensions.  When a machine comes into the shop, no matter what the problem is, the customer will usually say, "it's the tension."  If the timing is off, "it's the tension."  If there's a burr on the hook, "it's the tension."  If the needle is in backwards, "it's the tension."  You get the idea.

I'll do a run through on how we balance the tensions at the shop.

Before we can work with tensions, we clean and oil throughout the whole machine.  It's especially important to clean and oil your bobbin area before working with the tensions.  That's something you should be comfortable doing yourself.  There's a tab at the top that will take you to a page to show you how to do this.

When you thread your machine, the presser foot has to be in the up position, to open the upper tension disks.  If the presser foot is down, the tension disks are closed tight, and the thread can't get into them.  When that happens, your fabric will have loops on the bottom, like this...

You can click on the pictures to make them bigger.

Next, make sure there's no lint in the upper tension disks or inside the bobbin case.  You can sweep the lint out with your lint brush.

Then set your upper tension dial on "normal."  If you don't have a "normal" setting marked on the dial, set it at 3.

Correctly thread your machine, top and bobbin.  Put a light colored thread in the bobbin and a medium to dark colored thread in the top.

Set your machine to do a medium zig-zag (unless your machine is just a straight-stitch machine).  On most machines it's 3 on the width and 2 on the length.

Sew on a light colored, good quality, cotton fabric for about 6."  

If the bobbin thread is pulling to the top, tighten the bobbin case tension by turning the little screw to the right.  Remember, "righty tighty, lefty loosey."  Here's some pictures of  bobbin case tension screws...

If the top thread is pulling to the bottom, that's what you want it to do.  But, you only want the top thread to be a "tick" on the back.  If it's really pulling to the back, loosen the bobbin case tension by turning the little screw to the left.

After working with the bobbin case tension, if you're still not sewing well, try adjusting the top tension.  It works just opposite of the bobbin case tension.  If the thread is still pulling to the top, loosen the upper tension.  If the thread is still pulling to the bottom, tighten the upper tension.

Here's my nearly perfect sew-off sample.

If you're still not sewing well, it may not be the tensions, and you may need to take your machine to the shop.


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  2. I have a white 1265 and my upper thread tension regulator is not work properly. .
    I have disassembled the upper tension regulator... and I can'get it reassembled. .. and I can't find any u tube videos on how to reassemble that model.. and can find some similar, nothing exactly like it..can you help me..tried to find a new tension regulator to replace the broken one.. cannt find one of those either..was wondering if I could replace it with one for a singet brand..I would greatful any help or info..thanks sue.

    1. I have that exact machine with the manual. Mines has an early serial number 3513 it was in working condition years ago but I'm not experienced enough to date fire it up. Be more than happy to send info from original owners manual

  3. Hi Sue,

    I checked my resources, and couldn’t find even a picture of a White 1265. I did find a user’s manual #1265 for a model 305, which may be the machine you have. But that wouldn’t help you. Each tension assembly is different. You’d need a SERVICE manual to get the schematic for the tension. At work, we don’t use service manuals. There are so many different brands and styles of sewing machines, which have been made for over 100 years. It’s impossible for a sewing machine tech to have access to all of those service manuals. And it’s impossible for a sewing machine tech to have all of that information memorized.

    You might be able to make a Singer tension work, if it would fit into the hole and stay anchored.

    You have to ask yourself, is this machine worth fixing? If a machine that old came into the shop, with a disassembled tension, we’d first check to see if we could buy a new part. If not, we’d check our “bone yard.” If we couldn’t find the part, we’d suggest putting your money into buying a different machine. Maybe your local shop has a used machine that’s been serviced and is in good working condition. Or you could check Craigslist in your area.


  4. Did disassemble the upper tension and now can't figure out where the small spring (check spring?) goes, any tension diagram for Kenmore 38512681 would be appreciated. Thank you.

  5. Hi, good article. I have a question about bobbins themselves. How doI find out which is best for my machine? At one point I had two machines, got the bobbins mixed up. My old faithful Bernina 1130 is still working. I have flat on both sides bobbins and I have bowed on both sides bobbins, how do I find out which one is best for my machine? Thanks.

    1. Dthe Bernina will use the flat one. 🤓

  6. WOW what a post. It's great article post, really I read & Like this post.

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  7. I have a Singer 301 and the thread gets caught in the upper tension so that it stops feeding to the needle causing other problems. What do I need to do to stop this? I have re-threaded (presser foot up), it works for a while and then gets caught again.

  8. Hi, I have a Brother 8015. My thread was constantly breaking, so I cleaned and oiled it, which cleared up that problem. However, all of a sudden now my stitches on the top are extremely loose, so much that they look almost like a straight line, and easily pull right out of the fabric. I've cautiously adjusted both top and bottom tensions, but nothing has changed, and I'm not sure what step to take next. Any suggestions? Thanks!

  9. Hi Sally,

    When the thread is a straight line on top of the fabric, either the top tension is too tight or the bottom tension is too loose. It makes me think that the thread isn’t under the tension spring on the bobbin. Is it pulled into the slot and under the flat spring?

    1. The thread is pulled into the slot, and under a flat hook part, but it seems impossible the the thread would stay in that hook, as it seems far too big an opening. There are no coils or springs on my bobbin case. I can't seem to find a picture online to illustrate, but the best I can say is that instead of a little coil like on other bobbin cases, it is just a flat square hook.