These snippets were first published in Machine Quilting Unlimited magazine's ask-the-expert column 'Ask Kimmy'. Copyrights held by Kim Brunner and Meander Publishing. All rights reserved.
Js and Frays and More Time to Quilt from the September 2011 issue of Machine Quilting Unlimited magazine
Dear Kimmy- I have been having problems with thread breakage lately and have gotten a lot of conflicting advice about how to fix it. How do you know where to start when dealing with breakage?
Kimmy says-I have an easy answer for you that comes in the form of a question; is it a J or a Fray?
Look at the end of your broken thread. Is it snapped off cleanly with a tiny little ‘J’ shaped hook at the very end? If so, it is likely that your thread is catching somewhere along the thread path so, before you begin to make unnecessary alterations in your tension settings, take the time to look closely at the entire path, making sure that the thread is gliding effortlessly along. In this situation, I always start by looking at the spool or cone to ensure that the thread hasn’t unwound itself and become entangled underneath the cone or somehow become caught up in that little tiny slit in the spool that’s meant to hold the cut end of the thread and prevent unwinding during storage. Next, I move along the thread path and make sure that the thread hasn’t inadvertently been wrapped and knotted around the various tensioning discs, knobs, slots and guides. After ensuring that the top thread is gliding smoothly, I move to the bobbin area. Is the thread coming off the bobbin in a smooth and consistent manner? Is my bobbin spinning freely inside the bobbin case? Is there any lint caught up in the different mechanisms of the bobbin case which would entrap my thread and prevent it from feeding out properly? Any of these things will stop thread dead in its tracks and cause it to snap off, so before I move on to the tensioning I make absolutely sure that I have eliminated the possibility of hang-ups.
If the broken end of your thread is frayed and shredded, it is likely that you either have a burr somewhere along the thread path or that you need to fiddle with your tension settings. Start by replacing your needle, as oftentimes a new needle will do the trick and no other troubleshooting will be required. Needles can easily develop burrs and since our thread passes through the eye of the needle numerous times before it actually forms a stitch, a burr can quickly chew up your thread and cause it to break. Next, check the guides that help your thread stay on the correct path. Do you feel any rough spots there? Check your bobbin case as well; are there any burrs there? If you can’t get your finger into the case to feel for burrs, try using a small section of an old pair of nylons. We all know that any hint of roughness will cause our nylons to snag, so you can rest assured that if there’s a burr in the bobbin case, the nylon will find it! If you find a burr, gently polish it away with a bit of emery thread or crocus cloth (a cloth made of a very fine-grit sandpaper) both of which are available at the local hardware store.
If you find no evidence of hang-ups or burrs, it’s time to start playing with the tension. Move from your quilt to a practice piece, as there’s no point in fiddling with tension adjustments on a quilt. Having to not only search for a solution to the problem but also having to rip out poor stitches made with incorrect tension is going to make you crabby in a big hurry, so set aside the quilt and grab a practice piece that can be tossed aside when its usefulness has ended. Make small adjustments as you go and after each adjustment, make a few practice stitches. Is the problem getting better or worse? Don’t begin by making wild changes to your settings, as you will have no clue if things are getting worse because you tightened when you should have loosened or are they getting worse because you loosened a lot when you should have only loosened a smidge. A little change can sometimes go a long way, so proceed with caution.
Thread breakage can be frustrating, but it’s a fact of life for quilters and knowing where and how to start looking for the problem can make finding the solution a lot easier. Take your time, go step by step and before you know it you’ll be back up and running.