Troubleshooting Free-Motion Quilting: Breaking thread

I was quilting a small wall hanging on my sit-down machine last week and got really frustrated when my top thread kept breaking. I was almost done with the project and was quilting the border with a ferny vine pattern, and every few inches of stitching, I had to stop and tie off the broken thread and start again. I have three bed-sized quilts to wrestle through this machine in the next few months, and I was not looking forward to the prospect of continual breakage, so I posted a question to the Free-Motion Challenge Quilting Along group on Facebook. Wow! I got tons of helpful advice, which launched me on a quest to find the perfect combination of factors for my particular machine.

I have a Husqvarna Viking Mega Quilter. You’d think with a name like that that quilting would be no problem for this baby. When it’s mounted on my Grace quilting frame, it’s a regular little workhorse, but there’s no room for the frame in our tiny fancy Seattle apartment. So I’m using it as a sit-down quilting machine, and I find that it’s now a little more particular about what it will and won’t do.

the Husqvarna Viking Mega Quilter
My beloved Husky

To start my troubleshooting, I made a list of all the great suggestions from other quilters that I gleaned from the Facebook group:

  • Use the 1/4″ hopping foot made for the Juki.
  • Use a special-order hopping ruler foot.
  • Try a Schmetz hlx5 100/16 high speed needle.
  • Take a piece of non-wax dental floss and slide it through the tension discs with the presser foot up and then down in case thread is trapped there.
  • Reset the bobbin tension to the correct position and start again with first testing he upper tension. If you get no change then reset the upper tension to 4 and work on the bobbin tension and lower it by 1/6 turn. Mark your starting point on a piece of paper so you know how to go back to the beginning. Keep either the upper or lower tension set to a normal setting when testing, but don’t change both upper and lower at the same time.
  • If you are quilting with Aurifil 50 wt thread try a quilting needle rather than a top-stitch needle.
  • Depending on how you move the quilt under the needle, if the quilt is pulled towards you directly perpendicular to your position, you may be pulling the thread directly under the needle’s path causing it to shred.
  • Try a different type of thread.
  • Try a bobbin washer inside the bobbin.

I quickly realized that if I didn’t keep track of what I tried, I’d get lost; so naturally I made a tracking sheet. Here is what it looked like after four attempts:

A form to capture settings for FMQ
My new Troubleshooting Tracker, page 1
a form for capturing which settings have changed
Page 2 — look at all the stuff I tried!

I prepared several small sandwiches — just two 10″ squares of black fabric with a scrap of batting in between. You can see one in the top photo. Then I quilted the same motif that gave me the trouble, over and over, changing one (or at most two) things each time and noting the results in my tracker.

To cut a days-long story short, what ended up working for me was to set the stitch length back to zero (oops), change to white thread from gray, change to a quilting needle instead of a top-stitch needle, use a different foot (the Juki 1/4″ hopping foot fits perfectly and works better than the quilting foot that I already had), and stop pulling the quilt directly toward me while quilting. No single change solved the problem, but all together those changes made a difference.

So if your thread is breaking, or your machine is skipping stitches or making loopy eyelashes on the front or back of your quilt, try using this Troubleshooting Tracker to capture what you’ve already tried, what the result was, and what your machine’s favorite settings are. You can download it for free and print as many copies as you like–for personal use only–and feel free to share it with friends as long as the QuiltSmith copyright stays on the bottom.

If you’d like to use the Troubleshooting Tracker in a workshop that you get paid for, print it in a book, or use it for another commercial purpose, you need to ask my permission first.


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