The Free Motion Quilting Project: LOOPS - Tension or Speed?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

LOOPS - Tension or Speed?

Sorry to break the normal design routine for Tuesdays, but my voice has suddenly decided it wants to sound like a croaky frog, so I can't dub the video scheduled for today.

So instead, I wanted to share with you some photos provided by an awesome new quilter named Pamela W. and talk about an issue I saw a lot in my classes at Myrtle Beach.

What is the issue?

LOOPS! Those dreaded loops on the back of your quilt that seem to happen only when you start free motion quilting!

I know of no more scary thing to a beginning quilter. Seriously, I should make a horror movie and the slasher guy should be the loopy back of a quilt. NOOOOOO!!!!!

My weird humor aside, this is a real problem, especially for beginners to free motion quilting, and it's absolutely understandable for you to be bothered by loops of thread showing up on the back of your quilt.

So where do they come from? Why do they happen? And what the heck can you do about them?

The first thing to realize is that loops on the back of your first free motion attempt is perfectly normal. Nothing scary about it.

We all have to stitch through a selection of ugly, unbalanced stitches at the beginning before we learn how to make the pretty, perfect stitches.

Let me repeat: WE ALL HAVE TO GO THROUGH THIS. I would show you my first stitches if I still had them, but they were tossed out long ago.

I do remember going through that though, and I remember the frustration, but I also remember the wonderful feeling when I finally got through it and found the beautiful stitches that were just waiting to come out.

So if it's "perfectly normal" why do loops happen?

From what I've found, most loops are not actually caused by tension issues. If your machine was out of tension, you would know it when you sit down to piece or sew.

If you're not dropping your feed dogs, as I don't, then nothing should be changing with the mechanics of your machine. Your top thread and bobbin thread should be grooving together just the same was as they always do.

To put it plainly: if your machine isn't making wild loops on the back of your fabric while you piece, it shouldn't be making wild loops on the back of your quilt while you quilt it.

If everything goes out the window on your machine, try switching back to your piecing foot and the normal settings you use for piecing, and then make a line of stitches. If that comes out right, then it's not your machine tension at all.

So if it's not the tension on my machine, what is it?

It's your hands and your feet.

Well, to be exact, it's the balance between of the speed of your machine controlled by your foot, and the movement of your hands.

How can I tell?

Look at this picture Pamela sent me:

See the area I circled in red? These are perfectly balanced stitches. If Pamela's tension was out of whack, she wouldn't be seeing any of these on the back of her quilt.

Do you also see the areas I circled in blue? Notice that all of these areas are roughly the same shape. The same loopy "E" shape that was stitched by Pamela moving her hands in the same motion.

The fact that the loops only happen in these specific areas tells me one thing:

Tension is not the issue. The ratio, the balance of speed and movement is the issue.

What is happening is Pamela is actually better at free motion quilting than she probably realizes. I said she was awesome and she really is!

She's awesome because her hands are already comfortable moving the quilt around in these shapes. When she makes that particular "e" shaped movement, her hands are speeding up. They are super comfortable making that movement and want to do it FAST!

So why is she getting loops on the back of her quilt in these areas?

Because foot is just not keeping up with her hands!

Here hands are moving the quilt around, but her foot is staying the same speed as before.

Typically when this happens your stitches will get really big and wide, but also what can happen is the bobbin thread pulls the top thread tightly to the back of the quilt, trying to compensate for the increased movement but lack of speed.

That's how you get loops!

So to fix these loops, Pamela can do two things:

She can try to focus on her hands more and try to keep the movement of her hands steady and even. Personally I find this more difficult as our hands our more involuntary than our feet and require more focus to slow down.

It also goes against your body's natural rhythm. My feeling is if a movement feels natural and good to you, do more of it, and do it at the speed your body wants!

So the other thing Pamela can do is speed up her machine, but only in the areas where she's getting loops.

This means that she will need to speed up in those "E" shapes, but then slow down again slightly when she comes out of those shapes.

Now I'm not a fan of the "pedal to the metal" advice to stitch at the highest speed your machine has while you learn how to free motion quilt. I believe that we all have a comfortable speed within us, and for some it's slower than others.

But I do believe in learning to find different levels of speed on your foot pedal. It's more than just fast and slow!

Think of it like driving a car up to a stoplight. You don't get 5 ft from the stoplight and slam on the brakes, do you?

No! You slow down gradually, and if the light turns green, you speed back up again. And all of that movement and control is being dictated by your FOOT!

free motion quilting | Leah DaySomething many students noticed in class was how I quilt barefooted. I simply cannot quilt with shoes on. With a shoe on, I don't have as much control or intuition into what is happening with my foot.

I also quilt with the ball of my foot on the top of the pedal. My toes hang off the top because I have more control over the middle part of my foot than my toes.

Feeling the pedal and all the speeds your machine has, and being able to go from fast to slow and from slow to fast is a skill that will definitely come with time.

No, your first attempts at free motion quilting will not be perfect! Stop expecting them to be!

Quilt your first trial quilt and get all those ugly stitches out. Learn how to move the quilt, how to control the foot pedal, and balance that ratio between your hands and your foot.

It's a lesson you cannot learn by thinking about it, you have to DO IT!

The more you move your hands, the more you move your foot, the more you concentrate on creating simple designs in free motion, the easier this will become.

Piece up something simple, even if it's just plain fabric and quilt the snot out of it! Get through those ugly beginning stitches because I promise you, you will find beautiful stitches in there!

They're just fighting to get out.


Leah Day

Super thank you to Pamela W for sending me her photos and allowing me to share them with all of you!


  1. Hi Leah,

    I'm wondering...if you leave the feed dogs up...don't they chew the heck out of your Supreme Slider when doing free motion quilting?


  2. Great lesson!! I needed to hear that from a pro. Thank you for the pep talk. =!=

  3. Thanks or clearing that up some more for me!

  4. What a nice explanation! And your observations reflect the observations I've made about my own quilting and the vicious loops. You're absolutely right--things will get better with time. I also would like to suggest that sometimes students have not such good luck with different wt. thread in the top than what's in the bobbin. And those vicious blobs occur even when straight stitching so you know it's your tension then and things must be adjusted before free motion quilting, imho.

  5. Leah bless you - this is the post I've been needing
    I've been having the same problem and probably unconsciously knew I was moving the fabric a bit fast but wasn't convinced - now I am. I will have to LEARN how to SLOW myself down when trying to quilt next and hopefully that will be another element of FMQ 'cracked'

  6. Thank you so much for this post! Very helpful to know I am "normal", a have a practice quilt ready for basting so I will remember my hands and feet when I try!

  7. Hi Hilary - With my feed dogs up, yes, my supreme slider does get chewed on a bit around the needle area, but not badly.

    If you turn your stitch length to 0, the feed dogs will just go up and down, and not actually feed upward, so I have never ruined a slider by using it with the feed dogs up.

    Try it and see what works for you!


  8. We call 'em "eyelashes." : ) And I feel they are from the top tension being too loose and bottom too tight. When my machine is set right, I get none, regardless of the speed I go. I typically FMQ at med/fast with no eyelashes... if my tension is correct. Many people need to loosen the bobbin tension & tighten the top in order to free motion. You don't agree?
    with the 7700 from hell. (lol)

  9. Did she have one of your bobbin washers in her machine? Ever since I put one in mine I haven't had a single loop!
    I had to give up on the Supreme Slider, though. It kept wanting to be "applique" on the back of my quilts. Not a good look! ;)

  10. Hi Leah
    I like to practice my free motion quilting on placemats. No need to piece them, just cut out some pretty fabric.

  11. What a great post I have been having this problem for ever so long and was hoping I would get the answer. I normally work with feed dogs sown but am going to try with them up.

  12. Monika - I rarely mess with my bottom tension. If my bobbin is feeding smoothly for piecing, I don't really like to loosen it for FMquilting and then have to tighten it again. I to lazy to remember to change it every time!

    As for your 7700, have you tried free motion with the feed dogs up? All I do is put on the D1 straight stitch and turn the stitch length to 0. With tension on Auto it stitches beautifully!

    Good luck!


  13. Спасибо за статью! Она все объясняет! Я как-раз сейчас нахожусь на этом этапе.

  14. Good post, I had to learn all of this by trial and error.
    Love you purple socks!

  15. Fantastic post Leah!!
    You have a real gift for putting things into words to fully explain.
    I find when I am teaching, some ladies just 'get it' straight away and others just take a bit longer.It reminds me of taking my boys snowboarding and one of my son's friends, now keeping in mind none of them had ever tried snowboarding before.My son's friend just 'got it' while my boys had more difficulty and needed more practice : - falls!!!

  16. Interesting reading. I have had loopy problems but found that the only time I had it was when I forgot to lower my presser foot. It looks very cool but does nothing for my quilt. I use a Janome knock off by Kenmore and leave my feed dogs up. My quilting actually comes out pretty good.

  17. Thank you for the advice. I never could determine why my FM stitching is good most of the time, but loops some of the time. Now when it happens, I know that I do not have to re-thread the machine or play with the tension or change my needle. I have a button on my machine that controls the motor speed. I generally decrease it by 50%. I tend to have a heavy foot and even with the pedal to the medal, the slower speed makes it easier to control hand and foot motion. I also can not sew with shoes on. I have taken classes in the past where I took my slippers with me to put on. I do get some strange looks.

  18. Thank you so much for the lesson - this is exactly what I needed. I'm just beginning and each time I try, I get those loops - now I finally know what I can do about them :)

  19. Ive got a machine where you cant do anything with the feed dogs, you have to use a darning plate, but I think the whole speed/coordination issue is also something I have to tinker with, cause I dont think its the tension on my machine (unless im wrong). I found that the loops also cause notorious jamming on my machine.

    Any input on darning plate and loop issues for a newbie quilter is much appreciated

    using an old kenmore ultrastitch 12 in case you need to know.

  20. Hi leah. As a free motion embroiderer, I really like the pictures. In textile art terms, your students are doing what is called feather stitch when it is done in circles like this and whip stitch when it happens on a straight line. It is a very useful technique for us. As you know the top/bottom tension balance is a very fine adjustment and every machine is different. I find that a tiny tightening of the bottom tension and I mean tiny, less than a few degrees clockwise, will sort this out. however, as you know there are lots of other things to check, like needle size, foot pressure, stabilization, thread type and thread feed etc. The best solution is to play and experiment in order to know your machine.
    By tjhe way, I have been watching your project from day 1. congrats on a job well done

  21. Hi- I find that with my machine I get loops on the back when going forward and to the right, but the tension is fine when I stitch backwards and to the left. I thought it was the machine, but I am wondering if it is because I move my hands too fast in the directions I feel comfortable with. But in the directions I don't feel comfortable with, I move slower and this is the speed I should be using all the time! I will have to play with the quilting and see if this is true.

  22. Good post, Leah. I knew it was not my tension but never figured out it was hands vs feet until now! Thank you!

  23. What great information! I get those nasty loops from time to time and wondered what I was doing wrong. I've messed with tension, but up and down, and I notice I got fewer eyelashes when I quilted slow, but that just wasn't my speed. I feel much better about playing with this more now.

    I also know I should slow down. I generally break at least one needle each time I free motion quilt. Thank you so much for the new inspiration

  24. What a great helpful post!! I just spent weeks pulling out those nasty loops from my latest quilt and I'm ready to start again-- so this is right on time for me.

  25. Hi Leah,

    I'm hoping you will answer this question. I read that you do free motion without putting your feed dogs down. Can you explain how you do that? If I don't put my feed dogs down it's pretty much inpossible to move my quilt in any direction except forward. Do you loosen the pressure of your pressure foot? Any advice would be much appreciated.

    Chester NU

  26. Why haven't I followed your blog before! It's wonderful! So great! And very learning for a newbie like me! Thanks!

  27. Thanks so much for this post!!! I consider myself just past beginner at FMQ (maybe amateur?), but I still have this problem when I do my "test piece" sometimes! I always assume its thread or tension, never really thought about speed issues. Now I can focus on that more and see if it fixes it for me next time it happens :)

  28. What are your views on using a straight stitch needle plate instead of the multi stitch plate which comes with most machines?
    Is it worth spending the money do you think?

  29. Hi Debbie - It really just depends on your machine more than anything else!

    I own 4 machines right now and one of them does work best with the feed dogs down, but the other 3 work better with them up.

    It's one of those things that I just encourage everyone to TRY. We've all be told feed dogs down, but what if most machines work better with them up? You don't know until you try it!

    Maureen - I prefer to use the straight stitch needle plate if it's convenient. New machines are now coming out with a needle plate converter that pops up to a single hole.

    If you don't have the automatic kind and have to unscrew your needle plate each time, that can get really annoying. Just always remember to change needle plates before you decide to zig zag stitch!



  30. You're a doll! I wish I'd seen this about a year or 2 ago when I was first starting out! I always sew barefooted too! I remind myself to keep those shoulders loose and slow down on the curves!!

  31. thank you so much! I am a new quilter, and just starting free motion. And yes ...I to have those "eye lashes" on the back. I will keep practicing! Thanks for all the advice.

  32. Gracias por la explicación, parece que me has visto por un agujerito.

  33. Thanks for the informative post! I'm a new quilter as well. I think I've only quilted 2 or 3 small quilts on the machine so far, and am still fighting those darn 'loops'! They can be quite frustrating! But at least now I know what to watch for.

  34. Thank you SO much for this article! Now I know I was just on a learning curve in the beginning. Doin much better now. I can just hear a big, collective sigh of relief from new FM quilters!

  35. Thank you so much for this article. I have been quilting for 2 years and I always end up straight line quilting my quilts. I have practiced FSQ and I have never been happy with the results. I think once I follow your advice I just may be able to "get" it!

  36. Thanks for the info! Today I quilted my first freemotion sample it's 30x20cm ( the size of a magazine). I didn't get any loops in the back but I got extra long stitches. My problem is I get too many peaks. I know I have to exercise more and more... Just when I tought that the Key was low feed dog and 0 stitch....oh well more things to try. Would you give it a Look to my exercise in free motion? Is in my blog it's in spanish but pictures are universal. My main problem was not sticking the wadding and the background. I have some trapunto-like areas. What I loved was the tip about machining barefoot. Before buying my Husqwarna I had a curso machine that I used for dollmaking andpiecing and the only wat I could work with it was barefoot. There was no other way to control it. When I upgraded I put my shoes on, but it may be time to take them off again. Thanks for the post and the comments

  37. Amazing information, cannnot begin to thank you for your articulate explanation. I have battled this war for a number of years and basically have quite trying, lots of tops waiting for me to win the war.
    I feel armed for battle now thanks to this perfect explanation of what makes absolute sense. Sometimes things just need to be put in front of us for us to notice :) your the best..

  38. Hi Leah,

    I love FMQing on my Horizon - when it's working. Sometimes it goes through fits where the top thread breaks every 2 to 6 inches. I can find no reason why. I do use the blue dot bobb., I re-thread, change to a new needles, and still have trouble.

    Have you experienced this on your Horizon? Do you have any tips?

    Thanks so much! I really enjoy your blog!


  39. Oh my goodness this is exactly what I needed to hear... I seriously left my sewing machine in defeat to come look for help, and I found this! So I went and got two pieces of the fabric of my quilt... made a sandwich with the same batting and started practicing... and I got better! Then I started on my actual quilt and I no longer have those ridiculous loops! :D Thanks sooo much! You explained it just the way I needed it :D

  40. This post is still totally relevant! Thanks for the help... and thanks to all the commentors. Its my first FMQ try and I've already seemed to overcome the dreaded eyelashes!

  41. This is absolutely awesome. I've been fiddling with the tension thinking it was the problem... but it makes so much more sense that I am the problem! :D

    FMQ feels like learning how to drive standard. The intuitive balance of the clutch and gas feel very much like the hand and foot coordination required.

    Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us young'uns!

  42. Thank you for posting this and I was hoping I could get some advice about this problem? I just finished FMQing my daughter's quilt and I see this a lot on the back, only the loops aren't huge. They are just barely loose enough so that the stitches don't look like stitches (the top thread is just barely wrapping around the bottom thread so that from the right distance it just looks like the bottom thread is just laying on the surface of the fabric). Of course I didn't notice this until I was finished with the danged thing.

    Should I pull it out? I don't think I (or my daughter) really mind it that way because it's on the back ... but I don't want to leave it there if it's going to affect the sturdiness or washability of the quilt. Thanks!

  43. Thank you so much for this post! I just finished Free Motion Quilting my goddaughters quilt... it was my first attempt at this type of quilting and I had this problem with the back... I didn't realize it either until I was finished. You can't tell from pictures though... You can see one here... but the when you see the back you can see all my little mistakes. Thanks to this post my next will be much better!

  44. Thanks!!!! I was trying to experiment to make patterns on clothes, as decoration, and I had incredible loops underneath. Your post was very helpful to make me understand the dynamics of motion. In addition I also realised that I had forgotten to lower the foot.....
    I am using a Singer Inspiration 4210 (in spite of all bad reviews it works very well for me, for normal garment sewing) and since it has a feeder dogs cover I thought of trying free motion quiltin. I removed the foot altogether and am using a guard to protect my fingers while moving the material. It seems to work pretty well. I am super-excited!

  45. I have this problem and I should have known to come here first for a solution!! I haven't been sewing for a few decades, but for some reason, I've caught the bug. I got a new Janome for my birthday and this is my first quilting attempt. I've been on your blog reading all that I can, looking at the beautiful and creative things that you make and getting so excited to do it on my own! I even modified my darning foot that came with my new machine. I was set to do this and excited that I was getting the 'hang' of stippling...until I looked at the stitching on the underside in horror~~~it was a mess!!! I felt all my creative dreams crashing down around me. This discussion has helped me understand that practice is what I need. I also put the feed dogs down - having read through the comments I will now try it with them up and my stitch length to 0. I am determined to create something beautiful and to express myself in this media!! Thank you so much, Leah, for all that you share with us. I feel very lucky to have you as a teacher!

  46. Thank you for this post. I too left my machine to seek help!

    My straight line tension is fine, its when I go sideways! However, Im faster when I straight line. Sideways is skeery so I slow down and thats when I have problems.

    I will take your advice and just trust myself more.
    Thank you again!

  47. Fantastic! Thanks so much Leah.

  48. Well I can relate. Not sure that I took a picture of the back but I've since made samples and they match. Decided to practice free motion on the preemie quilts for the hospital. Some of my loops were so big I thought it best to remove them. Yep, all that thread and time lost to a week of pulling out the threads. Don't know what a Supreme Slider is. I did my loopy free motion on machine where feed dogs drop. On my machine where they do not, it's been a big problem as fabric will hardly move with plate or piece of freezer paper taped down with hole for needle. Practice, practice and I marked tension for each just to see. Thanks for the tips.

  49. After reading all the previous posts, I have decided I must have a heavy foot, and just like driving, I tend to take the curves a little faster than I should.

    No more listening to jazzy fast-paced music either, as it gets me revved up and I find myself going faster as i sew, lol.

    Thanks for putting this all in laymens terms.

  50. I was almost ready to send my machine back. I knew you would have the answer. It's not my machine, it's me! Thanks Leah!

  51. I wonder if you or your followers have had the same problem as me. I have tension issues ONLY when I freemotion backwards, I have a Janome 9000, and it appears as if tthe bobbin tension goes tight in reverse only. Thanks for sharing so many tips. You are a star Leah and I hope you can help solve this issue for me as I don't want to keep turning my quilt round to avoid uneven quilting!

  52. This was such a HUGE help. I thought my machine was broken for hours! Thanks!!

  53. I had loops on the back one time because I had previously wound a bobbin and a loop of thread was holding down the thread coming off the bobbin (basically not wound right). Once I fixed this, no problem.

    Also, I started learning FMQ on my last machine that I could not drop my feed dogs. I used a supreme slider with the stitch length to 0 and it did not tear up the slider throughout making an apporx. 34X26" art quilt. (I could not find a feed dog cover to go with my machine, but not sure I would want one because it would propbably create a lip to catch it on and less room to move the fabric).

  54. OMG thank you so much, I am a new quilter and my first to free hand quilts didn't have any loops, not perfect stitching some long some short but still loved them. My last two had the loopy back not bad but enough for me to notice, I am ready to start the next and wanted to figure this out. I have been up and down that darn machine, now I believe there could be a remedy and I won't have to throw the machine out the window. Time to practice speed.

  55. I have been reading and searching everywhere for a solution to my loop/tension problem. I adjusted the tension, toggled my feed dogs up and down...nothing worked. It wasn't until my darning presser foot nearly fell off my machine that I realized the little screw holding the foot on had gradually loosened; consequently, the foot was not holding the fabric down sufficiently for the stitches to form and lock together, producing loops and actually blocking the machine. Just one more thing to put on your quilting emergency recovery options list.

  56. Leah, new fmq'er. Pieced together the quilt top just fine. Purchased batting, enough to practice fmq, and have lots of loops and lashes not on the back of the practice sandwiches but on the front, just a little on the backside. I read your suggestions, raised the feed dogs, and had slightly better experience. But still lots of loops and lashes. I think, I hope the problem is human error, hand/foot coordination challenges. Any other recommendations?

    1. My best advice is to keep working at it! Try quilting straight lines back and forth. Straight lines are a good place to start if you're really getting a lot of eyelashes with curves, plus you can practice easily by stitching in the ditch.

  57. OMG, you are a genius! left my feed dogs up for FM and my Juki F600 worked perfectly.
    Why didn't someone tell me this sooner ;)


  58. you are amazing! watching your tutorials inspired me to buy a sewing machine and start quilting. I was still wary of FMQ though. Gave it a shot yesterday, and after 3 hours of cursing, nearly gave up. I've made this gorgeous full size quilt top (I know, should have started small, but am never able to somehow!) Anyways I was in tears that I couldn't quilt it till I saw this post. My loops are already lessenin, my practise Sandwich gives me hope that I'll eventually quilt that top. Thank you for being such a great teacher .

  59. This works the same on a longarm frame. If you have it on regulated stitches. If you go to fast, not only will the machine let you know, It will be a small problem on the back. Its letting you know that. Thanks Leah

  60. I have followed your advice for fmq all the way from setup until now, half way through my first 40x70 quilt, I am perfectly happy with my results even though the looping has become prominent now, its all good, I knew I would find an answer for it here somewhere, great videos, great instructor, I'm an old guy just trying to stay busy and you help more than you know, thank you

    1. You are so welcome! I hope you'll join our Facebook group so I can see your quilt!

  61. The tip about your foot placement on the pedal is priceless. Thank you so much!!

  62. I have sewn all my life. I'm retired now, started quilting 10 years ago . Free motion quilting scared me to death. I always got loops and breaking thread. Breaking thread was from too tiny stitches in practice. I called an expert free motion friend. I was doing every thing right EXCEPT I now know why the loops kept coming thanks to you. My hands go much faster than my feet on the controls. Thank you I am ready to sit and finish quilting the 9 quilts I have waiting to be freemotion quilted. Thanks for your help. Nadine

    1. That's great Nadine! I'm so happy to help!


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