Quick Note: Why I don’t recommend…

simply re-threading your machine when you have problems with it.

A quick note today folks! I’m inside waiting for the anti-inflammatories to kick in before I go back outside to do some bodywork on the truck so I thought I’d jot down a little note for you.

The traditional advice when you start to have tension problems with a machine seems to be “Re-thread it.  Everything, the bobbin case and the top”.

Most of the time that usually means that people yank the thread out from the back – or some will cut it and remove from the front – then they re-thread and…. it doesn’t fix it.  Sometimes it will but often it doesn’t.


Often what’s happening – especially if the problem is a fairly consistent one – is the machine IS being threaded wrong, or something’s causing the thread to jump out of where it belongs.

When we simply re-thread without investigating the current state of things, we’re not learning anything.

Anyone remember the definition of insanity?

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

I want you to approach tension problems differently.  In fact, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but tension is a huge part of what this blog is about. 😉

Before you un-thread the machine, I want you to look the machine, at its threading and see what’s really going on.

Look at the machine and try to determine WHY it’s not working right:

  • Has the thread slipped out of a guide?
  • Check the bobbin case – the thread may have slipped out of the tension spring.
  • Is it in the take up lever still?
  • If you still can’t see it, break out your manual or download an electronic copy – many of the manufacturers have their manuals – even for vintage machines – online and then there are other sources like ismacs.net.  You should almost never have to pay for a copy, even if you didn’t get it with your machine.
  • If you still can’t see it, it may be in the tensioner – especially if your tensioner is not exposed like on many vintage machines.
  • You are threading the machine with the presser foot up, right?  Every time? If you’re not, the tension disks are not loose enough for the thread to slip between them and you will have inconsistent results.

Sometimes it’s subtle.  This Singer 411G has the thread behind the 3 tension disks.  At first glance, it could look like it’s correctly threaded between the 2 back disks.  How it’s threaded here though will cause a really loose top tension and possibly thread nests.


To be clear:  The 411G has 3 tension disks.  Threading between 1 and 2 will work fine.  Threading between 2 and 3 will work fine.  For that matter a thread between 1 and 2 and a thread between 2 and 3 at the same time is also OK and how Singer designed the machine to stitch with 2 threads at once.   Threading behind the third as in the photo will cause problems.

Sometimes it’s a design flaw.  Some of the early Pfaff Quilt Expression machines had a take up lever that would release the thread and cause all manner of tension headaches.  There’s a fix for it and any Pfaff dealer should be able to help you out with it.

I advocate investigation because often when we simply re-thread, we’re so focused on the goal (getting back to sewing) that we don’t notice what causes the problem over and over again.  By being aware of a potential trouble spot, we can change the way we thread or know to watch it in the future.  It also gives you something to mention to your service technician when your machine goes in for service – or something for you to work on the next time you do maintenance on your machine.

Alright, I guess this is as much as I can realistically expect any pain relievers to work.  I better get back outside and remove some more rust.

What about you?  Have you got any tips on how to stop the (tension) insanity? Anyone out there want to swap some bodywork skills for a couple of really great vintage sewing machines? 😉




11 thoughts on “Quick Note: Why I don’t recommend…”

  1. I don’t have any tension tips nor any bodywork skills. I would, however, like to thank you for the tension tip regarding the 411g and the accompanying photo. I have one (love it!) and had no idea that I should be running my thread behind the third tension ring.
    On another note, please check the link below for a great shoulder tote by Blue Q, an American company. I have one and love carrying it around.


    Thank you for the amazing work that you do. More than once, I have found answers to my Slant-O-Matic problems in your archives.

    Thank you!


    1. Hey Susan! I should probably clarify the post. Between the first and second disk is fine. Between the second and third disk is fine. Behind the third WILL cause problems!

      I’m glad I’ve been able to help you out. 🙂

  2. Wow, just saw this! I recently acquired a Singer 338 and have the same tension problem that John mentioned. It seems to me that the tension disks are not opening when I raise the presser foot lever. The tension assembly is good and they do open when I turn the dial down to zero. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!!!

    1. Hey Sue, I think where you want to look then is at the release pin that’s supposed to disengage the disks when you lift the presser lever. It’s usually one of 3 things:
      1. Gummed up.
      2. Missing
      3. Has been replaced with the wrong pin which is likely too short. Too long would leave the tensioner dis-engaged all the time / not work at all.

      At a glance, that tensioner looks close enough that you can use the Slant rebuild video that I have on YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UttHpnQy0xk

      There may be small differences so you may have to imagine how they’ve re-imagined the odd part.

      1. Thanks Tammi. Yes, the tensioner is similar and I have used your video to get my 403a working beautifully (thanks for that). It’s also where I got the idea to look at the release pin. Unfortunately, it is not visible like on the 403. There is a bunch of “stuff”, my technical term, blocking the view.

  3. Pssst. I agree 100%, very sensible. I’d call that logic. IE Applying clear thinking….

    I bought a Singer 328K recently where the (ebay) seller said ” It works, then it doesn’t, then it does…” I bought it cheaply anyway because I wanted the immaculate case for my 404: )

    Soon transpired it was a button foot pedal problem. I removed the capacitor & now it runs. As per one of your previous posts! Trouble now is that it has a little upper tension problem that is currently defying logic….

    All part of the fun I guess, but it is potentially a very nice machine.

    Keep up the good work on your site, I always enjoy & learn from it: )

    I’m a vintage bike restorer & find many similarities between bikes & sewing machines.


    1. Yes, often especially when we’re in the thick of it logic fails us. 😉 You know, to this day I still haven’t had a pedal with a capacitor in my hands. I know what they do and where they go but I still can’t seem to lay my hands on one. I’m glad that post helped you out. Have you rebuilt the tensions – both top and bottom? I do no troubleshooting these days without rebuilding first. It saves my sanity – or what little of it I have left.

      I find the biggest similarity between bikes (motor or pedal) and sewing machines is the liberal opportunities that both offer us to logic through a problem and then implement the creative solution sometimes needed to fix the problem. You’ll figure it out, I’m sure of it.

  4. Tammi, I think this is a very sensible suggestion. I generally use a different machine for different types of sewing. By and large, the dedicated buttonhole machine usually just needs a quick thread change top and bottom. One time it would not work properly, and it was not just a quick adjustment. The timing had gone awry and I had no idea why I had the thread nests. It took a trip to the repairman and several weeks to have the problem identified and corrected. These machines are sturdy, but if I had done a checklist, I would have saved myself a lot of frustration.
    Thanks for the tip.

    1. True. In some cases the problem is bigger than just a threading problem but its more the exception than the rule. I’m glad you got it dealt with though.

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