How NOT to wind a bobbin

I see this mentioned in from time to time in sewing books, but I don't think it's given the importance it deserves:

How you wind your bobbins will affect your stitch quality, and not in a small way.

When you've been sewing for a while, you will start to refine your skills. One skill you will probably work on is your stitch quality, or what I like to call "the quest for perfect stitches."

You may find yourself with a magnifying glass examining your top and bottom stitches, looking for flaws or inconsistencies. Perfect stitches define your skill as a sewist to others. Style and taste will vary, but stitch quality is universal across all fabrics, threads, and sewing projects; you can't fake it. Show your project even to a novice with limited sewing skill and the first thing they'll do is scope out your stitches.

Perfect stitches are achieved by manipulating the delicate balance of tension between the top and lower thread. Any number of seemingly insignificant changes can disrupt this balance. If you've chosen the right needle for your thread and wound a proper bobbin, you need to set the bobbin tension for your lower thread weight and than adjust your upper tension to find the perfect balance. Sewing through different layers of fabric will require tension adjustments, as will changing the stitch length.

Remember, these techniques will help you to perfect your stitches; this may not be your top priority.

If your machine uses a bobbin case rather than a drop in bobbin, then the tension spring can affect how the thread feeds. If when you pull your thread straight out from the case it feels jerky, that can degrade your stitch quality. You might try switching to a different bobbin case or a smoother thread with less fuzz, as it's the fuzz that's catching on the metal edge of the spring that's the cause.

The proper winding of a bobbin requires patience and skill. The instructions are simple: wind your bobbins slow and even. This takes more time and attention but the results are well worth it. I often challenge myself to see how slow I can go while maintaining even speed. It's harder than you'd think!

To understand why slow is good, we need to consider why fast is bad. Winding a bobbin fast is fun; people are always talking about how fast their machine can wind a bobbin. There's something about putting an empty bobbin on the winder, mashing the pedal to the metal and watching the thread fly onto the bobbin in 5.4 seconds! I'm sure it's the same part of our brain that enjoys knowing 0 to 60 mph of vehicles. The reason why this is bad is because high speed stretches the thread. The polyester thread most of use sew with has stretch capacity, which makes stitches stronger and resistant to breaking. When the bobbin is filled at full speed it puts tension on the thread, stretching it as it winds. This stretching is not permanent however: the thread shrinks back when you unwind it.

This recoiling to the original length takes place as you sew, pulling the bottom thread tension tighter. What's more, the speed you wind determines the stretch, so if you press the foot pedal up and down, changing speed as you wind, you will end up with areas of more stretch and less stretch on the same bobbin. This causes tension issues that cannot easily be compensated for -- a nightmare.

The way to be sure that you're not creating inconsistent bobbin tension is by winding the bobbin very slowly. The first time you do this it will seem to take forever (maybe all of a minute!), but the satisfaction of perfect stitches is well worth it. You will notice that by winding bobbins slowly you cannot pack as much thread on the same bobbin, so you may have to wind more bobbins as you work on your project. If you touch the thread on the bobbin, it should feel slightly squishy. This squishiness is the sign of a properly wound bobbin.

A perfectly wound bobbin is just step toward achieving perfect stitches. Take time to enjoy the process, knowing that while other sewing skills might be more challenging, you are mastering a fundamental skill many advanced sewists lack.

14 comments :: How NOT to wind a bobbin

  1. OK, well you've convinced me. I am ready to embark on the construction of a safari dress that requires a great deal of topstitching, so this is timely and useful information for me. Damn, I can't just sit there and floor it anymore.
    I tried some topstitching with heavy thread on a tote bag about a year ago and it was hideous. I never did investigate what went wrong, but it may be time to re-visit that problem.

  2. Oh my goodness yes!!! I can finally leave a comment on my own blog... This has been more then frustrating. It seems that if a blog had embedded comments rather then pop up comments I can't use them. Well do AWAY with that feature... I wonder how many other people have had trouble commenting here?

    Yes Melody, you should topstitch. When you get the kinks worked out it's quite satisfying since it seems to impress everyone. I'll do a post soon about needle choices and tension issues...

  3. Excellent! I am looking foward to it!

  4. Hi Brian, may I ask how long you have been sewing for? Any tips for beginner sewers like me, who get intimidated by all the examples of perfect sewing?

  5. Hi Imaan, Jeans, button down shirts, t-shirts, underwear.... This has all been new to me in 2009. I'd like my postings to appeal to anyone who sews, beginner or advanced. There is no reinventing the wheel in sewing, just re expressing the same information that's been around for years.

    My advise to new sewists is to have fun, laugh at your mistakes, and keep on trying. If you love sewing and do it because you want to then you really can't go wrong.

  6. Brian, thank you for this information. I have been sewing for many years and was not aware of this. I can see how winding the bobbin can make a difference. However, the bobbin winder on my Bernina 1130 does not allow the user to control the speed. It just winds at lightning speed as in your example of the incorrectly wound bobbin. So now I'm wondering if I should get a Sidewinder, but I don't know how fast or how well it works. Do you?

  7. You know Karen that's a really good question and brings up a valid point. What if you can't control bobbin winding speed? I know on many computerized machines you can either use the auto wind feature or still use the foot controller. If the foot controller absolutely will not function for controlling bobbin winding speed then using another sewing machine may be your only choice. The sidewinder does not allow you to control speed unless you create drag on the bobbin while you wind with your finger or use less then fresh batteries. It also may not work with plastic bobbins. It could be worth a try as a last resort but is not a perfect solution. Of course buying another sewing machine just to wind bobbins doesn't seem particularly practical either.

  8. Thank you for posting this!

  9. Brian, as always, your blog is full of really useful stuff. I read this post a while ago, and the comparison video really brought the idea home to me. I never thought about this before! Since then I have been winding my bobbins s-l-o-w and it has solved my tension problems. I'm a fan!

    PS I have a Bernina 440 and only discovered that I can control the bobbin winding speed by using the speed setting on the machine when I read a review somewhere on the web - not mentioned in the manual.

  10. Hey Tina!
    I'm really glad this helped your tension problems. Even my mom has stated winding her bobbins slow after watching this video. However I can not seem to convince her that sewing over pins is a bad idea!

  11. Hey, you're cute...and I'm impressed how elaborate this info is. I've had so much problem with tension. I'll wind my bobbins real slow from now on and discard those I have wound in the past. Great job. Oh, your mom should not sew over pins, I broke a needle once doing that and the thing missed my eye by 3 mm! Dangerous!

  12. Hey thanks for the blog I'm going thru and learning new stuff everyday on this Vintage Voyage!

  13. So glad I found this post and read all of the comments! I completely agree with you on the speed of winding bobbins and had been having a few problems with my new machine which I'm sure are due to the thread tension in the bobbin. Like Tina I have a Bernina 440 and I am so excited to read her comment that I CAN adjust the speed at which the bobbin winds. Great news! I will be sure to do that in the future. Thanks again.

  14. Last year I bought a set of different threads with bobbins of matching read pre-wound on them.

    I hadn't used them until about 3 weeks ago when I needed them for an ipad mini case. Anyway, I eventually (having unpicked 3 times realised the bobbins had been wound so shockingly bad that I'd have to re-wind in order to have some control.

    Today was even worse, if you can imagine. I swear I couldn't find the end of the thread on the bobbin and I'm sure somewhere during the winding process it got tangled in the middle. End result, I had to cut ALL the thread off the bobbin.

    That'll be the last time I ever buy thread with matching pre-wound bobbins!

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