Little Things Make a Big Difference

I spent much of Thanksgiving weekend at my sewing machine, and I was reminded of a few basics I return to time and again. They’re little things about sewing, quilting and machines that make a BIG difference. I hope you’ll find them to be helpful.

1. During Bernina University, I once sat next to a chatty sewing machine repairman during dinner.

sewing machine 002 Little Things Make a Big DifferenceOne thing he said stuck with me. “People always think they are having problems with their tension. It’s hardly ever the tension! Always remember T-N-T. Thread, needle, tension.


When you’re having machine problems, first check the thread. Rethread top and bottom or change the brand or weight of thread. Next check the needle. Put in a fresh needle. If neither of these work, then it might be your tension.”

I was having thread breakage problems during the first hour of sewing last Saturday. Changed the thread a few times but it didn’t help. Finally installed a brand new needle, and all my problems were solved. Bernina Guy was right! Always remember: T-N-T. Thread, needle, tension.

IMG 6761 Little Things Make a Big Difference2. I’ve been sewing on tiny little patches: 1.5″ x 2.5″ rectangles and 1.5″ squares, shown above. I was having trouble with the fabric migrating down into the needle hole so I changed to the throat plate with the teeny tiny opening.

I have three throat plates. The one below has the widest hole available for my machine, which is 9 millimeters. It’s used for very wide stitches, where the needle must swing far to the left and right. This one tends to eat very tiny patches, and you don’t need that large opening if you’re sewing straight stitches.

platepapa Little Things Make a Big Difference

This throat plate has the widest hole available for my machine. It's used for very wide stitches, where the needle must swing far to the left and right.

The next one has a medium opening for medium-width stitches.

platemama Little Things Make a Big Difference

This is the throat plate with a medium opening for medium-width stitches.

The one below has a tiny opening. There’s no space for the needle to move left or right so it’s used only for straight stitching. It’s great for piecing tiny patches.

platebaby1 Little Things Make a Big Difference

This throat plate has a tiny opening. There's no space for the needle to move left or right so it's used only for straight stitching. It's great for piecing tiny patches.

The patches do not get pulled down into the throat plate and your sewing is fun again! If you don’t own one for your machine, consider getting one—it makes a huge difference in many cases! You must remember not to switch to zigzag with this throat plate, though—instant broken needle. icon sad Little Things Make a Big Difference

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -

3. Shorten your stitch length for better piecing all around! I’m always amazed by the settings my students use for their stitch length—way too long. If you’re on metric settings, 2.0 is the minimum I use for piecing. Sometimes I go down to 1.6. (That’s the length of each stitch in millimeters. Learn more about stitch length here.) If your machine settings are measured in stitches per inch, go for 15 or 17 per inch.

A good rule of thumb is that the shorter the seam you’re sewing is, the shorter your stitches need to be. If the seam is only 1/2″ long, you’ll want more stitches in that space in order for the seam to be secure.

Just a couple of small things to make your sewing easier and more trouble-free!

About Diane Harris

I'm Interactive Editor for Quiltmaker magazine in Golden, Colorado, USA. For six years, I've been writing pattern instructions and product reviews, and doing a host of other tasks necessary to help produce a national pattern magazine. Now I work remotely from rural Nebraska to generate some of our online content. I manage the QM Scrap Squad, our blog tours and our Quilt-Alongs. I have one of the best jobs in the world.
This entry was posted in Quilting 101 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Little Things Make a Big Difference

  1. Ellen D-R says:

    My mother and grandmother taught me, first clean, then TNT. I usually find that lint is the cause when things are going wrong. I loved the hint about using an ad card. I have a project sitting on the machine that was waiting for me to learn this.

  2. Vickey Lok says:

    I agree about going to Superior Thread site. The thread I buy from them has the size of needle that needs to be used with that particular thread that I buy.

  3. Celia says:

    If you don’t have a single hole throat plate, you can tape one of the ad inserts found in every quilt magazine, or in your junk mail over the throat plate. Use a large eyed needle or ice pick to make a hole in it before taping it down. Just cover the throat plate that is too large. You can adjust it according to your personal preference for the exact size. And, remove it when finished with your piecing. This also works for free motion quilting to cover the feed dogs if your machine doesn’t have the drop down feature. I use a glossy heavier weight junk mail for this option. It worked fine for my small quilting project. Hope this tip is useful! Merry Christmas to you and your family.

    • Vickey Lok says:

      Thank you so much for this hint about covering up the hole with a card.

    • Kelly says:

      What a great idea, Celia! I was just wondering how I could get a different plate for my sewing machine because it only has one… this might just solve that problem. :)

  4. Cindy B says:

    My blocks always seemed to be a little out of square. I took a class with a well known quilter and she said to use a longer stitch length of 2.5. She used a 3.0. My blocks lay flatter and look much better.

  5. cammie says:

    I found this via pinterest, TNT is one that will stick in my head, thank you!

    For Kristen: I was also confused on needle types but I found on pinterest a needle guide that explains the differences, I also found a site on the Internet that shows different brands of thread under a microscope. That was super interesting to me, being of the same school that 100% cotton is the best but also that the more expensive thread is better…not so true!! To find either of those pins you can search on pinterest or search my board “The little sewing machine that could” (name: Cammie Tayor). Hope it helps!

  6. Diane says:

    Diane – I finally tried the smaller stitch length for piecing. And yes, I knew this already, but never took the time. It worked so beautifully! I have even passed along the information to my fiends through my blog. Thanks so much!

  7. Pingback: Limiting Luxuries

  8. Sugel says:

    I have three throat plates. The one below has the widest hole available for my machine, which is 5 millimeters. It’s used for very wide stitches, where the needle must swing far to the left and right. This one tends to eat very tiny patches, and you don’t need that large opening if you’re sewing straight stitches.

  9. Claudia makes a good point. I’ve learned not to go cheap on thread. My Pfaff machines have made their preferences very clear. If you find your machine is coughing up excessive amounts of lint when you clean around the bobbin, it might be the thread. De-lint often; machines are not at their best when the bobbin area is not dusted.

  10. Cecilia says:

    Thank you for the great tips. I will print these out and post them near my machine. :-)

  11. Claudia says:

    PS, how much difference can there be in the types of thread? LOTS!!!, too much to try and explain here. But I’ll bet one of our favorite magazines could come up with an article for the “inquiring mind”.

  12. Claudia says:

    Oh, I so love it when my machine eats the first bite out of my fabric :{ (not!)

    To Kristen (maybe Diane will cover this later), the numbers on sewing needles get larger as the shaft of the needle gets larger — 90/14 is thicker than 80/12. Lay one of each side by side and you should be able to see the difference. There is a difference in the design of the tip of the needle depending on the fabric you are using–woven versus knit. I think if you could find a book by Palmer and Pletch or Gayle Grigg Hazen (Hasen?) (I’m sorry I don’t remember the titles), you would find some of the information you are searching for. Palmer and Pletch are associated with in Portland, Oregon.

  13. Jan says:

    Thanks for the sewing reminders. It was a nice tip that I don’t recall my grandmother teaching me!

  14. Charlsey says:

    Great reminders. I am definitely going to start changing my throat plate for small piecing. I no longer hoard my needles as heirlooms and change them regularly!

  15. Great information! Love the TNT advice!

  16. Kristen says:

    I wish I understood the complicated needle systems. What is a 90/14? How is it different from an 80/12, and which should I be using? I’ve had quilting instructor after instructor drill into my head, “ALWAYS USE 100% COTTON THREAD!” But never use hand-quilting thread in your machine! So how much variation with thread can one actually get?

    Like many people, I inherited a sewing machine (a Bernina from the 1980s), and I have had a lot of difficulty interpreting the manual. My local Bernina shop won’t teach me how to use it because I didn’t buy it from there; they only want me to buy something new from them. I’m lucky they service it, but every time I get it back there’s a new problem.

    I guess I find tension issues so frustrating because it is such a process of trial and error. I have been sewing for 30 years – 3/4 of my lifetime – and still don’t understand it. I don’t imagine that anyone will publish anything that helps decipher it anytime soon – it seems to be a secret shared by manufacturers only when you buy a new machine! This is why I do most of my piecing on my 1930 Singer – no backstitch, no zigzag, no tension adjustment – just “go”!

    • Sandy says:

      I am posting a link that explains tension in a way we can understand! http://www.superior threads has many great informational pages regarding thread, etc. A very helpful site!

      Also, I like the idea of the small holed plate which I used regularly on my old machine. I have not yet invested in this plate for my newest machine but I do have a tip that works well to avoid the fabric being pulled under. I use a small patch of fabric doubled over to start sewing, sew my project piece, cut that unit apart, then use this same small patch, sew over that to get to your next project piece, etc. That way you really never start sewing with loose threads on a piece that matters. Also, this problem of fabric and thread pulled down is solved if a person has their needle started in the fabric and not air (prior to biting the fabric). Hopefully I explained this okay and it is helpful to someone.

    • Brynda says:

      Go to Superior Thread’s website. Bob has an excellent explanation about needles and about thread and it’s differences.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>