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I stepped away from my Brother embroidery machine yesterday, and it managed to stitch almost 1,000 ugly stitches with my bobbin thread showing on top of the embroidery.
Thankfully, I caught my machine before I ruined the entire project, and I could spot the cause and backtrack my machine.
However, troubleshooting bobbin thread problems isn’t always easy, and sometimes it takes FOREVER to find a solution.
Stumped with your issues?
Let’s discuss how the perfect embroidery stitch is created so you can understand why bobbin thread misbehaves. Then, we’ll move on to troubleshooting issues that make your embroidery bobbin thread show on the embroidery surface.
What an Embroidery Stitch Should Look Like
Stitches are created from a top and bottom thread, with a perfectly balanced “pull” between the two threads. The pressure applied to each thread as it passes through the embroidery machine to create this “pull” is referred to as thread tension.
A perfect sewing stitch requires equal and balanced tension so the top and bobbin threads link in the middle of fabric layers. That’s not the case with machine embroidery stitches.
In embroidery, the back of a perfect satin stitch should show approximately 1/3 bobbin thread (running down the center) and 2/3 top thread split between the two sides.
Why is my bobbin thread showing on top of my embroidery?
Bobbin thread showing on the top of an embroidery project is caused by an imbalance between the tension on the top and bobbin threads.
Either the pressure exerted on the upper thread is too high, or the pressure on the bobbin thread tension is too little. The imbalance then pulls the bobbin thread to the front of the design rather than creating a perfect embroidery stitch with the bobbin thread only on the back.
However, don’t automatically start adjusting the tension values on your embroidery machine to fix a bobbin thread issue. There’s likely something else putting unnecessary pressure on the top thread or causing issues with the bobbin thread!
Factors That Change The Delicate Tension Balance
As I mentioned in my sewing machine tension adjustment article, several known factors affect the delicate tension balance in a machine.
These are cases when you do want to pre-emptively check your machine tensions with a test project before embroidering the real thing.
- Changing Top Thread Weight: Embroidering with a heavy-weight top thread or even a very fine top thread may cause a misbalance between the two threads forming the embroidery stitch.
- Using Specialty Threads: One example is embroidering with metallic threads. These fare better with decreased upper thread tension.
- Changing Bobbin Thread Weight: Each machine has a preferred embroidery bobbin thread weight, so using a different weight thread can affect stitch quality.
- Bobbin Work: Bobbin work is one example when using those heavy threads in the bobbin requires loosening bobbin tension.
- Pre-Wound vs. Machine-Wound Bobbins: Pre-wound bobbins (at least for Brother embroidery machines) need a different bobbin case than machine-wound bobbins to account for winding differences.
Troubleshooting Bobbin Thread Showing on Top: Steps to Take
We just discussed how bobbin thread pulling to the top of the fabric is almost always a tension imbalance issue. But, unless you changed something with your machine (some examples described above), don’t adjust tension first thing!
What should you do instead?
Well, after millions of stitches on my embroidery machines, here are the most common reasons my bobbin thread shows on the top of an embroidery design and how to fix this problem.
1. Check Thread Spool.
By what must be fairy magic, threads magically seem to get caught around the base of the thread spool, around the thread guides on my auxiliary spool holder, and even on themselves.
I’ll be 5,000 stitches into a project, and suddenly, boom, the top thread gets caught.
In the best cases, the top thread breaks quickly, and I fix the problem. In the worst, like the case above, the thread is looped just enough to put too much tension on the upper thread and pull the bobbin thread up for thousands of sad stitches.
Thus, as a first rule-out, check your thread spool to ensure your thread hasn’t gotten tangled or looped.
It’s so common for slippery threads to slip down the thread cone and pool at the bottom. Consider using a thread net if you notice your threads have difficulty unwinding evenly.
I always use a thread net with metallic threads, glow-in-the-dark threads, and other specialty threads, and I prefer to use these threads on a thread stand situated far from my machine to encourage the best even feeding.
2. Rethread Machine Upper Thread.
To rule out improper threading, rethread the upper thread, closely following the thread guides on your embroidery machine.
Make sure to thread with the presser foot up or the thread may not fall between the top tension discs.
3. Clean Upper Thread Path.
The tension discs in your upper thread path can get dirty with lint or pieces of broken threads, which effectively increases upper thread tension.
Thus, take a small brush to the upper thread path, and clean what you can reach of the path.
You can also run UNWAXED dental floss through the thread guides. Make sure to pull the floss through the machine following the thread path (not backward) and only run it side to side rather than back and forth if you decide to “floss” any of the pieces.
To prevent future problems, also, NEVER pull the top thread backward out of your machine, as this can mess up the tension discs. Always snip the thread right before the entrance to the first thread guide, and pull it out through the needle.
4. Check and Clean the Bobbin Area.
Make sure the bobbin is threaded evenly and oriented correctly in the machine.
For Brother embroidery machines, the thread should come off the left side of the bobbin before passing through the bobbin case’s tension spring.
Also, are you using the proper bobbin case for your bobbin thread? All 3 of my Brother embroidery machines need a particular bobbin case for pre-wound bobbins but use the standard case for bobbins you wind yourself.
And, are you using the correct weight and type of bobbin thread as your embroidery machine maker recommended? Bobbin embroidery thread is different from the embroidery thread used at the top of the machine.
My Brother embroidery machine, for instance, requires 60-weight embroidery bobbin thread for best results.
Also, consider a new bobbin itself if you start having issues at the beginning of a project to rule out the issue of burrs or a poorly threaded bobbin.
If I have issues with my machine and I have a pre-wound bobbin in there, I will also always wind one myself (using slow speed) before continuing troubleshooting.
Next, it’s time to clean!
For most machines, this means removing the needle plate with a screwdriver.
First, remove the bobbin and clean the bobbin case with a small brush.
Then, remove the bobbin case from your machine and clean the lint underneath. Every 8-10 hours of stitching time, I make a habit of cleaning this area. I recommend a small keyboard vacuum and lint brush.
5. Check The Needle.
Once I forgot to change my needle before starting to embroider, and I had been using a 110/18 needle. The holes poked in my fabric were HUGE, and I could see bobbin thread coming through.
Dull needles also make bigger holes, and bent needles cause havoc.
Thus, ensure you’re using a new needle and the best machine embroidery needle for your fabric.
6. Check Needle Plate for Nicks.
While not likely to be the cause, carefully inspect your needle plate. Replace if there are significant nicks around the needle area or buff out more minor scratches.
7. Decrease Top Thread Tension.
If all else fails, you can try decreasing the top tension on your embroidery machine. Start small and move bigger if this seems to be making a difference.
Your machine manual will tell you the default tension setting and how to change the tension value.
8. Increase Bobbin Tension.
If nothing else works, you can also try increasing the tension on your bobbin case.
Follow the instructions in your machine manual to learn how to do this. For Brother embroidery machines, increase the tension by turning right with a small screwdriver.
9. Try a Different Design.
If you bought the design from some random person online, it might be worth your time to try stitching a different design.
That way, you can rule out the design as an (also unlikely) cause of the issue.
10. Turn Off Your Machine or Reset to Factory Settings.
Like computers and phones, an embroidery machine sometimes needs a good restart.
Power off and on your machine to see if that fixes your issue. I also once had to reset my Brother Luminaire XP2 to factory settings when it got confused and started doing weird things!
Worst Case Scenario: Maintenance Time
If these bobbin thread troubleshooting tips don’t help your issue, your machine might need a trip to your local authorized embroidery repair dealer. They can take apart the pieces of your machine and check for timing issues or other more difficult-to-spot problems.
You can also contact your machine manufacturer and ask if they have additional suggestions before a trip to the shop.
Fixing Bobbin Thread That’s Showing On Top
Thankfully, if you notice your bobbin thread pulled to the front of the fabric, you most likely don’t have to toss your project!
Here are a few quick solutions to fix the offending threads.
If you haven’t unhooped, back up your embroidery machine and restitch over the area. This will encase the exposed bobbin threads with new top threads.
2. Permanent Marker.
You can also use a fine-tipped permanent marker (ex: Sharpie) or permanent fabric marker to color the bobbin threads once you’re done with the project.
I once colored a terry cloth towel with bobbin thread showing on the top, and I deeply regretted it because the Sharpie ran all over the terry cloth fibers and made a huge mess.
So, test first and proceed with care here!
3. Match Bobbin Thread to Top Thread
If your machine isn’t responding and you’re in a pickle, switch your bobbin thread to match your top thread.
That way, even if the bobbin thread comes to the top, it won’t be as noticeable since it will be the same color as the top!
I hope this explanation of how embroidery stitches are made helps you understand why the top threads may pull bobbin thread on top of the fabric.
Now, you can investigate why your embroidery machine is stitching embroidery designs with the bobbin thread on top.
As always, let me know if you have any other machine embroidery troubleshooting steps you recommend!