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Sewing Tips

Ray & Jenny Jardine

Ray-Way Sewing Tips

How to achieve a balanced stitch

From a sewing machine manual: How to achieve a balanced stitch.
rj: No! That's not how we do it.

Here is our method:

Step 1)

Start by loosening the top tension to 2 or 3, as shown above.

Step 2) Then take out the bobbin case and adjust the bobbin tension. With Ray-Way thread, this usually means turning the screw counterclockwise (only an 1/8th of a turn, at a time) to loosen, easing the thread tension.

You want the bobbin in its case to barely hang on the thread. If you shake it, even slightly, it should drop. If you shake the bobbin case slightly and it just hangs there, the screw is too tight for Ray-Way thread. Or if the bobbin case will not hang at all, then the screw is too loose. Once you get the bobbin thread tension just right, reinstall the bobbin and case into the machine.

Step 3) Then adjust the top tension to 5 or whatever produces a balanced stitch. This might take some trial and error, twisting the top dial slightly either way, then sewing a short test strip - until you get a balanced stitch (on that particular fabric).

Note: Using with Ray-Way thread, the bobbin tension does not vary. Once you get the bobbin adjusted just right, you can forget about it. Only the top thread tension varies with different types of fabrics.

How to tell if the stitch is balanced?

It looks the same on both sides, with the top and bottom threads crossing over each other in the middle of the fabric layers. These crossover points should be hidden between the layers, as shown in fig III, above.

Note that it is possible to balance the stitch with too much or too little tension in the bobbin, and too much or too little tension in the top thread to match. If there is too much tension in each, the seams will be too tight and this will cause bunching. If too loose, the seam might not hold together too well and could lead to failure. But if you follow our guidelines above, your stitch will be just right.

A little bunching is normal, but if you find that your stitches are bunching the fabric too much, then you might loosen the bobbin tension just a touch, then re-balance the top thread.

Note also that our guidelines apply only to a bobbin case mounted in the machine vertically, and that can be removed for fine-tuning. This applies to most sewing machines. If, however, your machine has a horizontally mounted bobbin case, then you cannot use the hang-test. But if it has an adjustment screw, then you will still be able to achieve a balanced stitch - with some (or much) trial and error. For those people shopping for a sewing machine, the easily-removed vertically-mounted bobbin is by far the easiest to adjust.

I think the best Christmas present I have gotten in years is your instructions on how to get proper thread tension. I've been sewing for quite some time now and getting proper thread tension has involved random hit and miss guess work. So I really appreciate you posting these instructions. - James G.

Ray-Way Sewing Tips

Thousands of beginners have completed our kits without problems. The more experienced, the more professional looking the results. But even most beginners can make perfectly functional items. All that is required is a bit of patience, and the determination to follow the instructions carefully.

If new to sewing, try borrowing a machine from someone - a relative, friend or neighbor - and ask them to show you the basics. Once the top and bottom thread tensions are adjusted, it's a simple matter of guiding the material through the work area, while pressing the foot peddle lightly. The key is to sew slowly.

What type of sewing machine?

We recommend a used Pfaff, Elna, Bernina, Viking, or an old metal Singer. Look in the phone book for sewing machine sales & repair. Call a few shops and ask if they have any of these brands in used machines in your price range. The older ones usually cost between $50 and $175, and will sew Ray-Way Kits all day long - and will last a lifetime of frequent use.

Two items on these older machines may be worth checking: the motor brushes and the feed dogs. Both can become worn with extensive use. How to tell? When the brushes wear out, the machine quits running. When the feed dogs lose their edges, they quit pulling the materials through the presser foot area, especially thin and slippery materials.

In fact all sewing machines - old and new - have mechanical limitations, and once in a while they might need servicing. For the less mechanically inclined, a sewing machine repair shop can do the work probably at reasonable cost. If you purchase a used machine from one of these shops, they will normally have already done this work for you.

Many sewing machines besides the big four, mentioned above, will do a fine job. How to tell? Sew a few scraps of your intended fabric, and check the stitch balance. Adjust the lower bobbin and upper thread tension as described above, and try again. If the machine will produce a even, balanced stitch, then you are all set. Remember that the materials in our kits are very thin, and do not require industrial-type machines.

Models to avoid: Any machine that automatically adjusts the lower thread (bobbin) tension. Any machine that has a horizontal bobbin, unless you have a manual that shows how to adjust the lower thread tension. Any sold in department stores - these machines tend to be cheaply made, regardless of the big name brands. What is wrong with cheaply made? Problems with adjustments, difficult and poor quality sewing, and short working lifetimes. (see "Another purchasing option" below)

Even a machine producing an unbalanced stitch can usually be forced to do the job. The sewing may not be easy, and the results might not look as nice, especially with the flat-felled seams and the small reinforcement pieces. but even so, such a machine should get you camping. At least as long as it runs. But for the easiest and most gratifying results, look for an oldie but goody from my list.

eBay: In our experience, buying a sewing machine on eBay or some other unseen source can be a waste of money. The fraudulence rate seems to be very high on these sites, with a lot of deception and misrepresentation, as people try to unload non-working machines on unsuspecting novices. Don't believe the glowing write-ups or the positive feedback which in some cases are fake. If you can't try it out first, be very careful about buying.

I have bought five sewing machines on eBay. Three of them had glowing reviews, and each turned out to be a complete waste of money. One was so bad that I had to file a dispute. I got my money back on that machine, but not the postage from and to. And come to find out, I was the third party that the seller had tried to defraud with that machine.

The forth also came in less than sterling condition, and I still have it but don't use it because it doesn't work that well.

The fifth was a gold strike. No glowing reviews, but only a few photos. And for some reason I was the only bidder. I bought it for $49 and it proved to be one of our best sewing machines. We are now using it full time.

That most recent one was a pleasant surprise. But to be on the safe side, shop for a used machine at a local sewing machine sales & repair shop. These people tend to be very knowledgeable and reliable, and they could use your business.

Other purchasing options

If you have tried your local sewing machine sales & repair shops and come up empty handed, you might try websites like Amazon. Search the sites for "sewing machine" and look at the most popular models. Be aware that The most popular models are the most heavily advertised ones. But if a model has hundreds or even thousands of positive reviews, that might mean something. We have not tried any of these, and we doubt that they would last too long with frequent use - but for less than $150 they might get you sewing.

Another option is of course craigslist.org in your city or nearby. Search "sewing machine" in the "For Sale" category.

Machine Features

We like sewing machines that can sew a zig-zag stich. This stich is rarely needed when sewing our kits, but it sometimes nice to have.

Almost all sewing machines have a lever or dial to set the stich length.

The ideal sewing machine will also have a back-up lever, so you can sew a reversed stich. That is, sew in the opposite direction. This is almost essential for finishing a straight stich, where at the end of the seam you sew a few stitches in the opposite direction. This prevents the end of the seam from unraveling. For longer reversed stitches, simply turn the pice around and sew back the other way. This makes a much nicer looking job.

A work light is essential to better illuminate your work, and most sewing machines have a light built in. But if not, then a desk lamp will do, positioned close your work.

Needle size

We use a size 70 for sewing a silicone nylon tarp. The size 70 needle leaves a minimal-size hole through the fabric, which means there is very little hole that needs to be seam-sealed. We also use the size 70 needle when sewing the fabric layers of the Quilt Kit and the no-see-um netting on the Net-Tent Kits. For the Backpack Kit with its heavier materials, we use a size 80 needle.

You can use a Universal or sharp-point type needle, but not a "Ball Point." the Ball Point needle is for knitted fabrics, and none of our Ray-Way kits use knitted fabrics.

The size 70 or 80 is plenty strong and will sew Ray-Way kits very nicely. If your needle breaks or bends while you are stitching through several layers of fabric and/or webbing, it could be that you are pulling or tugging at the materials as the needle is moving. Or if the needle is not easily piercing through the material (if you have to use the hand wheel to force the needle through the materials), the point of the needle is probably blunted -- time for a new needle. The most important part is to start each new project with a new needle.

The size 90 is for sewing thick layers of materials (thicker than Ray-Way materials).

Always Start Each Project With A New Needle

Synthetic fabrics are hard on sewing machine needles. If the needle from the last project has been bent, dulled, nicked, or scratched - however imperceptibly - you may have difficulty sewing. It will seem like the thread or the machine is the culprit, when actually it is simply a damaged needle. Needles are inexpensive and easily replaced.

Stitches Per Inch

For a straight stitch, use something like 10 to 12 stitches per inch.

Marking Fabrics

We use a black Sharpie permanent marker on all colors of silicone nylon. It is visible even on the dark fabrics. We do not mark in places that will be visible on the finished tarp. In other words, we mark, then cut off the marks or fold them into the seams. Sharpie also sells a Metallic version for dark surfaces, and this works exceptionally well, but again is "permanent." However, such marks are easily removed with many types of household cleaning chemicals. But be sure to experiment on a few scraps first.

Cutting Lightweight Fabrics

Use a new pair of Fiskair scissors, available inexpensively at most department stores. Avoid the cheap imitations, which, in general, do not cut nearly as easily or cleanly, and do not last as long. Keep your scissors sharp with a Fiskair scissors sharping tool. Alternatively, you can do an excellent job with a rotary wheel and plastic mat.

Using a Sewing Machine

Using a sewing machine is a simple matter of guiding the materials through the working area, while pressing the foot pedal to regulate the speed. The secret of success for beginners is to sew very slowly.

Before starting, make sure you have adjusted the lower and upper threads properly. Read the manual that came with the machine, and the adjusting info at the top of this page. Or ask someone to show you how to adjust the thread tensions. Then sew a few small scraps and check that the stitching looks the same on both sides.

Stack the pieces to be sewn, and align their edges. Place them under the needle, lower the pressor plate, and press lightly on the foot pedal. For the first few stitches only, hold the lose ends of the thread to prevent them from being pulled down into the bobbin housing.

Again, sew very slowly while guiding the fabrics. Let the machine do the work; do not pull the materials from the back side. And make sure that some other part of the fabric does not get caught under your working area - unnoticed - and accidentally sewn into the seam. If this happens, simply use a seam ripper to remove the incorrect stitching, the re-sew that part. No matter how many times you have to use the seam ripper, don't worry; it is all part of the process. One big advantage to sewing is that if you make a mistake you can disassemble the work in that area, and sew it again.

While sewing, if you need to stop part way along a seam, always stop with the needle fully down. This will hold your place while you change direction or whatever.

Having Trouble with the Sewing?

The materials should glide through the machine effortlessly. If you are having trouble with that, the problem is NOT likely your lack of skill. The problem is your sewing machine. A shoddy machine can force you to wrestle with the materials as you sew. If you are having difficulty, consider taking your machine to a shop for adjustments or repair, or buying another machine.

Loops of thread sticking out of the seam

Hi Ray and Jenny. I'm having a great time working on my tarp. Have finished a quilt and net-tent with no problems. But, problem with the tarp - I sewed the ridge seam and loops of thread were sticking out on the lower side in quite a few areas - and, in a few places, there are loops sticking out on top. Do I need to redo the ridge seam? I would imagine any thread loops on the up-side of the tarp would wick water. And if so, should I just cut out the seam and start again with a slightly smaller set of pieces? If yes, what should I do about the reinforcement triangle? I have already sewn one on, and if I cut out the center seam, I'll have two smaller triangles sewn on to the end of the tarp. Any advice much appreciated -- hope all is well for you there.

[Answer] Loops of thread sticking out of the seam usually indicate improper thread routing through the guides, or a bent, dull or improperly installed needle. Check your sewing machine manual for the proper thread routing, and always start each project with a new needle. Then follow our guidelines for balancing the stitching, directions given at the top of this page.

How to repair this sewing job? In this case we might start over. Remove the reinforcement triangles at each end with a seam ripper, and cut away the ridge seam. Then with a properly working machine, practice sewing flat-felled seams with a few scraps.

Flat-felled Difficulties

"I am having difficulty with the flat-felled seams. When I do the second row to complete the seem, the material sort of bunches up as I sew, or slides to one side, and the seam is not flat. I've tried creasing the material by "finger pressing" like you say in the book but the silicon coated nylon is so slippery and does not want to lay flat. I have the presser foot tension set light and have tried different feet that come with the machine but to no avail. Do you have any tips additional tips for getting the material to lay flat and dealing with it's slippery nature?"

[Answer] The problem is not that the silicone nylon is too slippery. Rather, it is that the machine is not adjusted correctly for top and bottom thread tensions, to create a balanced stich. If the first row of your flat-felled seam is unbalanced, then the second row can be difficult to sew, with problems exactly as you describe. This is true, not only with silicone nylon, but with most other light and medium weight fabrics.

We recommend you sew a few sample strips of silicone nylon, and visually inspect the stitching on both sides of the fabric to determine whether they are identical. Follow our instructions at the top of this page, for adjusting the machine for a balanced stitch. If your machine can't sew a balanced stitch, then take it to a sewing machine repair shop and ask them to show you how. If they cannot balance the tensions, then you might need a new machine. Some of the cheaper types can plague you with problems of this very nature.

Once you have your machine adjusted, practice sewing flat-felled seams on a few test pieces.

That done to your satisfaction, consider removing all the previously sewn unbalanced stitches from your project, using a seam ripper. This is not as difficult as it might sound, and can save you further difficulties. Do not worry about the needle holes, they will not affect the finished project. Any that are still visible on the finished tarp can be sealed with silicone compound while you are sealing the seams.

If you cannot balance the seams, and decide to tough it out, don't worry - your tarp will perform as well. The flat-felled seams might not look very flat, but this is mainly cosmetic.

Mismatched Ends

If you have two pieces of material of the same size, and you sew them together, and at the end of the seam, one end is longer than the other (mismatched ends), then the two layers of material are slipping as they pass through the sewing machine.

Slippage (also called stretching) is the result of an un-balanced stich. It is caused by incorrect tensions in the bottom and top thread, and can result, among other things, in a serious mismatch at the end of the seam, with much more material leftover on one side.

We don't have problems of slippage with any of the sewing machines we have, because we know how to adjust them for a balanced stitch.

But if a person finds mismatched ends, and the thread tensions can't be balanced, then as a last resort one can pin the seams every 6 to 10 inches along the edge, before sewing them together. Just be sure to pin the seam allowances, rather than the body of the project. In the case of the Tarp Kit, you will seal the pin-holes automatically as you seal the seams.

Silicone nylon too slippery?

One might think that the feed dogs on an old machine could be worn. Replacement feed dogs are sometimes available. But on most machines, the feed dogs are not likely to be worn.

One might think, also, that the presser foot is not pressing down hard enough. This, again, is very unlikely.

First, check that the upper thread is not stuck or caught on something, preventing the thread from unwinding off the spool.

Then check that you have properly fed the upper thread through all the guides. Once you have checked visually, with the presser-foot down, pull gently on the free end of the top thread to feel if it is running smooth and clear. Do the same pull test on the bobbin thread. If either one feels like it is caught, or does not unwind smoothly, check your machine's instruction manual to make sure you are threading the machine and bobbin correctly.

Next, remove top thread, the bobbin, and the needle. With no thread or needle, try "sewing" the fabric: in other words, see if the machine will feed the fabric under the presser foot. If it does not, you may need to increase the spring tension of the presser foot just a bit. If you can't do that, you might need to look for another sewing machine. Remember that a shoddy or cheap machine can make you wrestle the materials as you sew, rather than letting the feed-advance automatically pull the materials with the proper tension.

Repairing a small, accidental cut

"While sewing the quilt stowbag I needed to rip out a seam, and in the process put a slit in the fabric about 3/8" long (seam ripper newbie:)). What would be the best way to repair that type of cut?"

[Answer] Basically this is no problem. You can close the slit by zigzagging over it, or by hand-stitching it closed. If working on a tarp or batwing, apply seam sealing compound to both sides, one at a time. For larger slits, make a patch that overlaps the rip by 5/8" on all sides, and double stitch the patch around its perimeter. For a nicer job you can hem the patch on all sides before sewing it on to the rip.

Extra fabric folding under and getting caught in the stitching?

While sewing you must continually check under the work to make sure no extra fabric creeps into the sewing area. If it does, the sewing machine will stitch it to your work. If this happens - and it seems to happen to nearly everyone at times - you simply use the seam ripper to remove the stitching in that area, then sew it again more carefully.

Pin holes in the selvage

"I cut out my pieces of the tarp kit, and noticed that along the selvage edges there seems to be little pin holes, maybe a quarter of an inch from the edge of the material. I'm guessing that whatever machine seals the edge, has a roller and for what ever reason occasionally pricks a hole in the fabric. I would say there is a pin hole every couple of inches, sometimes closer. Is this normal? Is this going to weaken the tarp? I realize the fell seam will go right over the top of the holes, but that center seam is the main structural seam of the tarp. I would hate to mess up, and have a failure later on - like in the middle of a storm etc.! I am a novice when it comes to sewing, and could sure use your advice. Thanks!"

[Answer] The pin holes in the selvage, 1/4" from the edge are a normal part of manufacture, and you can envelop them within the flat-felled seam without weakening the structure. The seam sealing will insure against leaks. However, the material is plenty wide, so if the selvage also looks a little ragged you may first trim it from the edge, as long as you follow a reasonably straight line. If in doubt, go ahead and trim; it takes only a few minutes. Mark the edge distance every 6" or 12" along the length, and simply eyeball the trim with scissors or rotary cutter.

Insulation does not feed through

"In sewing the Quilt Kit, your instructions specify to sew the five layers together with the insulation side down. When I attempt to sew it in this manner, the insulation does not feed through and only proceeds if I pull it from the rear."

[Answer] Sounds like the feed dogs on your sewing machine are worn out. Or maybe the presser foot is bearing down with too much force. Try flipping the work over, with the insulation on top. If that doesn't work, you might need to have your sewing machine serviced. Please note that the vast majority of sewing machines will sew with the insulation side down.

Wrinkled insulation

"I am getting close to done on the quilt kit I purchased from you and I have a question. After turning the whole thing right-side-out and sewing around the edges (but before sewing up the foot or quilting) I have noticed some wrinkles in the insulation. Will these always be present? Maybe I messed up cutting it and got it slightly different sizes, or maybe turning it inside out caused this. How can I fix it? I figured that if I tried to distribute it evenly between the quilting stitches that might help. Do you have any tips or tricks to fix this? Other than this, and in spite of my pathetic sewing, I think it's gonna turn out great."

[Answer] If you were careful when turning the quilt right-side out, then the wrinkles you describe are most likely fairly minor. These are common, and are caused by the insulation having shifted somewhat between the layers. Lay the quilt flat on the floor and grasp the upper layer of insulation with one hand, and the lower layer with the other hand - pinching them through the fabric - and pull the layers of insulation apart. Repeat in several different areas. This will encourage the layers to re-distribute.

At this point, any remaining wrinkles can be ignored. They will settle nicely with just a bit of use. As you suggest, distribute them somewhat evenly prior to the quilting operation.

If the wrinkles are not minor, then this would indicate a more significant shifting of the layers of insulation relative to each-other while turning the quilt right-side out. In such a case, turn the quilt inside-out and adjust the layers, then more carefully turn the quilt back right-side out.

Can't balance the stitch

"Ray, A quick note on my sewing machine. I could never get a perfect balanced stitch, so I sent the machine to the shop. They cleaned, polished and retimed it, Now it sews perfect. It was worth the $65."

[Answer] The problem was not likely the timing. Depending on the degree of severity, in ascending order, improper timing results in skipped stitches, broken needles, or a machine that will not even budge. Installing the needle improperly, or installing an improper size or type needle, can cause the same symptoms. A needle that is not pressed up fully to the stop before tightening the thumb screw will throw the timing instantly off. How to fix that? Loosen the screw and press the needle fully up to its stop. Skipped stitches are also caused by a dull or bent needle. And by feeding the thread improperly through the guides.

The inability to achieve a balanced stitch usually means that the upper tensioning wheel is not working properly. This is caused by improper feeding of the thread, or by a bit of lint jammed deep inside the tensioning wheel wedges. The lint is of course the result of using cotton thread. Our Ray-Way thread produces very little lint.

Removing lint from deep within the tensioning wheel wedges is easy. Simply cut a long, thin strip of clean cotton cloth, dab it lightly with solvent, and sea-saw it up between the wheel wedges as though it were the thread. As you pull the cloth back and forth it will grab the lint and pull it free. This is likely what the shop meant by "polishing." And when they said they "retimed" the machine, what they probably did was merely check the timing. If you know what to look for, checking the timing takes about two seconds.

The important thing is that your machine is again working properly. And really, the servicing did not cost all that much. As for my own sewing machines, all five of them, I enjoy tinkering. Once in a great while, Jenny will be sewing along and the machine will start acting up. Soon I have dozens of parts spread across the table. Then with the machine back together, I get a sense of satisfaction from the sweet purring and the beautifully balanced stitches rolling out from behind the needle.

Illuminated Headband Magnifier

This Illuminated Headband Magnifier might come in handy for sewing. Highly recommended for those who have difficulty with close-up work.


"I have an old singer 503 model, which has a drop in bobbin. I saw your advice against horizontal bobbins. Should I just get one of the 4 brand names you suggest and save me some pain? Please advise! Much appreciated!

[Answer] This machine should do a fine job, and you can adjust the bobbin tension - see page 21: singer 503


Seamster: Someone who sews Ray-Way kits. :)

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