Shredded Thread? Four Things to Check

Today, I thought I'd share with you four tips for troubleshooting shredded threads, especially when quilting in free motion. Three are fairly straightforward, but the fourth can be a real challenge to describe well and I have yet to remember to take a picture when it has happened to me. But I have a graphic to help.

But first, let me mention a few other things that can cause thread shredding, particularly when stitching in free motion. Free motion is a real test of all the variables of your machine and set-up because you're doing things very differently than when regular sewing.

1) Bad thread. Obviously cheap, dirty, sun-damaged thread is pretty easy to check. Some of us don't keep any cheap thread in the house, others of us may find some works fine for some projects and purposes. Sometimes we grab an inferior thread without realizing it, because we were cooking for color only. Sometimes, good thread goes bad. There could be a manufacturer's defect or other issue. If new to free motion quilting, the jerky motion of our hands can be enough to cause some cotton and most rayon threads to break. Once the hand motion is smoother, a wide range of threads can be explored.

Does your machine chew up thread?

2) A problem with thread delivery. This covers a wide range of how the thread feeds off the spool and into the machine. I like to think of the thread content as the food for the machine and the spool as the plate or bowl for the "food." Figuring out how to best feed the thread (no junk food/thread!) off the spool or cone is much like deciding whether you need a spoon or a fork for a particular meal. I'll go into my food analogy in another post, but it's never a good idea to serve food on a cracked other words, check your spool, spool caps (you're using the proper spool cap for a horizontal spool pin, right?), cone or cone stand for snags and rough spots. Check any other area that the thread passes as it enters the machine. Also make sure you're serving up the thread in the correct manner. Some threads do not like the extra twist created by feeding off the top of the spool. Sometimes the extra twist causes the thread to break, while other times, it can cause the thread to get loopy, and make a weird stitch, usually in the bobbin case.

3)  You've fed your machine well, but it's having thready indigestion! It may have digestion issues. Check for snags, damage, stray threads in the thread path. This particularly important in regards to the needle, needle plate and bobbin case. Try a new needle in case the current one is damaged. Try a different size or type of needle to better suit the thread you're using. Inspect the needle plate for damage too. If a needle has broken or hit the plate, it may have caused damage in a place that was avoided in regular sewing. The same is true of the bobbin case and hook. Sometimes the needle passes too close to the edge of the needle plate. This may be a bent needle or it could be a needle bar that needs re-centering by a service tech. If using a non-hopping free motion foot, setting the foot too high over the project will also cause shredding as the fabric "flags" up the needle.

4) Finally the other thing that presents itself as shredded thread is actually something a little different. I've mentioned before that many machines do not like to free motion directly in reverse. It's always been a difficult thing to explain. It has to do with how a stitch is formed and where the needle thread travels. For one of my presentations while teaching at Quilt Weekend in Maysville KY, I made a graphic to show what can happen and why.

 You can see in the above image that the stitch basically has to "decide" which side of the needle it will lay as the needle goes into the fabric. In this case, the stitches are from an embroidery project, not free motion, which explains the slanted stitches (tighter bobbin tension). No shredding here, but it shows how while we can move in all directions, the needle is still set up for one direction sewing. Usually it does just like the above, going to one side or the other, but sometimes, the thread is directly under the needle as it goes down.

Essentially, the "working thread" that travels around the bobbin case as a stitch is formed gets pierced by the needle. This splits the thread and presents as shredded thread which breaks after a few stitches. It doesn't happen when backstitching with the machine in reverse while sewing regularly because the feed dogs are in better control of the movement and timing of the stitch formation and the slack is pulled more evenly.

There's not a lot one can do about this other than to avoid free motion quilting by pulling the quilt directly towards yourself. When doing circular motions, statistically there's a chance of this happening over just a few stitches. It's a pain, and some machines and thicker threads have more issues than others.

When it comes to quilting with rulers, this backwards motion can happen more often as it's really easy to run a ruler along the side of the foot. Try to set the project and ruler at a slight angle and this will help avoid that directly backwards action.

I hope you found this helpful. There are quite a few things that need to be checked when there's a thread issue beyond tension and this should help you troubleshoot things if you have this problem. I think we all do from time to time. Feed your machine well and it won't go to chewing.


  1. Thank you for the great information!

  2. This happens to me too often. Can you explain more about the proper spool cap for a horizontal spool pin please and thank you!

  3. Thanks Amy, always good info Lois

  4. Simply love your graphic, it tells everything !

  5. I love your free motion quilting, wish I could do it on a big quilt, everytime I try on a big quilt even if i have big tables and bunch it up , even if I have a super slider, the quilt doesn’t follow, and it won’t slide and that makes it hard to free motion, There must be something I do wrong wish someone could help😃

    1. Are you using gloves? They will help you grip the quilt without applying a lot of downward pressure. I arrange the quilt in a series of hills and valleys around the foot of my machine.the hills act almost like hinges allowing the inner area to move around the foot with the motion of your hands, while the outer valleys stay put. This reduces the weight of the part you are moving.

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.