Class Review: “Solving Tension Headaches” with Dawn Cavanaugh


I took 10 classes at MQX East and learned a great deal from each one of them. This class, however, was the hands-down winner for practical tips.

Getting that perfect stitch is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Many, many things affect your tension. Basically you are doing a juggling act between a lot of different factors and trying to come up with the best solution.

The class began with a discussion of the factors that affect tension. These include the types of fabric, fabric thread count, and whether the fabric is washed.  Some fabrics (such as batiks or Tshirts with raised lettering) are harder to quilt through. Don’t forget that backing fabric (such as a sheet, Minky or flannel) will also affect tension. Finally, batting also has an impact on tension. It is much easier to quilt through a lighter, more airy batting (say a high loft polyester) than a dense cotton batting.

Thread choice can also impact tension. Metallic threads and invisible threads can be difficult. Cotton thread can cause drag on the fabric, whereas a polyester thread will glide through.

To add to our problems, environmental factors such as dryness and humidity will impact our quilting.

Whew … we hadn’t even gotten to the quilting part and I already felt doomed to tension hell.

This class was very interactive — apparently there are a lot of us with tension problems. It was 2 hours of “I didn’t know that” and I am NOT a novice longarmer. Here are a few things that are worth repeating:

1. Thicker threads require thicker needles. It never hurts to go up a needle size.

2. Quilts should not be drum-skin tight on our longarms. A little slack will improve tension.

3. Threads have a twist. The goal of the thread guides is to untwist your thread. Look at how it is coming off the bobbin and thread accordingly. Most of us have a gauge that looks like a stop light (3 vertical holes). This can be threaded from top to bottom, or bottom to top, depending on the twist of the thread. (Oops. I was threading the wrong way.)

4. Most of us know that the longarm functions better when the needle moves  from left to right, and from top to bottom. What I did not realize is that this direction is from the freehand side of the machine (the size closest to the needle). I was always careful to go from right to left — EVEN ON the pantograph side of the machine. That’s right … I was not accounting for the fact that I was facing the wrong direction. Oops.

5. Polyester thread has less drag. I did not know this. (Guess who bought some Polyester thread at the quilt show?)

6. You can use mono poly thread on both the top and bottom of the longarm. Years ago, I was told that this could not be done. Dawn does it all the time, so I’m going to try it.

I can’t say enough good things about this class. Dawn is a funny, engaging, knowledgeable teacher. I can see why her classes are so popular and am excited to take more classes from her. Dawn is Director of Education for APQS (a longarm manufacturer). You can find a schedule of her classes at


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