Just the right tension

My mom used to get so frustrated when I couldn’t get the right thread tension going in my cross-stitching. If I pulled too tight, the fabric would pucker, too loose and the stitches would look too big and lumpy – sounds a little like ‘life’ doesn’t it?

I have been sewing long enough to know just how much tension to use on pretty much any type of fabric or material, using any kind of thread. My teenaged daughter on the other hand, still has much to learn. She recently finished her first ‘real’ piece. A sev she started a couple of years ago when she was a foot or two shorter than she is now. She will probably never wear it, but that doesn’t matter. It was a piece that she was serious about, worked hard at, and I am proud of her for it.

Puckering as a result of incorrect tension.

Puckering as a result of incorrect tension.

The pattern used in the sev is one of the most common in Hmong cross-stitching called lub tsev or ‘house’. You can easily see in the close-up above that the fabric looks a little wonky. This is because the tension, in some areas is too tight, then in other areas it’s too loose. Yes, you can get puckering when your tension is too loose. The cross-stitching is really raised and bulky looking, this is a sign of loose tension. My mom would have gone back through and pulled each cross-stitch with a needle to tighten the tension, but I didn’t. I showed my daughter a couple of times how to correct this puckering, but she didn’t quite understand, and honestly, I don’t think she really cared; however, her opinion has changed. After a couple years of sewing under her belt, and seeing her finished masterpiece (which she was very proud of) so puckered, she was somewhat disappointed and finally realized how important tension is. She recently started a second piece that already looks a lot better.

These are before and after ironing snapshots.

These are before and after ironing snapshots.

So, how do you correct this uneven, not very perfect piece of work? The easiest thing to do is to iron it! Yes, iron. Go slow and start out on a low heat setting on your iron, you want to iron out the puckering, not burn off your fragile thread. I like to start in one area and iron in one general direction, usually from the bottom of the sev going up towards the top, which sits at the waist, working from the inside and ironing out toward the edges. Direction matters, because depending on how puckered your finished piece is, it may produce some sections that are slightly askew.

To make your finished cross-stitched piece even more perfect, iron on some heavy-weight fusible interfacing to the backside. This will make the piece sturdier and easier to work with as you get ready to sew the backing onto the sev. Heavy-weight iron-on fusible interfacing is easy to find. You can usually buy it by the yard at your local arts and crafts store or any store that sells fabric.

Sewing is quite the balancing act, just like life. In the beginning it’s hard to know how much to give and how much to take. You have to listen to the fabric, to the thread, and work with it not against it. And, mom can patch your mistakes up for you, iron out your bumps and bruises, and only the two of you will ever know, but it is just a ‘fix’ after all until you learn to figure it out for yourself.

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3 thoughts on “Just the right tension

  1. Wow, this brought back childhood memories. Tension was THE reason why I gave up paj ntaub as a kid. My mom used that trick of ironing it too but for some reason it didn’t always work; so I gave up. It was disheartening to put in so much time and effort into cross stitching only to laugh at my end product. Now as an adult I’m trying to conquer the challenge…so far I don’t have a problem. Thanks for the “tension tips” because I’m sure I’ll use it!

  2. Blia, I didn’t mention it in my post, but how stiff or soft the material is also can make figuring out the right tension difficult. The softer the fabric, the harder it can be. No matter the case, don’t give up! Tension truly gets better with time and experience.

  3. Pingback: Finally Finished! | emilykarn

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