Thread breaks are annoying at best and can happen for a variety of reasons. When they are seemingly continuous they not only waste a lot of time but they can suck the joy right out of a project. Unfortunately, thread breaks are rather like snowflakes, no two are alike. OK, that may be a stretch, but there are myriad causes. Most can be resolved quickly while others require a little more patience and diligence.
Where to Start
“It’s always best to start at the beginning” is sound advice even if we have no Yellow Brick road to follow. In this case, start with the obvious. When your machine gives you the dreaded thread break message, first check to see if there is an actual thread break, then check the threading—both needle and thread, finally check the needle. These are not only the easiest to check but the most common causes and quickest fixes to make.
Is it Really a Thread Break?
Sometimes the machine will signal a thread break when there really isn’t one, at least not technically. For example, a mis-threading can cause the thread break sensor to think there is a problem because it is not sensing the proper thread tension. This can also happen if a loop of thread forms suddenly resulting in slack in the thread.
Other situations that cause a thread break signal are really a “thread out” indication most often triggered by an empty or low bobbin or the needle becoming unthreaded.
The best solution for the above is to rethread the machine and correct any low thread conditions.
Sometimes the machine screams “thread break” for no apparent reason.
For example, on my 12-needle SWF, needle 6 signals a lot of false thread breaks that I simply haven’t been able to solve. I’ve rethreaded, adjusted the tensions, changed the needle and verified its position. (For those with a home embroidery machine, commercial machine needles are round. There is no flat part to make sure it is at the right angle.) And of course, it never does it when the tech is here. My current solution is to avoid using needle 6, which I have renamed the “666” needle. When I do have to use it, I simply stand at the machine and press the start button every 50-100 stitches. Aggravating!
Actual Thread Breaks
Examine the thread break. Is it a clean snap or is it shredded?
Tip: Shredding thread is only one reason why I don’t let my machine embroidery on autopilort. I want to stop the machine as soon as I see a shred forming to avoid low quality embroidery.
Next, examine the thread path. Did the thread get caught on something? A common problem with embroidery thread is that due to its slippery nature, it can slide down the spool and get hung up underneath causing a sudden jerk on the thread. Rayons will probably just snap at this point but some poly threads may be strong enough to resist breaking and instead flex the needle resulting in a broken needle.
To avoid thread hangups, switch to thread wound on “mini king” type spools, which feature a wide sloping base that virtually eliminates the possibility of thread pooling under the spool. I recently switched to Hemingworth thread. Not only does it come on a mini king type spool, it has a clear plastic dome that fits over the entire thread area. Besides preventing pooling, it also protects the thread from oils on your hands, dust in the environment, and bruising from accidental drops.
Metallic threads often cause more breaks and shredding because they tend to form loops and kinks as they come off the spool. This is exacerbated by small spools with narrow diameters and short thread paths from the spool to the first thread guide. A simple solution for this is to extend the thread path. Two products I use are the Echidna thread stand and the Echidna Control-A-Twist Thread Stand.
Lets look a little closer at thread. Embroidery threads are more fragile than those used for garment construction or quilting. Start with quality thread and know how to care for it. (For more information see my Thread Primer.)
Are you using a good quality embroidery thread? Cheap thread is no bargain. Cheap thread may have obvious or subtle defects such as knots, slubs, neps, improper twist, etc. Does the thread feel weak?
Is it “fresh?” Embroidery threads can dry out when exposed to light, heat, drafts, and air conditioning. They can become “bruised” if dropped or handled roughly. As they age, they become more fragile. Due to dying and other processes, certain colors break more easily than others. Check this for yourself. Try breaking a white thread and then a black. Also notice that the black is slightly thicker than the white. You’ll probably also experience more thread breaks with black than white.
And to top it off, the thread may be new in your sewing room but since there is no “born on date” and you don’t know the conditions it was subjected to before it arrived in your hands, it may be past its prime before you ever load it into the machine.
What fiber type is it? Rayon tends to break easier than poly. Metallics are more temperamental and finicky.
Are you using the type of thread recommended for this particular design? Most embroidery designs are digitized for 40wt rayon or polyester thread. If you are using something else—say metallic thread, two-color twist, or other specialty thread that weren’t specified in the color sequence instructions—you may experience increased thread breaks. Heavier threads will require a needle change.
If you’re using the correct type and weight of thread in the correct needle and your thread continues to break, try a different spool. If that thread continues to break, then change the needle.
On a single needle machine, if you are getting continuous thread breaks with multiple colors and you are sure you can eliminate the thread, then look at the needle.
Is it the right size? For 40 wt rayon or polyester thread, a 70/10 or 75/11 works well on most fabrics.
Is it a good quality embroidery needle? Embroidery needles have a slightly larger eye to reduce friction on the thread. High quality needles have a well-polished eye that won’t snag, abrade, or shred the thread. The thread can pass through the eye of the needle 50 to 60 times before it is laid down on the fabric. Any rough spot on the needle or thread path can literally saw the thread in half.
Is the needle in good condition? Is it bent? Is it inserted all the way?
If you have a multi-needle machine, are you getting thread breaks on just one needle? Is it breaking with just this thread or any thread? In addition to the above recommendations for single needle machines, check the needle position and make sure it is rotated in the correct direction.
For needle problems, change the needle and safely discard it so it will not be reused. Damaged needles will not “heal.”
Thread still breaking? Then move on to some more troubleshooting.
Had Lots of Needle Breaks?
The broken needle is the least of your problem! If your machine doesn’t stop the instant the needle breaks, it may severely damage your fabric. Needle breaks can cause scratches and rough spots on the throat plate and in the hook area that can shred thread. Until these problems are smoothed out, thread breaks will be your reality.
You may think thread breaks are causing you tension headaches but your machine’s tensions may be causing thread breaks. Try loosening the upper thread tensions (you may also need to loosen the bobbin tension to maintain balance) and see if that solves the problem.
Dust bunnies can develop a taste for thread and cause thread breaks. Thread that has shredded and is caught in the tension discs on home machines can cause problems as well. Clean your machine and see if that helps. If you suspect thread is still caught in the tension discs, take your machine in to be serviced by a qualified technician.
CAUTION: Unless you are experienced and know what you are doing, I don’t recommend DIY machine maintenance beyond what is covered in the manual. If you have a commercial/multi-needle machine, you were probably trained on how to do some more advanced troubleshooting, which I won’t cover here.
Does your machine, thread, and needle work smoothly except on certain designs? Or maybe only on certain areas of the design? Did you shrink the design? Short stitches—stitches less than 1mm long—are the number one design-related cause of thread breaks. Another contributing factor is excess density—too many stitches in one area, which may be caused by multiple layers of stitching and/or overly high density settings for the stitching.
It is possible for the fabric and/or stabilizer to the source of thread problems. For example, heavy, stiff fabrics can easily strip some metallic threads.
Before you pull out all your hair, take your machine in to visit the repair tech. Keep the same needle in the machine, take the thread with you and also the sample you were working on, if possible.
Thread Break Chart: Common Causes and Solutions
|Thread not properly threaded on machine||Re-thread machine and check all the thread guides to be sure thread is not getting “hung up”|
|Bobbin inserted incorrectly||If bobbin is not in correct position, it will pull at thread causing it to break; check your machine manual for proper placement instructions|
|Improper tensions||Looser top tensions and/or tighter bobbin tensions cause top thread to pileup on underside of embroidery. Adjust tensions accordingly.|
|Needle size is too small for thread.||Thicker threads require larger needle sizes. To test a thread/needle combination, thread a loose needle with two feet of thread. Alternately raise and lower ends of thread. Correct needle size will allow needle to easily slide back and forth.|
|Burrs in needle eye, thread guides, throat plate, or bobbin case||Use emery cloth to buff these areas. The bobbin case and needle are often just as easily replaced.|
|Too tight or inconsistent twist on thread||Call the thread manufacturer and/or put on a new cone of thread.|
|Lint buildup in tensions discs, throat plate, or bobbin case||Clean these areas with canned air or brush|
|Build up of thread behind hook.||Clean hook assembly with canned air or brush.|
|Lack of lubrication in hook assembly||Oil machine using a stainless white oil|
|Too many stitches in too small of an area||Too many stitches in one area puts too much stress on the thread. Decrease density or eliminate extra stitches|
|Machine speed too high||Some applications increase stress on thread. Adjust speed accordingly.|
|Machine timing off||Have machine needle hook timing retimed|
|Old, dry thread||Toss old thread and store new thread, especially rayon and cotton at a temperature of 70°F and 65% humidity for maximum longevity|