Exact Sewing Machine Settings for Cotton: Tension, Length…

I checked online manuals to find the exact sewing machine settings for cotton fabric (the “woven”, non-stretch type). I’ll share the tension and stitch length settings you need for thin, medium, and thick cotton.

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Across the 3 major brands I checked, the standard tension you need is 4, and the standard stitch length is 2.5mm. This is a good starting point for medium weight cottons like poplin and shirting.

Choose a shorter stitch length between 1.8 – 2.5mm for lightweight cotton (eg. voile).

Choose a longer stitch length between 2.5 – 4mm for thick cotton (eg. denim and canvas).

Note: all of these settings are a general guideline. Make sure you test sew on the actual number of layers and type of fabric you’ll use in your project.

The needle you’ll need for non-stretch cotton is a Universal one, which is also called HAx1 or 130/705H (source).

Use size 70/10 for really thin cotton like voile, size 80/12 for light to medium weight cotton, and 90/14 for thick cotton like denim.

Schmetz is a well-known brand for making good quality needles, so that’s what I mostly use. You can easily find their needles on Amazon in multi-size packs or single-size.

sewing machine settings for cotton

Contents list:

Related post: 71 Types of Cotton Fabric, their Uses, & 207 Example Photos!

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Cotton settings for Brother sewing machines

white brother sewing machine
Photo credit: Brother.

Tension settings:

The standard tension setting is 4. Start with this, and based on what your test stitching looks like, tighten the tension (choose a number above 4) or loosen it (choose a number below 4).

Stitch length settings:

stitch length setting on Brother sewing machine LED screen
The circled area is where you change the stitch length setting. Photo credit: Brother.

Brother says that in general, the thicker your fabric, the longer your stitches should be. Lighter fabrics suit shorter stitches.

Fabric weightExampleStitch length mm (inches)
LightCotton lawn, voileShort: 1.8 – 2.5mm (1/16” – 3/32”)
MediumQuilting cotton, poplin, flannelStandard: 2 – 3mm (1/16” – 1/8″)
HeavyDenim, canvasLong: 2.5 – 4mm (3/32 – 3/16”)

Cotton settings for Janome sewing machines

Tension settings:

tension dial on janome sewing machine
Photo credit: Janome.

The standard tension is 4.

Janome recommends a range of 2 – 6 for straight stitches.

Stitch length settings:

stitch length dial on Janome sewing machine

The standard stitch length is 2.4mm.

The smallest length is 1.5mm. If you’re sewing lightweight fabrics, like cotton voile or lawn, try a stitch length between 1.5 – 2.4mm.

The maximum stitch length is 4mm. Experiment with 2.5 – 4mm stitch lengths for thick fabrics like denim and cotton canvas.

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Cotton settings for Singer sewing machines

stitch length and tension dials on Singer sewing machine
The left circle shows where the tension dial is, and the right circle shows the stitch length dial. Photo credit: Singer.

Tension settings:

The standard tension is 4.

Singer says that “90% of all sewing will be between ‘3’ and ‘5’”.

Stitch length settings:

Singer doesn’t recommend a specific stitch length for straight stitches. Instead, they say “Generally speaking, use a longer stitch length when sewing heavier weight fabrics or when using a thicker needle or thread. Use a shorter stitch length when sewing lighter weight fabrics or when using a finer needle or thread.”

Their stitch length ranges from “0” – “4”. I recommend starting with a stitch length of 2.5mm for medium-weight cotton, like poplin and shirting fabrics, because this is what most brands recommend.

If you’re sewing with lightweight cotton, like cotton lawn or voile, try a stitch length between 1.5 – 2.5mm.

If you’re sewing with thick cotton, like denim, try a stitch length between 2.5 – 4mm.

How to know if your tension looks right

What a balanced stitch looks like

balanced stitch diagram
Photo credit: Brother.

Brother says “the upper thread and the bobbin thread should cross near the center of the fabric”. 

So you should only see the upper thread on the right side of the fabric, and the bobbin thread on the wrong side. If your stitch looks like this, the tension is balanced nicely!

When you wouldn’t want a balanced stitch

Singer says “A balanced tension (identical stitches both top and bottom) is usually only desirable for straight stitch construction sewing…For zig zag and decorative sewing stitch functions, thread tension should generally be less than for straight stitch sewing.”

Bobbin thread shows on the right side

diagram showing unbalanced stitch with bobbin thread on right side of fabric
Photo credit: Brother.

If you can see the bobbin thread on the right side of the fabric, the upper thread tension is too tight. You need to loosen it.

Note: the upper thread tension might be too tight because the bobbin thread was incorrectly threaded. Follow your manuals instructions on how to thread and install bobbins correctly.

Upper thread shows on the wrong side

diagram showing unbalanced stitch with upper thread showing on wrong side of fabric
Photo credit: Brother.

If you can see the upper thread on the wrong side of the fabric, the upper thread is too loose. You need to tighten the tension.

Note: the upper thread might be too loose if the upper thread was incorrectly threaded. Follow your manuals instructions to rethread the upper thread properly. 

A common mistake is when people thread it without raising the presser foot. Many machines need you to raise the presser foot to open up the tension disk, so the upper thread can slot in between the discs properly. If you forgot to do this, your upper thread might not be inside the tension disc, so no tension is being applied to the thread.

Is everything installed correctly?

Incorrectly installed bobbins and upper threads might mean it’s impossible to get the right thread tension, so make sure you’ve installed them properly by checking your manual.

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What size needle you need for cotton

3 packs of schmetz universal sewing machine needles
Some of my Schmetz Universal needles.

For “woven” cotton (in other words, non-stretchy), you’ll need a universal needle. The needle system code is 130/705 H and it’s also called HAx1 (as shown in the photo above). I buy my Schmetz needles in bulk from Amazon.

  • Size 70/10 is a thinner needle for lightweight fabrics like cotton voile. 
  • Size 80/12 is for medium weight fabrics like cotton shirting and poplin. 
  • Size 90/14 is for thicker fabrics, like denim and calico.


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