I receive a lot of questions through Ask Anna about stitching tension, so I've compiled a list of the most common problems people have encountered and posted some of the advice I've given. Take a look to see if any of them sound familiar, and hopefully they will help you get the desired stitching tension as you work.
1. Get a grip! Literally. Picking up your beadwork can greatly improve your stitching tension. Holding the beads in the stitch you just added and the working thread where it exits the last bead will prevent the stitch from loosening up as you add the next stitch. Only let go of the working thread once the next stitch is completed, and then only to move your grasp down to the next stitch. You don't have to maintain a death grip on your beads — in fact DON'T, or you'll end up with stiff fingers and perhaps painful muscles. Use just a gentle grasp to keep things from shifting around while you work. And don't forget to take breaks to stretch out your fingers and back!
2. Don't skimp on stitching, reinforcing, or ending and adding thread. The more intricate the project, the more time it takes, which for many beaders is a good thing! This is what we do, what we love to do. But make sure you take the time to reinforce a row or round if it is loose or uneven; otherwise, all your time is wasted because you'll end up with a piece of beadwork that doesn't look very good. One of the most common complaints I hear in class is how people hate ending and adding thread, so they start with a ridiculous length for each project and usually get themselves (and everything in their path) caught up in it as they work. It is much better to work with manageable lengths, I'd say about 2 yd. (1.8 m) at a time, and cope with regularly ending and adding thread. But if you are just determined to work with double that length or more, work from the middle of the thread, if possible containing the remainder of the thread by wrapping it up on a bobbin or small piece of cardboard.
3. To create even tension for right-angle weave stitches, reinforce each row or round once it is completed (below, right). I like to do this instead of only reinforcing each stitch because the thread path of right-angle weave produces two threads on one side of each stitch and one thread on the other (below, left). No matter how many times you retrace the stitch, there will still be more thread paths on one side than the other. Only zigzagging back through the row (or round) will correct this.
4. To create good tension as you start a strip of flat even-count peyote stitch, work a row as usual, but when the working thread and tail are on the same side of the beadwork, place your thumbnail next to the edge beads and slide it up toward the beads as you pull the working thread and tail in the opposite direction. This will snug up the beads in the first three rows, and as you repeat this for the next several pairs of rows, you will start out with tight, even tension. To use this technique with flat odd-count peyote stitch, snug up the beadwork as described, but do so before adding the last bead in the odd-count turn row. Once you add that last bead, the thread will be facing the wrong direction to snug up the previous row. For even- or odd-count stitches, once you get past the first several rows, only pull on the working thread as you snug up the row just completed; the tail will no longer help as you continue working, but remember to snug up the tail before ending it or adding a clasp on this end of the beadwork.
5. When working with any stitch in the round, it can be a great help to begin the first few rows working around a dowel or pencil. Once you get those first rounds done, it should be easier to maintain even stitches. To make a specific form to work around, wrap a wide strip of paper around a dowel or pencil until you reach the desired diameter, or use cardstock to make a form from scratch. Tape the edge of the paper to hold it in place as you work. I find it helpful to work with a 4–5-in. (10–13 cm) form; any longer and your thread will most likely get caught as you work the stitches around it.
6. Double it up: Working with doubled thread can help maintain stitching tension because it fills up the holes of the beads, but it can be a pain to work with if it gets knotted or you have to remove stitches. I recommend working with doubled thread only if you already have command of the stitch. If you are just learning a stitch, stick with a single thread, but you can try using a thicker thread. If the project calls for 6 lb. Fireline, try using 8 lb. instead. Working with a thicker thread usually means working with a needle with a larger eye, so make sure that the holes in the beads will accommodate the needle and thread, or you may end up breaking beads. To use the smallest needle possible, flatten the end of the thread by pinching it with a pair of chainnose or flatnose pliers before feeding it through the eye.
7. Speaking of thread, working with the correct thread will improve your tension by providing the proper strength for the beads you are using. If you are using beads that may have sharp edges along the holes, such as crystals or bugle beads, use a strong fray-resistant thread like Fireline, Power Pro, or WildFire. These threads were adopted from the fishing section of outdoor sporting stores. They hold up well, and as you pull each stitch tight, they resist breaking so you don't have to be as cautious as you would with a nylon thread. You'll get a feel for how hard you can pull with each type of bead by keeping track of how and when you break thread as you work. Adjust your tension or choice of thread as needed.
8. Conditioning your thread with either microcrystalline or beeswax adds a tacky coating to your thread of choice, allowing it to stick to itself, holding each stitch in place better than if you didn't use any wax. Also, if you use doubled thread, waxing both strands together will help them act as a single thread, reducing the possibility of tangles or knots. It also helps to pull your thread through the beads nice and slow while taking up the slack. This way, the thread can't be pulled so fast through the beads that it ends up wrapping around itself, resulting in a knot or a clump that won't fit through the hole. Pulling slowly allows some of those knots to work themselves out before they become a true knot, bringing your beading to a screeching halt.
9. It may not be more difficult to maintain good tension if you use misshapen or broken beads, but these beads will cause all sorts of other trouble. Even if your stitching tension is perfect, your work won't reflect it if a misshapen bead makes a stitch look uneven. Cull your beads to remove any "bad" beads; work with only the highest quality materials to produce the most professional finished product.
10. Beads might not be "bad" and still cause trouble. Some stitches just work better with certain beads. If you are having a difficult time maintaining tension with a certain stitch, try out another type bead before abandoning it all together. For example, if you are working on a strip of herringbone stitch and you just can't get the stitches to lay the way you want, try using a smaller bead. Oftentimes, herringbone stitch works out well with smaller beads because they nestle next to each other better and disguise the thread path that is sometimes very apparent in herringbone pieces. Also, with herringbone stitch it really helps to "place" the pair of beads in each stitch before moving on to the next. Because of the angled way the beads sit, they don't always want to be pulled right into place the first time. Use your needle or a beading awl to align the holes of the beads if needed before pulling the stitch all the way through, leave a tiny little loop in the thread, then place one bead on either side of the loop and gently pinch the beads between your thumb and forefinger before pulling the thread the rest of the way through.
Hopefully some of these tips will help with any tension troubles you may be having. All of the stitches have little quirks that usually get worked out as you become more comfortable with each one. If there are specific problems that you continue to run into, please let me know!