Basting a Quilt – a Definition and How To

by Lisa Call on November 24, 2005

in Quilting Process

Happy Thanksgiving to those in the States!

As you are all basting your turkeys, I thought I’d talk about basting quilts.

First, for the non quilters, some definitions. My quilts are made up of 3 layers:

  • The top – this is the design that I have sewn together, made out of my handdyed 100% cotton fabric.
  • The back – also made with cotton fabric, usually a few larger pieces sewn together.
  • The batting – this is the stuff in the middle. I use warm and natural cotton batting as it is thin, dense and flat and I like the way it holds up to heavy quilting.

The 3 layers are held together with quilting stitches. I do my quilting on my sewing machine and if you look at this post you can see some detailed examples of what the quilting looks like.

Before I can do the quilting I need to fasten the 3 layers together temporarily so they don’t slip and slide around while I manipulate the quilt through my sewing machine. This is called basting the quilt. And it is also extremely important – if done well the final quilt will generally lay flat and look nice; if done poorly the top and back often have puckers and the quilt can look sloppy.

It’s a lot of work to baste a quilt, especially larger bedsized pieces and many quilters don’t enjoy the process, so I guess I’m a bit unusual because I do.

I like the look of just the sewn together top, before it has been turned in to a quilt. But for me it feels incomplete. My artwork must have the texture from the quilting stitches to really feel right and it is during the basting that all of the potential of that texturing is first realized. It’s the moment my artwork becomes a quilt and I love it.

I also have devised a quick and easy way to baste my quilts that always results in a perfect quilt sandwich and I never run into technical problems during the quilting. It takes me about half an hour to baste a 40″ square quilt with this method.

I took some pictures last weekend while I was basting Structures #39 to demonstrate my technique.

How To Create the Perfect Quilt Sandwich:

  • Create a beautiful quilt top.
  • Piece together a backing that coordinates with the top. I don’t measure with a ruler. I just keeping sewing fabric pieces together until the backing is 3-4″ bigger than the top on every side (determine this by holding it up to the top). I don’t skimp here – it’s too annoying fitting it together properly if the backing is only just a tiny bit bigger than the top. So I make it plenty extra big to avoid any of those headaches.Basting Structures #39 © 2005 Lisa Call
  • Cut a piece of batting about the same size as the backing.
  • Clear a space the carpeted floor large enough to layout the backing and walk around all sides
  • Lay the backing, wrong side up, on the carpet and pin it to the carpet with straight pins. I pull the fabric taut but not too tight and put pins in every 4-6″. I start in the center of 1 edge and work my way to the ends until 1 side is pinned down. They I do the opposite edge, again starting in the middle. The do the remaining 2 sides. I usually do the 2 shortest sides first. The back should be pulled taut fairly evenly across the entire quilt. If any of the pins are straining then it is pulled too tight. Basting Structures #39 © 2005 Lisa Call
  • Lay the batting on top of the backing and smooth flat, trying not to distort the backing. So do it gently but firmly. I don’t pin the batting down but I do work to smooth it out evenly. As it is cotton batting it will hold in place well with friction.
  • Lay to top onto the batting and again smooth it down evenly. Start with the center of the quilt and work outwards pushing out any rumples with your hand.
  • Start at the very center of the quilt and place safety pins (see note about pins below) in a line down the center of the quilt, start in the center and work out to each edge. Pins should be about 6″ apart. This first row of pins should be parallel to the longest edge of the quilt (so you don’t have to reach as far across the quilt to work – it’s best if you never stand or kneel on the quilt sandwich during this process – on huge quilts it can’t be avoided – just be as gentle as possible when moving around the quilt).
  • Continue adding rows of pins, starting in the center of each row, about 6″ apart. The final row of pins should run about an inch away from the edge of the quilt. As you pin continue to smooth out any rumples in the sandwich. If done carefully the pins anchoring the backing to the floor should not move around much at all. Basting Structures #39 © 2005 Lisa Call
  • Remove the pins holding the backing and lift quilt from the floor. I rarely catch the carpet with a safety pin as I am careful when pinning to avoid this problem. I’m been pinning my quilts to my current studio carpet for 11 years and there are no signs of frayed edges or other problems resulting from this activity.
  • Trim extra batting and backing from the sandwich as it gets in the way when quilting. I leave about 3/4″ around each side.

Note about pins: I use the short 1″ safety pins (#1 size), steel not brass. The larger ones leave big holes in the fabric and the brass ones don’t slide through the quilt sandwich easily. I bought a box of a 10 gross (1440) nickle plated size 1 safety pins for $24 at a quilt store about 12 years ago (you can see the box of pins in the photo above). You can get the exact same box of pins on the internet today for $12 at this dry cleaning supply website. I love having a big box of pins as I can baste 4 or 5 large quilts at a time, and I just ordered a second box. I’ve always wanted more but had never seen these pins in quilt stores again, probably because they make more money selling smaller quanties of very expensive safety pins, which are probably the exact same thing packaged in fancy quilter packages.

Time to check on the pies – enjoy your Thanksgiving!


Vikki December 1, 2005 at 5:40 am

Enjoyed this tutorial. I learned something new – pin that backing into the carpet!
I recently basted a quilt using those huge brass pins and regreted it. Those holes are monsters! Thanks for the “pins” link.

CDMacKenzie December 19, 2005 at 9:38 am

I’ve had problems with puckering on the bobbin side of the quilt when machine quilting. I’m unsure what could remedy this. Also, when you quilt, do you have to start from the middle?

Lisa Call December 19, 2005 at 9:56 am

CDMacKenzie – I would guess that you need to pull the backing fabric tighter when you do your basting. I find that the tension of the back needs to be just a tiny bit more than that of the top. Not much so don’t pull it really taut, but just enough so you don’t get any more of those icky puckers on the back.

And yes – I start in the middle and move to the edges when quilting. Doing the corners last.

joyce rogan November 13, 2006 at 12:41 pm

Thanks for the advice on how to prepare the quilt for machine quilting. Just ordered the pins from the link you gave. BIG difference in price than the quilt store where they are 100 for 10 dollars.
Thanks again,
Joyce Rogan

fygquilt January 1, 2007 at 3:01 pm

I have couple of top finish and I need the inspiration to baste them. You article is relly nice. I’ll tried to find the courage!!!!

Helen January 4, 2007 at 7:19 am

I can no longer get down on my knees to work on the floor so am having a work top made that stands on trestles for my studio (like a table but I can take the top off and lean it along a wall if I need to). I’m planning to try tape to hold the backing smooth and taut onto the trestle top but I’m not sure if this will work. If it doesn’t I’ll either staple the trestle top with carpet or cotton wadding or bump. I’ll probably try the bump first as I can get it very cheaply. If worst comes to worst I could always staple the quilt back onto the trestle top!!

Lisa Call January 5, 2007 at 11:00 am

Helen – great idea. When I used to baste on a table top I would either tape the back down or use those big binder clips to hold the back down. I found I would usually pull the backing too tight as the table top was so smooth, so I’d end up with puckers on the front of the quilt, so just watch that you don’t pull it too tight.

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