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All About Pin Basting a Quilt

All About Pin Basting a Quilt post image

My favorite way to baste most quilts is with basting spray. But sometimes basting with safety pins is a better choice–if you don’t like breathing in chemical fumes, for instance, or if you’re basting a quilt that you might not get finished for quite a while.

Pin basting is easy to learn, low-tech, and involves no nasty chemicals. Done properly, it produces a finished quilt that is smooth and wrinkle-free. A pin basted quilt will stay basted until you finish quilting – even if that takes months or years.

Supply List for Pin Basting

  • Curved basting safety pins. These pins, made specifically for basting quilts, make the job much easier than regular safety pins. They have a bend in the middle that makes it easier to catch just the right amount of fabric on the pin. You can find them at fabric or quilt shops. Quilter’s safety pins come in three different sizes, from less than an inch up to two inches long. The smaller pins make smaller holes in the quilt top than the large ones. I find that the more expensive pins are well worth the money. Cheap pins are poorly made and always have at least a few flattened, wrong-size, or otherwise unusable pins. And make sure you only buy pins that are guaranteed not to rust. It wouldn’t do to get rust stains on your carefully sewn quilt top! The number of pins you need depends on the size of the quilt. A king size bed quilt needs several hundred pins.
  • Finished quilt top. The top should be squared up, pressed, and (optionally) starched before basting. Starching helps keep wrinkles from forming.
  • Quilt batting. Take the batting out of its package and let it rest overnight to relax any wrinkles. If you forgot to do that, you can put it in a no-heat dryer to fluff for a few minutes.
  • Finished quilt backing. Quilting teacher Harriet Hargrave recommends starching the backing before basting to minimize wrinkling. (Heirloom Machine Quilting, 4th Edition, C&T Publishing, 2009, ISBN 978-157120369).
  • (Optional) Kwik-Klip, a tool for closing the safety pins that helps you avoid sore fingers, a danger of pin basting large quilts. Some quilters use a grapefruit spoon instead. I don’t  use either.
  • For pin basting on the floor: masking tape to fasten the quilt backing to the floor.
  • For table basting: large binder clips to secure the quilt layers to the table.

How to Pin Baste a Quilt on the Floor

This is a good way to baste big quilts. You can lay out the whole quilt, flat and wrinkle-free, even if it is very large. The disadvantage is that you will need to crawl around on the floor while you pin, which can be uncomfortable or even impossible for some quilters.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Lay the quilt backing fabric on the floor, right side down.
  2. Use masking tape to tape down the four corners of the backing, stretching the fabric taut, but not so tight that you distort its shape. If your floor has a pattern of square tiles or floorboards, they can come in handy for aligning the fabric. Quilts can also be basted on carpet.
  3. Tape the backing fabric to the floor in in several places around its outside edge.
    1.  Use enough tape to hold the fabric securely in place for pinning. When you are done, the fabric should be taut and wrinkle-free.  Here’s an example on a hardwood floor, with the batting and quilt top already spread out over the backing fabric:

    Photo by Flickr.com user tirralirra

  4. Fold the batting in half. Align the fold with the center of the backing fabric, then unfold and smooth the batting from the center out to the edges, until it lies completely flat. Don’t try to stretch the batting, or it will pull and cause puckers after quilting.
  5. Lay the quilt top on top of the batting, with right side up. If you want to align any of the seams on the top with seams on the backing, do that now. Smooth the top from the center out until it is very flat and wrinkle free.
  6. Starting from the center of the quilt, pin through the three layers every 3” to 4” (8 cm to 10 cm.) For very thick battings, pin closer together to minimize shifting. Thin, clingy batting can be pinned farther apart. Try to pin in a grid, so it will be easier to see and remove your pins when you quilt the layers together. Avoid pinning directly across seams that will be stitched in the ditch, or across lines where you know you will be sewing when you quilt the layers. You may want to use a Kwik Klip or a spoon to help close the pins, if you have one.

How to Pin Baste a Quilt on a Table Top

This method lets you baste while standing up, saving yourself the discomfort of crawling around on the floor. If you don’t have a big enough table to lay out the whole quilt, you may be able to borrow one at a local quilt store, school, or library. For most people, though, basting on a table means basting one  section of the quilt at a time. For larger quilts, you may spend some time shifting the quilt around to reach unbasted sections. I like to baste quilts on my large cutting table. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Fold the quilt backing in half to find the center, then lay it out on the table, right side down. Align the center of the quilt with the table’s center. Let the extra fabric hang over the table’s edges.
  2. Smooth out the fabric, then use binder clips or carpenter’s clamps to clip one end of the backing to the table. Smooth the fabric again, then clip the backing to the table all around the edges. I like to place the clips 6-8” apart (15-20 cm). The fabric should be wrinkle-free, but not drum tight.
  3. Lay the batting on the backing and smooth it until all the wrinkles are gone.
  4. Lay the quilt top on the batting with the right side up. Smooth it out, then reclip the quilt sandwich so all three layers are held in place with no wrinkles, like this:

    Photo by Flickr.com user heidielliott

  5. Pin the quilt layers together as described in the section above on basting on the floor. If you only have room to do a section of the quilt at a time, pin the section, then reposition and re-clip the quilt on the table top.
  6. If the quilt is too small to clip all the edges to the table, use masking tape as if you were basting on the floor.
When you are finished pinning, your quilt should look something like this:

This quilt is actually a bit more densely pinned than I usually do myself, but this kind of thoroughness pays off in a wrinkle-free quilt.

Putting the Basting Pins Away

Save yourself a step by putting the pins away open, so they are ready to go for next time you baste.


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