Tuesday, January 1, 2013

How I Baste a Quilt

In my machine quilting class about 15 years ago we were taught how to baste a quilt using safety pins, with the three layers of the quilt clamped to a table top. This past year, when I was finally ready to baste a large quilt, that method no longer worked for me. There were two reasons:
  1. No appropriate table. Our dining room table has deep, slightly curved sides, and is made from a soft wood. It inevitably would have been damaged by clamps and/or pins, and it's not square anyway.
  2. Bad back. Although I am fairly strong, a couple of back injuries over the years make standing bent over a table, or crawling around on the floor, out of the question.
Fortunately, I came across Sharon Schamber's quilt basting technique. I have used this method twice now, with slight variations, once with safety pins and once with hand basting. It holds the three layers beautifully, almost like a frame, AND, you can baste your quilt sitting down comfortably.

First, here are Sharon's two videos, and after I'll show photos of my quilt and discuss some details.

I love buying quilting supplies at Home Depot! For the boards in Sharon's method I bought pre-finished fibreboard trim in the 2.5" x 0.5" x 8 ft size. Click the photo to see the label larger:

At the store they cut the pieces for me down to 74" long, which is about right for most of my quilts so far. It is perfectly straight and square, better for this purpose than solid wood would be. It seems a little flexible, but it lies perfectly flat on the table.

I did buy the tatting thread Sharon mentions somewhere to use for basting:

I used up the whole ball, on my 54" x 66" quilt, and was left with 9 blocks still unbasted. So I was also able to try stranded embroidery floss on the last corner. The tatting thread had a tendency to snarl, until I figured out that it has a right direction and a wrong direction, like wool thread. Once you know that, it is easy to run the thread through your fingers and tell which way is right. For the stranded embroidery floss I used two strands in the needle. I tested one strand, but it did not seem as robust. Either thread works. The tatting thread is a little quicker, because you do not need to separate the threads. But embroidery floss is available everywhere, so you do not need to special order it. I bought the tatting thread from Nordic Needle.

With Sharon's tiny demo quilt she is able to lay out the back and the top together before she rolls them onto the boards. Edward's quilt has a flannel backing, so that proved to be completely impossible for me. Fortunately, I found that it is easier to roll each layer separately. Just make sure the back is right side down, and the top is right side up, before you roll them. And double check your measurements!

Here's my quilt halfway through the basting process:

In the centre are the two rows I am in the process of basting. The lower edge (with the plaid backing showing) is the part that is already basted and folded out of the way. At the top you can see the quilt top rolled onto its board, and the quilt batting behind/under that. At the top right corner you can see a lump under the batting which is the quilt back rolled onto its own board. The batting is not rolled, it stays flat.

When I am finished a section and ready to advance the quilt, I roll up the finished part, slide the whole thing towards me, and then flip the batting forward to reveal the backing:

Then I can unroll the backing, flip the batting back and smooth it all out, and finally unroll another two rows of the quilt top for basting. It seems a little logistically challenging at first, but once you get the idea it works beautifully, and the quilt is almost as taut as on a frame, just from the weight of the boards. And you can sit down!

The table top, by the way, is protected by a flannel-backed vinyl tablecloth. I slide a sheet of bristol board between the quilt and the vinyl where I am working to make sure the pins or needle don't pierce the vinyl.

It was not my plan to hand baste this quilt. I had braved the snowy roads in search of safety pins, because all mine were still in Edward's quilt. All I could find, though, were cheap, nickel-plated pins, and they were useless, catching the fabric and impossible to get through the layers. My brass quilter's pins, on the other hand, glide through the fabric like a dream: 


Hand basting easily took twice as long as pin basting did. But I am hoping that I can leave it in while I machine quilt between the basting:

Hopefully that will save time later! In any case I suppose it was good practice for when I am ready to hand quilt. Feel free to put any questions or additional information on your basting techniques in the comments!


  1. Boy, my least favorite task! But you have found a method that works beautifully for you. I have seen Sharon's method before and it reminds me somewhat of how a quilt is layered and basted on a quilt frame. Good job!

    1. Thanks! Yes, I think Sharon's idea was quite inspired. Plus it is a lot easier to stand a couple of narrow boards in a corner somewhere, than storing a whole frame!

  2. a very good article, never made a quilt but when I do will refer back to you. Here they are pushing a gadget that shoots tiny pin things into the quilts so you do not need to tack or use safety pins, very quick and looks good, if I was a big quilt maker think I would get one maybe one day!

    1. Thank you Margaret! The main issue with basting is to keep everything smooth, so the fabric doesn't fold or catch when you are quilting. I haven't tried those gadgets, although I've seen photos. If they hold the three layers together tightly then they could be helpful. But, I don't think you could use them on the tabletop, because you probably need to have space underneath the quilt for them to work.

  3. sounds like a little extra effort, but a lot more comfortable than trying to do another quilt on the floor... and the extra effor I'm sure would give a better result at the end!

    1. Thanks, Metanoia! You know, for me, the floor is just out of the question. I will say, though, that it feels very civilized sitting at the table to baste!

  4. It looks like a really reliable method - as long as you are patient and committed. I'm full of admiration. Looks as if it will give a great basis for machining.

    1. Thanks, Jillian! It's been sitting here all week now - time to get my act together and start quilting!


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