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Tutorial: How to Pin Baste a Quilt

00_Intro Photo
Detail Image of a Pin Basted Quilt Sandwich

The most basic definition of a quilt is three layers held together in some form. I once explained that to someone and they immediately asked me if that meant that an Oreo cookie was a quilt. I replied yes, but only if you stick a toothpick through it!

Today we’re going to learn tips and tricks to help you baste the three layers of a quilt together so that you can add the toothpick…I mean thread…to turn it into a quilt.There are multiple ways to baste a quilt, but my favorite uses safety pins. Basting allows you to temporarily hold all the layers together as you quilt, ensuring that you don’t get wrinkles or puckers on the back of your quilt. In keeping with the theme of quilts and food, we call the three basted layers of a quilt before it has been quilted a "quilt sandwich." 


Supplies You Will Need:

  • A completed quilt top. This can be pieced, appliquéd, or just one large piece of cloth (called a wholecloth quilt)
  • Batting of your choice. There are lots of good battings out there. I tend to use Warm and White or Warm and Natural Batting. Warm and White is bleached and therefore good for quilts that have lots of white or light colored fabrics in the top, while Warm and Natural is unbleached and therefore has a more cream color that is best for quilts that are made from darker shades of fabric. Be sure that your batting is larger than your quilt top by at least 4 inches on each side (so 8 inches wider and 8 inches longer)
  • Fabric for the back of the quilt. Be sure that your backing fabric is also larger than your quilt top by at least 4 inches on each side (so 8 inches wider and 8 inches longer)
  • A roll of wide masking tape or blue painters tape
  • A bag of sharp safety pins. Sharp is really important here because the sharper the pin the easier it will be to get it through all three layers!

Step 1: Stretch the Backing

02a_Back Fabric
Backing Fabric for a Quilt Stretched and Taped on a Carpeted Floor

You are going to want to find a place where you can lay your entire quilt out flat. How much space you need is going to depend on the size of your quilt top. I usually baste my quilts on the carpeted floor of my living room but you can also use a table if you have one large enough for your quilt. Large plastic top folding tables also work well for this and if you have a large quilt you can push two tables together.

A word of caution if you are basting on anything other than carpet, you will want to be very careful that you do not scratch the surface under your quilt as you put in the pins. This is why I do this on my carpeted floor instead of on my wooden dining room table.

Once you have selected where you want to do the pin basting spread out your backing fabric face down (so with the pretty side touching the floor of the table). Now you will use strips of the masking tape or painters tape to stretch the backing and hold it in place. Stretching all the layers of the quilt in this way is really key to ensuring that you don’t have wrinkles or puckers on the back of the quilt when you are quilting later.

02b_Back Fabric Top & Bottom
1. Taping the Top and Bottom Centers of the Backing Fabric

Tape down the top side of the fabric in the very center. Then move to the bottom of the fabric and tape down the center of that side as well, making sure to gently pull it tight as you do so. You don't want to stretch the fabric out of shape but you want just a small bit of tension to ensure everything is smooth.

02c_Back Fabric Left & Right
2. Taping the Left and Right Centers of the Backing Fabric

Next tape the center of the left side of the fabric again gently pulling the fabric tight. Then move to the right side of the fabric and tape down the center of that side.

02d_Back Fabric Corners 1
3. Taping the Top Left and Bottom Right Corners of the Backing Fabric

Your quilt back should now be smooth in the center but loose on the corners. Now you are going to tape the corners down. Start in the upper left corner and tape that down. Then move to the lower right and tape that down, again gently pulling the fabric tight. I taped on the longer side of the fabric here but you can also run a piece of tape diagonal over the corner to help get even tension.

02d_Back Fabric Corners 2
4. Taping the Top Right and Bottom Left Corners of the Backing Fabric

Next tape the upper right and then the lower left. Moving across the diagonal like this helps to ensure an even distribution of tension on the backing fabric and again keeps it smooth for the next steps.

02e_Back Fabric Fill
5. Taping the Remaining Space on the Sides of the Backing Fabric

Finally work around the outside of the backing fabric putting tape down in any untapped areas to finish gently stretching the areas near the corners.

Note that the quilt in these demonstration photos is a relatively small lap quilt. For a larger quilt, like a twin size or a king size you will need a lot more tape and will want to continue to tape outward from the center as you work around the outside.


Step 2: Stretch the Batting

03_Batting over Backing
Layering the Batting Over the Backing

Next you will place your batting down over the stretched backing fabric.

Did you know that batting has a right and a wrong side? You want to be sure that you have the batting facing the right way.

Batting is made using a needle punch method, where a machine punches the needles down through the batting fabric to help felt it together. You want your machine needle to go through the batting in the same way that the needles did when it was made as it will encounter less resistance that way and also be less likely to punch pieces of the batting through the backing of your quilt (known as bearding). You can tell which side is the bottom by feeling the batting. It will be smoother across the top and will have more bumps along the bottom, created when the needles pushed down through the batting. Put the bumpy side of the batting face down (or against the backing) so that the smooth side will be against your quilt top.

If your batting is the same size as your backing line it up with the tops and side of the backing fabric. If it is larger than your backing I recommend lining it up along one of the sides so that you will know where the edges of your backing are when you put the top down. The batting was larger than the backing for this quilt so I left the top part of the backing sticking out. This made it easy for me to clearly see where the backing stopped so that I could center my quilt top over it in the next step.

04_Batting Taped
Batting Stretched and Taped Down Over the Backing Fabric

Now you will stretch the batting the same way that you did the backing. Tape down the middle of the top and bottom and then the middle of the left and right sides. Then tape down the four corners, moving diagonally across the quilt to ensure an even stretch (this is like tightening the lug nuts on your tires or the screws on a drum head, you move diagonally to ensure an even tension).

Finally tape down the remaining areas on the sides of the batting.


Step 3: Stretch the Quilt Top

05_Top Laid Out
Quilt Top Laid Out Over the Batting and Backing Fabric

Now for the top of the Oreo…err…quilt sandwich! Place your top face up so that the wrong side of the top is against your batting. You want to offset the top from the edges of the backing and batting, ensuring that you have a good amount of both backing and batting extending past each side of the quilt top. As you quilt your backing and batting will pull in a little bit so if you start with the edges even you are likely to not have enough backing or batting on one or more of the edges of your quilt. I recommend trying to have at least 4 inches of extra backing and batting on each side of your quilt top. You’ll cut all of this off later when you are done quilting and are squaring up the edges of the quilt so it really doesn't hurt to have plenty of extra batting and backing along the sides.

06_Taped Top
Quilt Top Stretched and Taped Over the Batting and Backing Fabric

Once you have your quilt top centered with enough extra backing and batting on each side you are going to stretch it in the same way that you did with the backing and the batting. Tape the middle of each side, working top to bottom and left to right. Tape all four corners, again moving diagonally across the quilt. And finally tape the remaining edges down. Your tape is going to be on the batting at this point which is why you want something that is strong but easy to remove, like masking tape or blue painters tape.


Step 4: Pin Basting

10_Pin Basted Top
Pin Basted Quilt Sandwich

Now that you have all three layers stretched out and secured it is time to do the basting! You can baste by sewing through with a needle and thread but I like to baste with safety pins.

09_Pin through all three layers
Safety Pin Going Through All Three Layers of the Quilt Sandwich

You will want to ensure that you get the pins down through all three layers then come back up through all three layers and close the safety pin.

This is where pinning on the carpet comes in handy because it is easy to push down and ensure that you have gone through all three layers and into the carpet before you push the pin back to the top. It takes some practice to not accidentally pin your quilt to your carpet but if you discover that you have done this don’t fret! You’ll simply reopen the pin, take it halfway out until you are out of the carpet and then repin it.

07_Pinning Directions 1
Pinning Outward from the Center towards Top, Bottom, and Sides

Start pinning in the very center of your quilt and work your way out, smoothing the three layers as you go. Pinning from the center pushes any wrinkles out to the edges of the quilt, helping you to get a flat and wrinkle free quilt sandwich. I usually start in the middle and pin out in the four cardinal directions: toward the top, towards the bottom, towards the left, and towards the right.

08_Pinning Directions 2
Pinning Outward from the Center Toward the Four Corners

Next pin out from the center on the diagonal heading to each of the four corners. Finally fill in the remaining wedge shaped areas with pins, again working out from the center. I usually try to place one pin every 4 square inches or so. That seems to be the sweet spot for me that holds all the layers together but that also ensures I have room to fit my needle and presser foot between the pins when I start quilting.


Step 5: Remove the Tape

Once you have all of your pins in place you can remove the tape that is holding the three layers taught. Pull gently as the tape is going to remove some of the fibers in your batting and along the edges of your top and backing. Pulling gently helps to keep the fraying to a minimum.

As I mentioned above, when you go to pick up your quilt sandwich you might find that it is connected to your carpet in a few places. Again, just undo the single pin that is causing you trouble, pull it halfway out until it releases your carpet and then repin it back through the three layers.


Step 6: Having Fun Quilting!

Quilting the Pin Basted Quilt Sandwich

Now you are ready to quilt! As with the stretching and pinning, you’ll want to quilt from the center outwards to help push any potentially remaining wrinkles to the edge of the fabric. As you quilt you can remove the safety pins. As I quilt my design  I will get as close to the safety pins as I feel comfortable doing without running the risk of them going under the presser foot and getting near my needle. When a pin ends up in the way of my design I remove it and put it back in the pin bag for the next quilt. By the time you reach the edges of your quilt all of your pins will be removed and you’ll have a quilt with a nice smooth back!

I hope that you found some helpful tips here, whether you are working on your first quilt or your two-hundredth quilt!

If you are interested in learning some fun free motion quilting patterns to use on your new quilt sandwich check out my classes. I’d love to come to your group to give a lecture or teach a class!


Photo Credit: All photos by author.