Monday, February 28, 2011

Holding it all together

look, Ma, no pleats!  the best-looking quilt back I've ever made

I wrote yesterday about machine quilting being a great joy and artistic opportunity, but at the same time a physical challenge and pain in the neck. Some people commented about using lots of pins, or basting, or using adhesives to hold the layers together and make the task easier. 

I have some thoughts on that subject!! I think I've tried every approach known to mankind, and none is ideal, at least for me. Let me run through the list...

Basting is the classic way to hold everything together before you quilt, and it's traditionally done by hand.  I've heard of people who spread the layers out on the floor to baste, or who pin everything on the design wall and work from the top down so gravity helps.  I've done hand basting, but I always work on a big flat table.

The problem I've had with basting is that my quilts are very intricately pieced, and every seam has the potential of coming a little bit farther apart as you work on it and stitch over it.  You can see this happening just by pressing a quilt top -- you may think you have it pressed flat, but if you go back and press with more enthusiasm, you can usually open the seam just a hair, and thus make the top just a hair wider.  That may not be a big deal if you have only three seams per foot of quilt top, but what if you have 60 seams per foot?  When each one opens a hair, the whole top is going to creep a significant distance outward.

And if your top was basted to the underlayers, it's going to create a bubble, because the batting and backing have no seams to open farther.  Heaven forbid you baste your top, it creeps, and you blithely sew away without noticing what's going on -- you'll stitch a pleat into your quilting.

Interestingly, basting can create the same problem in reverse -- if you don't have your backing pulled absolutely taut, you can get pleats on the underside where the bubble hits the basting line.  I've done that more frequently than I can count, because you don't realize what's happening unless you check the back of your work after every line of stitching.  I hate to have to do that, because it's time-consuming and also hard on the back and shoulders to have to lift the quilt bundle and flip it over for inspection.  But I do check every now and then, and I find that if I use a drapery-weight backing it behaves better than a lighter fabric.

So bottom line, I generally don't baste, because after I've quilted a foot or two I usually would have to take out the basting and start over.  Not worth it.

Pinning is an alternative to basting, with the twin advantages of being a lot faster, and easily adjustable if you find a bubble developing.  It's my default method of holding the layers together.  The big disadvantage is that pins can stab and scratch until you look like you've gone ten rounds with a mountain lion and you can even bleed all over your quilt. 

Why not use safety pins, you ask.  Because they take a l-o-n-g time to put in, and it's hard on your hands even if you use one of those spoon doodads, and they take a long time to remove when you need to reposition and re-press your layers.  (Which I think you need to do several times in quilting a large piece.)

Spray adhesives are popular with a lot of quilters but I have never had good luck with them.  The first time I spray-basted a quilt I cheerfully free-motioned for hours, so pleased with how quickly and smoothly it was going, and never even looked at the back until I was half done.  When I did I just about died -- the layers had shifted despite the glue, the back had all kinds of pleats and misshapings, and was a total mess.  I tried again several times, following the advice of my glue-loving friends, with more spray, different technique, different brands, letting it rest a few minutes, every variable I could think of, but never had much luck.  I ended up using pins in addition to the spray, which seemed dumb.  Besides, I didn't like breathing the fumes or dealing with the sticky film that ended up all over my work table, hands, etc.

Fusibles are another variation on the theme of adhesives.  I once bought a fusible batt for a huge quilt, and spent all day with my iron trying to get the layers to stick together.  This glue worked better than the spray adhesives, but I still noticed that the top layer was creeping as I stitched, and three or four times I had to lay the quilt out flat on the worktable, separate the "fused" layers, smooth it out again, reposition everything and press again.  The fusible worked even less well the second time, so I ended up pinning in addition to fusing.  Sorry to say I bought two of those batts, and there's still one in a closet that I have no desire to use.

I also tried putting fusible web between layers of a quilt to hold them together, but that didn't work either.  Again, the top crept ahead of the batting and backing, and the parts that did fuse together just made it harder for me to remedy the situation in midstream.

So dozens if not hundreds of quilts later, here's my expert opinion: pin only as much as necessary, and remove the pins as soon as possible.  Once you've got the center of the quilt established with a couple of rows of stitching from top to bottom (or side to side), work outward using your hands as the main tool for keeping the quilt in order.  Smooth the quilt tautly away from the last row of stitching as you sew the next row.  Every foot or so, take the whole package to the work surface, separate the three layers, press the backing perfectly flat, then flip the quilt and smooth the batting and top over it just as you did at the very start.  Press the three layers together enthusiastically, carry the bundle carefully back to the sewing machine and do another several inches of stitching.  If you want diagonal quilting lines, postpone the bias stitching if possible till the package has been stabilized with horizontals or verticals.

The same principles apply, with minor changes, to free-motion quilting.  Work from the center out, press frequently, use your hands obsessively to smooth the fabric away from the needle and feel whether the layers are staying in place as you stitch.  Check the back of your work even more frequently than if you're using a walking foot.  If you notice any bubbles, top or bottom, as the layers develop different profiles, place your hands flat to frame the bubbled area, and pull it as taut as possible as you stitch.

If you inadvertently get a pleat on the top of your work, rip it out and sew again.  But if you get one on the back, you can always sew a label over it.


  1. Another strategy is to stitch some horizontal and vertical walking foot anchor lines using water soluble thread. This allows greater stability of layers during the quilting process and freedom to free motion quilt without a lot of pins blocking the way. When the quilting is finished, spritz water along the stitching lines to dissolve the thread. But beware. Water soluble thread disappears into thin air in high humidity weather. I don't recommend using this thread if you plan to stretch out the quilting process over a long period of time. Store the thread in an airtight ziplock bag.

  2. Sharon Schamber has a basting tutuorial on You Tube that I have found very helpful. I can't bend over a table and baste without ending up on the floor, so it's been a real lifesaver.

  3. I have a 8' x 8' table that I gently tape my backing down on. I spread out the batting using my old worn wooden yardstick as an extension of my arm to smooth the batting. I then spread out the quilt top smoothing again with the yardstick, gently and lightly press with the iron then I use safety pins to baste. When I quilt I just make sure that the surrounding area to where I am quilting is flat and I go for it! I have quilted quilts quilting the outside row of blocks and the borders, attached the binding, and gone back and done the middle and have never had a problem getting a pleat. I quilt on a regular sewing machine (Pfaff 1475). I think the key is making sure the surrounding area is flat and smooth from the needle out.