Holding the Quilt Sandwich Together

Okay…still talking about quilt sandwiches…this has taken a lot longer than I anticipated, but I think there’s a lot of good information in these blogs.  I had lots of questions when I put together my first quilt sandwich and didn’t know where to get them answered.  Everything I read simply told me to layer the backing, batting, and top together.  No one ever told me I needed tape.  No one ever explained the differences in batting.  No one ever told me how to keep the three layers together.  I spent frustrating weeks simply trying to get the sandwich to stay together while I sewed a simple crosshatch design over the top.  And come to think of it, no one ever told me a walking foot would have made the quilting process easier.

I really don’t want that for you folks.  It’s terribly frustrating.

In today’s blog, we’ll discuss prepping the three layers and some of the different methods used to hold them together.  Again, this process is one you go through if you plan on quilting your quilt on a regular sewing machine – whether you’re doing the quilting or someone else is.  If you plan on long arming the quilt, or having someone else long arm it, the process is somewhat different.  I wrote a blog about it and it’s here:

Baby Got Back

We’ve briefly touched on the quilt back earlier, so I won’t repeat myself.  If you haven’t read the first blog in this series, I suggest you go back and read it if you have questions.  Once you’ve either pieced your back or have purchased the wide quilt backing fabric, you’ll need to press it to make sure it’s a smooth and wrinkle-free as it can be.  I realize some folks can make a quilt sandwich on a small surface, but I’m not one of those people.  I’m explaining how I work the process.

Once the back is smooth, lay it out with the wrong side up on a surface.  Using masking or painter’s tape, tape the top, bottom, and sides down so that the back does not even think about moving.  Remember, you’ll be adding the batting and the top, so you don’t want the back to shift at all.  And one more word about the taping process.  You simply want to hold the back firmly in one place, you don’t want to stretch it.  At some point, you’ll remove the tape and the last thing you want to happen is for the back to shrink back to its normal size.  Lay the back out, smooth out any wrinkles, bumps, or folds with your hands, and tape it down.  That’s all you need to do.

The Right Stuff in the Middle Makes a Good Sandwich

I’ve written entire blogs on batting.  Likewise, I’ve spent a lot of money on batting.  I can tell you without hesitation, the right kind of batting in the middle makes a huge difference in the appearance of your quilt.  So, I want to give you two pieces of advice:

  1.  Make sure you’ve chosen the right kind of batting for the appearance you want.
  2. Don’t buy cheap batting.  Cheap batting is like cheap shoes – good for a short while, then you deeply regret it. 

Make sure all the wrinkles and fold lines are out of the batt and read the directions which came with it to make sure you have the correct side of the batt against the backing fabric.  With some batts (depending on how they were finished) it doesn’t matter.  If they were needle punched or have a scrim, it will.   Center the batt on the backing.

The Top

The last part of the sandwich is the top – the item you’ve spent so much loving time and care on.  Give the wrong side of the top another look over to be sure you haven’t missed any stray threads and then center it (right side up) on the batting.  Also be careful to make sure there is adequate backing and batting margins on all four sides.  Smooth out any lingering wrinkles.

Now that the sandwich is made, we have to look at some of the different methods quilters use to hold the sandwich together.  If we were to pick the sandwich up as it is right now, the three layers would shift, and we’d have a hot mess on our hands.  First, let me tell you there is no one absolute best way to keep the batting, backing, and top together.  Like most quilty subjects, it’s whatever technique works best for you and what you’re most comfortable with and what gives you the best results.  Truthfully, I use different techniques for different sized quilts.  This part of the blog will highlight the most well-known methods of adhering the three layers together.  I’ll also let you know the pros and cons of each and the ones I like and the ones I’m not so crazy about.  What you don’t want to do is move your quilt before all three layers are joined together. 

Pin Basting

For this method, you’ll need:

Your Quilt Sandwich

Safety Pins – the curved kind made for quilters are easier to use than the standard safety pins

A Long Ruler or Yardstick

(Optional) Kwik Clip

Beginning at the center of the quilt, start inserting the safety pins.  I like to make sure I have pins at seam intersections and at the top of points.  You’ll want to have a pin every three inches or so, but certainly have them no further apart than the width of your hand.  It’s really tempting to have bigger spaces between the pins, but don’t go down that path.  The primary purpose of any type of quilt basting is to keep all three layers together in such a manner they don’t shift.  Larger spaces between pins allow for the possibility of shifting.  Some quilters place their pins on the bias, claiming this angled position holds the quilt sandwich better.  Whatever you do, stagger the pins (don’t have them in neat rows and columns like chairs in a classroom).  As you insert the pins, the quilt top will wrinkle a bit.  Use the long ruler to smooth it out as you go. 

Couple of words of advice at this point.

  1.  Store your pins open.  This way you don’t have to stop and open each pin before you insert it in your quilt top.  I store my basting pins open in a jar and when I’m ready to pin baste, I simply sprinkle  some on the quilt top so I can grab them from whatever angle I’m working at and keep pinning.
  2. Close all your pins once you’re completely through pinning.  This helps to keep wrinkling and shifting to a minimum.  If your sandwich isn’t too large, it’s easy to simply close the pins with your fingers.  But if it’s a large quilt, all that closing of the pins can lead to sore fingers.  That’s where the Kwick Klip comes in – use it to close the pins instead of your fingers.  Some quilters have told me a teaspoon works just as good, but I’ve never been too successful with the spoon method.
  3. There are also these on the quilt market:

These are small bits of foam (you could slice up a pool noodle instead of purchasing them) which fit over the pointed end of a quilting pin.  Some quilters use the long straight pins to pin their quilt and push the foam piece over the end of the pin to hold it in the quilt.  I’ve tried it.  I give this method one out of five stars.  The foam tends to fall off as soon as you move the quilt.

Pros – This is a really secure way to baste a quilt.  The three layers tend to stay together well, and once you’ve purchased the pins and perhaps a Kwik Klip, you’re set (I’m assuming you already have a long ruler).  And it’s not as time consuming as thread basting a quilt.  This method also works well if you’re hand quilting on a frame.

Cons – It does take longer than spray or powder basting, but it doesn’t make nearly as big of a mess as those two methods can.  Two biggest drawbacks are sore fingers and having to remember to remove the pins as your quilting. 

I like this method and use it on wall hanging sized quilts and smaller. 

Fuse Basting Methods

These methods offer the fastest ways to baste, and they hold the sandwich together pretty well.  I’ve used three fuse basting methods:  spray, powder, and fusible batting.  We’ll take a quick look at all three.

          Spray Basting:  This method uses a spray glue which temporarily holds the three layers together until you can get them quilted.  The glue is temporary and does wash out.  Some brands of glue work better than others.  My personal favorite is 505 Spray and Fix Temporary Fabric Adhesive.  

          Fusible Powder Basting:  This is a recent addition to the fusible options methods.  You simply sprinkle the powder between each of the sandwich layers and press.  The heat of the iron activates the bonding agent, so the quilt sandwich is temporarily fused together.

          Fusible Batting:  Usually fusible batting is an 80/20 cotton batt which has been treated with a fusing agent.  You layer your sandwich per usual and then use an iron to activate the bonding agent.  Just like the powder and spray, the bond is temporary. 

I think it’s important to remember with all three types of fuse basting, the bond is temporary.  If you use any of these methods and then there’s a time lapse between creating the sandwich and quilting it, the bond may not have held.  I have no idea how long you can leave the fused sandwich together for the powder and the batting, but I’ve come back to a spray-fused quilt three years later don’t judge me and it was still together.  Keep in mind it was draped over a quilt rack and not manhandled or folded during the wait period.  

Each of the three has its good points as well as a few drawbacks.  The spray basting method is certainly the most flexible of the three.  Since it is a spray and doesn’t need any type of heat to activate the bonding, you can use this method nearly anywhere, including against a wall – simply tape your back to the wall, spray it, add your batt, spray the batt, and then add your top.  So, if you don’t have a horizontal flat surface to work with, with the spray baste you can work with a vertical flat surface.  However, since it is a spray, the adhesive may land on surfaces other than your quilt layers.  It’s easy to avoid this by simply covering the surface with paper or an old sheet (my favorite – afterwards you throw it in the washer).  On a day when there’s no wind or rain, you can use this outside.  It is worth mentioning some of the spray bastes will leave a sticky residue on your needle and it’s important to make sure the nozzle has not become plugged if it’s been a while since you’ve used it.  Spray basting is my favorite way to baste anything larger than a twin-sized quilt.  However, I don’t like it in my sandwich if I plan to hand quilt.  The spray seems to make the sandwich too stiff to needle easily.

The powder fusible is a more controllable than the spray because you sprinkle the surface with it – most of the powder will hit the target.  The powder which goes off course a little can easily be swept up.  It won’t make your floor or table sticky unless it comes in contact with heat.  Since it is a powder, only a horizontal surface will work with this method.  However, sandwiching your quilt works a bit differently with the powder.  You lay your batt out (don’t tape it down), and then put your back on top of the batt.  Then you press the quilt back and the heat from the iron activates the bonding agent in the powder.  Then you flip your quilt and repeat the process with the top.   I’ve found the powder has about the same fusing power as a spray.  I’ve also found a cordless iron is a wonderful tool to have to use with this method.  The biggest drawback for me with the fusible power is I find it difficult to use on larger quilts – they’re harder to flip.  Personally, I love this method on smaller quilts and wall hangings.

Finally, let’s get into the details of fusible batting.  This is my least favorite fusible.  I’ve found it doesn’t hold the sandwich layers together as well as the spray baste or fusible powder.  I’ve had my quilt sandwich shift and come apart as I’ve maneuvered it under my needle.  Since most fusible battings come prepackaged in a bag, the first step is to lay the batt out and let the wrinkles and folds relax a bit.  Here’s where my first issue with fusible batting comes into play:  the wrinkles never seem to really completely relax, which means when you use an iron to activate the bonding agent, it’s easy to get wrinkles in your quilt sandwich – especially if you’re using this type of batt on a large quilt.  The fusing process for the batt is exactly the same one you use for the fusible powder:  Lay the batt out, put the back on top of the batt, press the backing, flip, lay the top on the batt, press the top.  The pressing has to be handled a bit more carefully.  You must hold the iron in one place several seconds before moving to the next spot.  As I mentioned before, this is my least favorite fusible for any quilts larger than a medium-sized wall hanging.  However, for small quilts and bags, the fusible batting is awesome. 

We still have six concepts left to cover:

  1.  Moving the Quilt Through the Harp
  2. Practice
  3. Posture
  4. Speed
  5. The Finish Line
  6. Stress

Plus I want to cover thread basting — a basting technique which doesn’t seem to be used much any longer, but under certain circumstances, it’s the best way to baste a quilt. But this blog is already pretty long.  So, we’ll have one more blog on machine quilting before I move onto another topic.  I realize I’ve probably gone above and beyond in details, but this is info I really, really wish someone would have told me before I sat down back in 1987 to machine quilt my first quilt.

Until next week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

5 replies on “Holding the Quilt Sandwich Together”

Thanks for all the info and tips. I value your experience!

I’m in the minority, because I do hand baste, and I use the Sharon Schamber method (unless it’s a wall hanging or small enough to fit flat on a table top, in which case I just as well might spray baste). I wouldn’t mind trying safety pins if I could find pins that were sharp and thin, and didn’t have terrible reviews because of this. I might go ahead and invest the money.

The number of pins needed is several hundred to over a thousand, depending on the quilt size. And they aren’t cheap. I realize you can use them over and over, but then there’s all the bending over and being on your knees. I can’t do it.

So I either hand baste while comfortably sitting, quilt rolled onto boards, or I send it to the longarmer.

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