Pins and Pinning — Why It’s Important to Have the Right Pin for the Right Job (Part One)

I appreciate everyone who reads my blog.  I really do.  WordPress let me know how many people read my blog every day and what country these folks are from.  For those of you who read regularly, I am super-appreciative.  For those of you who read once in a while or find me when you’re researching some quilt issue, I also appreciate you.  Last week I had a reader who requested a blog on pins and pinning.  I love this.  I love when readers ask me to write on certain quilty topics.  If there’s some topic you’d like me to blog on, leave a comment and I promise I’ll get to it.  Keep in mind I usually have three to four blogs ready to publish ahead of what you want.  Your blog topic will come up, but it may be a few weeks. 

I wrote about pins way back in 2017.  In some respects, pins have changed.  I’ve always said one of the best things about quilting is it’s not static.  It doesn’t remain the same.  The field changes.  We get new quilters, new designers, and new tools.  And often, old notions are re-worked into something better.  Pins are one of the tools which has somewhat changed.  However, my theory about non-pinners has not changed.

Let’s begin with a brief history.  Pins were first used (as far as archeologists can tell) in the Paleolithic Era.  They were made from bone and wood.  Lots of these early pins were curved.  Bone and wood gave way to brass and steel, then nickel-plated steel.  The French made the best and finest pins, even though London, England established the first Pinners Guild in 1356.  John Ireland Howe of Connecticut invented the first pin making machine in 1831 and improved it in 1842 to the point three of the machines could spit out 72,000 pins a day. Today we have beading pins, T-pins, U-pins (also called Fork Pins), dressmaker pins, pleating pins, applique pins, lace or bridal pins, patchwork pins, quilting pins, silk pins, pearlized pins, sequin pins, and tidy pins (used to hold things like slipcovers in place).  There are other types of pins, but these are the ones folks who sew know well.  In this blog, since I write about quilting, we will look at applique pins, patchwork pins, quilting pins, dressmaker pins, silk pins, glass head pins, U-pins. and safety pins.  I chose these because they are the ones most used by quilters.    

Before we jump into the pointy world of pins, let me offer a couple of pieces of advice.  First, pins are not expensive.  A quick review of the pin selection on Amazon offers a wide selection, all under $10, and sometimes you get multiple containers of pins for one price.  For this reason, don’t purchase cheap pins – you know, the ones which are fifty cents a pack.  Pins are an inexpensive quilting notion.  You can afford to purchase the “top shelf” brands.  Pins are coated with nickel to prevent rusting, and even though the nickel will eventually flake off, since pinning isn’t permanent, this isn’t too much of a concern.  However, the cheaper pins may have a thinner nickel coating.  They may also not have a sharp point (which is needed for quilting cottons and batiks), and they may be so thick they feel like small nails – which could lead to larger-than-desired pin holes in your quilt. 

Second, you will need more than one pin type in your quilting studio.  I have one type I use more than others, but you do use different types of pins for different applications.  I’ve found giving each type of pin their own pin cushion is a great organizational tool.  This way I know what kind of pin I’m reaching for with a quick glance.

Third, pins do need to be replaced.  We are pretty conscious our sewing machine needles and rotary blades need to be swapped out regularly.  Pins (and hand sewing needles, too) do get dull with use.  Every year or so, treat yourself to some new pins.  Yes, using that emery strawberry on the side of your tomato pin cushion does help sharpen the point a bit as well as remove rust, but pins still should be replaced.  And when you dispose of them, be sure to put them in some kind of container, such as an empty pill bottle.  Don’t throw them in the trash loose.  Someone could get hurt when they dispose of them.  My go-to for this is an empty, clean Parmesan cheese container.  I drop old pins, needles, and dull rotary blades in it. When it’s full, I use packing tape around the top of the container to make sure it won’t come off after I toss it in the garbage.  Another helpful hint:  Keep this container close at hand.  As you pull bent pins out of your pin cushion or other pin catcher, go ahead and toss those in the container. Nothing is more aggravating than trying to work with a bent pin. 

Fourth, don’t sew over your pins.  Most quilting pins are small in diameter, so it’s easy to think they can’t hurt your machine or your needle, but that’s not true.  Sewing over pins can bend or break your needle or make a burr.  I have seen pins jammed into the feed dogs, caused by a combination of speed and the needle hitting the pin at just the right angle.  It’s best to just slow down your sewing, take the pin out, and then continue.  All of that said, now let’s take a look at the different pins used in quilting and how to use them.

Applique Pins

For those of us who applique, these little pins are a Godsend.  While I do use basting glue with some of my applique, there two techniques which are not necessarily basting glue friendly:  needle turn and back basting.  These little pins are perfect for using with those two methods.

Applique pins are smaller both in length and diameter than other types of pins.  In my previous pin blog, I mentioned these pins were generally no longer than ½-inch in length.  This has changed.  There are now longer applique pins – as long as an inch.  Over the course of applique and time, quilters discovered that while the ½-inch pins are great for small-to-medium sized applique pieces, longer pins were needed for larger pieces.  The diameter of these pins has not changed.  It’s still smaller than other pins. 

There’s another characteristic which sets applique pins apart from other pins – their heads.  Applique pin heads are tapered, so your thread won’t get caught around them as you’re sewing.  And don’t let the size of shank fool you.  Despite the fact that these pins look more delicate than standard pins, they can easily go through multiple layers of fabric, making them perfect for multi-layered applications. 

One word of warning – don’t mistake sequin pins for applique pins.  Sequin pins look a great deal like the smaller applique pins, but they’re not the same.  Sequin pins are used for attaching beads and sequins to Styrofoam forms when you’re make Christmas decorations, etc.  The shafts are thicker, and the heads are larger – not a good fit for quilting.

Patchwork Pins

There are a couple of different patchwork pins.  There’s this kind:

And this kind.

Both are patchwork pins, and both are used for the same purposes – holding fabric in place.  These pins are the workhorse of quilters.  When in doubt which pin to use, this is your “little black dress” of quilting:  It will work for almost anything.  Which kind you use is a personal preference issue.  Both have long shafts and a relatively small diameter.  I use the first kind in small blocks.  They’re not quite as long as the other and tend to be easier for me to handle in 6-inch or less blocks. 

The second kind – often referred to as “Flat Head Pins” are a little longer than the first kind, although the diameter is equally small.  Most of the time the flat, plastic disk is round, but I’ve seen them shaped like cats, puppies, butterflies, and flowers.  These pins can serve a couple of other purposes other than holding larger block units or quilt blocks together.  Because the shaft is longer (about 1 ¾-inches), you can easily pin all three layers of the quilt together.  This is helpful if you need to anchor binding or want to pin the quilt sandwich together before quilting.  But this round plastic disk…

Is large enough to write on.  I have a set of these pins that I use to pin my quilt top together.  I used a fine-tip Sharpie to write the row and block positions on – such as 1-3 – which means row one, block three. 

One issue to be careful about when using these pins is heat.  Since the disks are plastic, they can melt and make a mess on your block and your iron.  However, in researching this blog I did find out some pin manufacturers are now making the plastic heat resistant.  Such good news!

Quilting Pins

In all honestly, there isn’t a great deal of difference between Patchwork Pins and Quilting Pins.  Like Patchwork Pins, they have a long shaft, but the diameter is larger, so the pin can handle the bulk of a quilt sandwich without bending.  This larger diameter is the chief difference between the two types of pins.  Quilting Pins are my go-to pin for my Long Arm.  They can handle the bulk of my zippers, the leader, and the quilt back (I float my top) without bending.  I always keep them in a magnetic bowl near my long arm.

Dress Maker Pins

Again with the honesty issue – I don’t use these much, but I’m throwing them in because they’re so easy to find.  Go out of town and forget your pins?  You can find these pins in drugstores, grocery stores, big box stores, and dollar stores.  Sometimes even convenience stores.  They generally are found on the aisle with the laundry detergent or in the basic sewing sections.  They are used to hold light-to-medium weight fabrics together, and they will work fine for quilting if they’re the only pins available.  They tend to be shorter in length than Quilting or Patchwork pins, and the diameter is small – meaning if you’re trying to pin through the quilt sandwich, they are prone to bend.  Do be aware the quality of this pin can vary.  I’ve seen some which could pass for small nails and others whose point wasn’t sharp at all. 

Silk Pins

Silk Pins and Dress Maker Pins are often lumped in the same category, with the names used interchangeably.  The big difference between the two is the shaft’s diameter.  Silk Pins have a bit smaller diameter than Dress Maker Pins.  Otherwise the length is about the same. 

Glass Head Pins

If I was pressed to name a favorite pin, Glass Head Pins would be it.  I was introduced to this pin back in the mid-eighties when I did a lot of lace-shaping for my daughter’s French Heirloom dresses.  These pins are long and small in diameter, but the head is made of glass.  This means the head won’t melt under a hot iron.  So, if you’re pre-shaping your stems or other applique shapes before stitching them down, this is the pin to reach for.  Compared to the other pins, these are a bit more expensive, but worth every extra penny. 

U-Pins or Fork Pins

These are new to the pinning market. Called Magic Fork Pins, the rubberized head is easier to use and heat resistant.

This pin is one which some quilters always use and must have in their studio. Other quilters could happily avoid for them the rest of their quilting career. The U-pin is like having two pins with one head.  It doubles the pinning security because once you pin anything with one a U-pin, it’s not going to move.

 U-pins are used in many crafting areas, so as a quilter you must be careful to have the right type – otherwise the pin could leave visible holes or not be sharp enough to go through multiple layers of fabric.  I have found these pins handy in two areas.  The first is when you pin your quilt rows together.  No matter whether you’ve sashed or not, no matter how large or small your quilt blocks are, when it comes time to pin the rows together, you’re dealing with bulk and lots of seams.  These pins hold the rows securely together, so there’s virtually no chance of the pins slipping out no matter how long those rows are. 

Pinning nested seams are the second reason these pins are pretty handy.  The whole premise of nesting seams is to make sure the seams of two units or blocks line up and don’t shift.  Placing U-pin so both prongs are on either side of the seam means there will be no fabric shifting at all.  Those seams will look perfect every time.

These pins also are great if you have to pin something together on a flat surface – so if you have to match up stripes, plaids, or checks, this is a great little tool to have in your studio. 

Safety Pins

If you hand quilt or quilt on your domestic machine, you know how handy these pins are.  These are used to hold the quilt sandwich (quilt top, batting and backing) together while you quilt.  If the three layers aren’t somehow held together, they will shift and this makes the quilting process very difficult, if not impossible.  The type of safety pin used doesn’t matter.  The size does.  It has to be large enough to hold all three layers of the quilt sandwich.  So the standard safety pin works fine – usually in size 3.

However, there’s also the quilter’s safety pin.

This has a slightly bent pin which makes it easier to close.

There are also these:

Which I have not tried, but I understand this is a small pin with a thin shaft, but it can hold three layers together well.  The unique characteristic of this pin is you can insert and close it with one hand. The Wonder Pins have great reviews on Amazon and several users stated if you have arthritic hands, this is the pin you need. 

Typically, I don’t use safety pins for quilting since I have a long arm.  Even if I throw a quilt sandwich on my M7 Continental, I generally use basting spray to hold everything together.  However, I recently took a class in reverse applique, and I used safety pins to hold two 36-inch squares of fabric together while I basted them.  I was exceedingly grateful I still had my old safety pins.  The procedure would have been a nightmare if I had to use straight pins – the thread would have caught on the points or pin heads with every stitch.  So, even if you don’t use these pins in the quilting process, hang on to them if you still have them.  They may just come in handy.

Okay, enough on pins and pinning this week. I realize we’ve hit almost 3,000 words and I haven’t mentioned how to pin anything. We’ll pick that up next week.

So until then, Make Your Quilt Yours,


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