The brutality of basting…

So. Today I have basted the wedding quilt.  This, you remember, is the quilt I’m making my sister as a wedding present.  It’s taken a little while to do, but I’m confident of having it finished by her tenth anniversary.  Which is in June…

Basting is a brutal exercise on many levels.  For one thing, you need a space that’s big enough.  This is part of the wedding quilt’s problem.  It’s 8ft x 6ft, so it’s really quite big, and in the old house there wasn’t a bit of floor large enough to spread it flat.  Here, I could do it in the living room.  I had to take the rug up and move half of the furniture, though, so it had to be done in a day.

The back, all taped down

Once you’ve got the space, it’s quite physical work.  First, you spread the back of the quilt, right side to the floor and smooth it flat.  Then you tape it down at the edges so it stays put.  Then you lay the batting (quilt wadding) on top, so that the edges more or less match, and then you smooth that out.  On such a large surface, the smoothing is quite difficult to achieve, as you have to crawl over the piece in order to make sure there are no wrinkles or crinkles. Wrinkles will be exaggerated in the quilting process, so it’s worth taking some time to get this right.

When you have the first two layers laid out, and flat, you need to put the quilt top on.  Because (as usual in my quilts) the back of this quilt is partly pieced, I needed to match the centres and make sure the top edges were aligned.  Centres were simply pin more-or-less matched, and the top laid on top of the other two layers, and smoothed out.  Again, this is difficult to do while crawling over the assembled layers, and so it’s best to start from the middle and gently smooth towards the corners and outer edges.

Pushing the needle in and catching it – surprisingly physical

Then you begin to sew.  Basting works from the centre of the quilt, with a very large needle taking huge running stitches through all three layers.  You work from the middle out, so you only sew half a horizontal or vertical length at a time.  The needle needs to be sharp, to get through all layers, and thin, and you rock it through the fabric, against the floor, and up again.  Obviously, your bottom layer is taped down, so you can’t get any lift on the fabric at all, so getting the needle back to the top layer really does depend on the rocking motion.

The problem is, the needle is sharp and thin, and specially designed to pierce multiple layers of things.  And *it* doesn’t know the difference between quilts and skin.  So it’s a good idea to wear a thimble on your pushing finger, because the eye end is almost as sharp as the piercing end.  For me, the pushing finger is the middle finger of my right hand.  But then as you rock the needle up, you need to ‘catch’ the sharp end with the forefinger of your other hand, so it’s a good idea to have some kind of protection on this finger, too.  For me, a thimble on the ‘catching’ finger is too clumsy.  It gets in the way, and on those occasions when I have to grip the needle between finger and thumb and pull it through, the thimble prohibits that.  So I have a little metal circle that I glue to the very tip of my ‘catching’ forefinger, just over the top end of the nail.  So that’s a thimble on the middle finger of one hand, and metal disc on the forefinger of the other hand.  Once the needle is ‘caught’ on the metal disc, you grip it between thumb and forefinger of the pushing hand, and pull it through. You can use a rubber disc to help you get a better grip of the needle here but, while I always have a couple of discs handy, I prefer just to use my fingers. 

Getting to the end of the grid

Working from the centre, you stitch enormous, rocking stitches up the vertical and across the horizontal centre lines.  From the middle to the top edge.  Back to the middle, down to the bottom edge.  Back to the middle, over to the left.  Back to the middle, out to the right.  You work from the middle because you’re pushing the layers in the direction your needle travels, and you want to smooth out any wrinkles you create, not work them *in*.   Having made a big cross through the centre of the quilt, you go back to the middle and begin working the diagonals – from the middle and up to each corner in turn.  And that’s your basic foundation baste: a big union jack shaped star across the front of your quilt.  You can just make it out in the photo below – radiating out from all the little knots of thread in the centre of the blue square.

Working from the middle

Once the foundation baste is in, you begin to work a 6″ grid vertically and horizontally across the quilt, working from the mid-point of whatever line you’re stitching, out to the edges.  This quilt top is conveniently organised into a grid, so I simply quilted through the centre of each sashing strip.  Then, once that’s done, you work the edges of the quilt, from the middle of each edge to the corner.

In total, it’s difficult to get this job done in much less than four hours, and often it takes more like six. It’s physically hard work – despite the thimbles and the accoutrements designed to make it easier, this method takes it out of your fingers.  The forefinger on my pushing hand is blistered and tender, and I won’t be able to put pressure on it for a day or two.  The forefinger on my catching hand, despite the metal disc, is stabbed and a bit raw, and missing a layer of skin from where the glue patch pulled off.  I’ve snagged and torn a couple of fingernails on the thread.  My knees are bruised, and my back is hunched and aching.  I feel about 20 years older than my actual age…

Once the basting’s done, you need to trim the backing and batting to about 1″ outside the quilt top – you don’t want to trim them even with the top’s edges – you might find that the actual quilting “shrinks” them in a bit, and you need the play; particularly if you’re planning to quilt densely.  Then remove the tape from the back, pick the whole thing up and you’re DONE!

Here it is – slightly blurry, but all ready for quilting.  Finally!

About Vicki

6 thoughts on “The brutality of basting…

  1. Yes, I've tried that! But I free machine quilt, and they interrupt the flow 🙂 If I'm just stitching in the ditch, or sewing a predictable and planned line, I can use pins. What I *really* need is a long arm quilt machine!!! ;-p

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  2. If I'm doing a FMQ meander I just take them out when I shift the quilt, I've only every stitched a pin in once! I'd need a child to leave home to have a LA frame!

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  3. Liz, you're so much better at FMQ than me – I can't break my concentration for long enough to take a pin out! It'd terrify me 🙂

    And yeah, Phil. Everyone has to have some rock somewhere, right??

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