Machine Quilting For The First Time, Part 3: Final Preparations


This post is part 3 of the Machine Quilting for the First Time series; click here to read Part 1, Part 2Part 4, and Part 5.

I began Part 2 by referring to the typical instructions we give you in our patterns to finish a quilt, “Layer and baste together the backing, batting and quilt top.” Before getting to a discussion about basting, let’s spend just a moment on marking the quilting motif on the surface of the quilt.


We suggest marking some patterns before layering the fabrics, generally when a quilting motif is more complicated. I’ve learned that there are quite a few domestic machine quilters that don’t take this step before they begin to quilt; they must be the experienced ones, right? However, there are times when marking before quilting is appropriate and having the right tools on hand is important.

I remember my grandmother using the smallest nub of a pencil that my grandfather must have sharpened with a knife to mark her quilt tops. Not so today! When I checked out the latest on marking tools I discovered there are an amazing number of options, and it might be helpful to use more than one for a single project depending upon the shades and texture of the fabrics in the quilt. I could still find the silver, white and blue marking pencils that I have used for eons. I also found chalk cartridges in all colors, charcoal pens and rolling wheel markers, water-soluble markers and pens with fine lines removable by steam. See some marking examples in the photo below.


I like to choose a marker that makes a clean crisp mark as I draw the design on the fabric. I also consider how long I want the marked motif to stay on the quilt top before it fades away, and how difficult it’s going to be to remove a mark mistake or all the marks after the quilting is finished. I’ve discovered that I favor a sharp white-tip pencil for hand-quilting dark fabrics and will often fall back on my old reliable mechanical pencil with the 0.5 lead, marking lightly, so stitching will cover it. I have a feeling that I might need a marker with a line that is easier to see while machine quilting. I have discovered a couple of notable tips during my investigation of marking tools. Humidity may make marks disappear and applying heat to a mark may make them permanent. It’s important to read the manufacturer’s instructions about the marker before using it.


The quilt top is pieced, the batting is smooth and laying on top of the backing fabric—ready for the last step to prepare for quilting. Many of us are inclined to also skip the basting step. It’s actually one of the most important steps to take to ensure smooth even quilting without bunching the fabric and skipping stitches. Start by placing the quilt sandwich on a large, flat surface. Anchor it with binder clips (from the office supply store), tape or clips made for quilters to stabilize the quilt layers during the basting process.

Thread basting is traditionally used in hand quilting because the basting stitches don’t interfere with the quilting hoop. I think it might be the best method to make a beginner’s machine quilting easier. The stitches hold the quilt together making it continually smooth as the layers are quilted, potentially eliminating wrinkles. And, the best part is that there is no need to stop a line of quilting to remove a pin before continuing.

Choose a contrasting thread, one that can be easily seen against the quilt top for easy removal later. Pick a long hand needle with a large eye.


I prefer to use a long doll-making needle; one with a curved point makes it easier to stitch in and out of the quilt layers.

Starting in the center of the quilt, make large stitches no longer than 1-11⁄2″. In my example below I’ve stitched a straight line of running stitches from the left to the right of the block and another from the top to bottom. I’ll continue to make rows of basting stitches approximately 6″ apart to create a grid on the quilt top.


Pin and spray basting are also common basting methods. Pin basting can be faster than thread basting and once the pins are removed the basting is gone. Spray basting is becoming more popular, particularly for smaller-sized quilts such as table toppers and wall hangings.

machine-quilting-final-preparations-8357Pin basting. I like to use larger safety pins that are at least 1″ long with curved sides to help me slide the pin in place without shifting any of the quilt layers during the process. I begin pinning at the center of the quilt top and move outward to make a horizontal line, then pin vertical and horizontal lines to form a grid of lines at 3″–4″ intervals as shown below.


Spray basting is simple and quick, because all you do is spray the adhesive between each of the layers, smoothing the fabrics as you go to adhere them. Like with the pin basting method, start at the center of the quilt and move out to the edge of the quilt. The adhesive can loosen during quilting so I’ve learned to spray and quilt as I go. Divide the top into sections, spraying between the layers of one section at a time, and then quilt before moving to baste and quilt another section of the quilt layer. I’ve also learned that I have to be careful to not over spray because it creates a gummy buildup on my machine’s needle, which can cause skipped stitches or alter the length of some stitches.

To be continued…

I can feel my excitement building. I’m prepared to start quilting. Now, the real work begins. Come back for the next issue as I explore quilting with a walking foot. See you then!

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