Getting Ready to Machine Quilt Your Patchwork Quilt

You’ve finished piecing together a wonderful patchwork top and now you want to make it into a quilt, by machine quilting it. Following these simple instructions, you will soon have a flat, evenly layered and basted quilt sandwich ready to be adorned with machine quilting stitchery.

What is the Quilt Sandwich?
To prepare for quilting, you need to sandwich (layer) the quilt. To do this you need quilt batting, a backing (lining) and the patchwork quilt top, put together like a sandwich – two pieces of bread with filling between. For basting you need safety pins or needle and thread, plus a large enough surface which will not be damaged by the safety pins – such as a table, a laminated bench or a ceramic tiled floor. Additionally you need large ‘bulldog’ clips or masking tape, depending on which surface you are to use.

First: The batting for your quilt
Batting (sometimes called padding or wadding) can be 100% cotton, wool or polyester or a mix of these, and is manufactured in varying thicknesses. If you buy a quilt batt which is too thick, you will find machine quilting it very frustrating, so I suggest that you start with a thin batt, designed for machine quilting, for your first few projects.

Various brands of patchwork quilt batting have been especially manufactured with a scrim on one surface to make machine quilting easier. This is a fine, almost invisible non-woven fabric welded to the batt, and should be layered to have the scrim against the quilt top.

Cotton quilt batts shrink when washed and I like to machine wash mine (on gentle with soft soap) before I use them. Allow for this when you buy your quilt batting and purchase enough. Read the instructions that come with the one you purchase, to see if washing is recommended.

Measure the patchwork quilt top and cut the batt a little larger than this on all sides – at least two inches (5cm).

Next: The backing or lining for your quilt
This should be at least two inches larger all around than the pieced top of your quilt – approximately the same size as your batting. You can use almost any fabric – including sheeting, if you are machine quilting. Special wider fabrics that are produced for quilt backs are available at quilt shops. For your first few quilts, I suggest you use a (busy) floral or patterned fabric to disguise any ‘not so perfect’ stitching. It is the back, after all.

Backs can be pieced, and can be made up of different fabrics if you wish. The joins can fall anywhere you want, there are no rules. Why buy twice as much fabric for a few extra inches, when you could join a few pieces together to get enough?

Some time ago, my daughter Angela’s husband watched her cut a piece of fabric in half and stitch it back together again in a different direction, to make her quilt back big enough. He burst out laughing and wanted to know why she had cut fabric apart and stitched it back together. Nowadays, we both join pieces of whatever fabrics we have on hand to make the back the right size. Much more interesting, too!

Last: Basting your quilt
A quilt is defined as having three layers held together with stitching, but you can’t just layer the top, batt and backing and start stitching. The layers will shift and result in an unsightly mess, both back and front. The quilt needs to be basted together in a grid to keep the three quilt layers aligned perfectly while being stitched.

You can baste with safety pins (my favourite are the little banana shaped pins which go in and out through the layers easily) or by taking large tacking stitches with thread and a large darning needle. There are tools available at patchwork shops which help to open and close safety pins, to prevent sore finger tips.

Here are the steps for making the quilt sandwich:
1. Fold the quilt backing in quarters, wrong sides together. Centre it, stretch it on the table and clip; or on the floor and attach with masking tape. The backing should be taut but not distorted. If you run the palm of your hand over it, there should be no rippling.
2. Fold the quilt batt in quarters, right sides together, and centre it over the back, open it out and clip or tape into place.
3. Fold the patchwork top into quarters, right sides together and centre over the batting. Smooth out so that there are no wrinkles.
4. Baste with brass safety pins in a 4in grid all over. Commencing in the centre, divide the quilt into four quadrants, and baste one section at a time.

Now you have layered your patchwork quilt, you are ready to tackle the machine quilt stitching that enhances the patchwork designs on the front of your quilt.

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