When I learned to sew in 4-H*, we were taught to baste our garment together by hand before sewing, be it on the machine or by hand. Being young and foolish, I decided I would rather do anything than baste. Thus, I wasted time ripping stitches out, re-doing them, only to rip again. When someone used the words “pin” basting, I thought I need never baste with needle and thread again. However, pin basting only works in certain instances.
A pin doesn’t bend easily. If it’s long enough to be effective it is too long, and if it is short enough to be effective, it’s too short. Plus, it snags the skin and lets blood flow into the fabric. A needle will prick the skin as well, but it is easier to control one needle than many pins.
The problem is: A pin is not a stitch, nor is a pin a thread and never will be. Nor is tape, glue or staples, although each of those have a purpose.
The tools for basting are simple:
A good needle with a round eye and contrasting thread. The size of the thread determines the size of the needle, as it must be able to pass through the needle’s eye. The thread would be fine enough to glide easily through the fabric, but not so fine as to allow the simple running stitch to slip out. Normally, I use a heavier weight basting thread than the sewing thread. It’s a judgment call and may need some trial and error on a sample of the fabric being used.
Avoid using an embroidery needle with an oblong eye. It’s designed for use with threads that are thicker than the needle. To pass through the longer narrow eye, the thread must be separated and flattened.
When basting, the needle compresses the fibers of the cloth, and the thread passes through. When removing basting an inch or so in front of hand sewing, you can see what looks like holes in the fabric. Unlike actual holes, they are spaces where the fibers have been pushed apart and will soon disappear.
Sometimes it’s helpful to use those “holes” to guide your stitches as you sew.
The thread is guided through the eye of the needle before it is ever cut from the spool. If the end of the thread has relaxed and frayed while on the shelf you can clip a bit off the end to give you a clean, sharp point. I’ve seen advice to stiffen the thread with clear nail polish or glue, but have never found any need for it.
The reason for threading the needle before cutting the thread is to be sure the “grain” of the thread is going in the right direction. If you put a fiber, or a spun group of fibers under a microscope you will see that there is a distinct direction to it, like the point of a barbed arrow. One end will be smooth, the other with barbs. If you thread the needle “backwards” the barbs will push against the fabric, causing the thread to tangle and knot. If you’ve ever gotten a fishhook in your hand, you know to cut the hook off rather than try to pull it out. Thread manufacturers know this and wind the spool accordingly.
To knot, or not?
With basting, your stitches are temporary. Knotting the thread is optional, so long as it’s easy to remove. Consider if you will be working the final stitches on the right or wrong side: If I am basting for a hand stitched appliqué my knot will lie on the right side of the fabric where I can see it. If I will be stitching a seam with right sides together, the knot would be on the wrong side of the fabric. It only matters that the knot isn’t enclosed.
If I choose to leave the thread unknotted, I may take 2 long stitches, one on top of the other, to secure the end which is easily removed from either side. The stitches only need be long enough to get the scissors’ point underneath them for snipping, or to pull free of the fabric.
How long to cut the thread is also optional. The longer thread may need some careful handling to avoid tangles.
The process of the needle and thread passing through the fabric will twist the thread. A few stitches won’t make any difference, but if you see the thread twisting back on itself, roll the needle between your thumb and finger just enough to let the thread relax. Otherwise it will tangle and knot.
The length or pattern of your stitches…
depends on the reason for basting.
For example, long stitches work well when basting the three layers of a quilt before actual quilting, or very thick fabrics.
Back basting to mark a needle turned appliqué calls for a tiny stitch on the wrong side of the fabric, and a stitch on the right side of the fabric that is about a quarter inch long. A tight curve may need a smaller right-side stitch, but the scissor’s point will still fit under it, for cutting.
Top basting is a series of stitches worked on the right side of the fabric: 2 – 3 straight stitches on the background with a small stitch that only bites the edge of the foreground fabric, followed by 2 – 3 more straight stitches in the background. Top basting is done when matching prints or plaids, or in curved piecing that will be machine stitched.
What determines effective basting?
The layers of fabric are held securely, while the piece remains flexible and able to withstand the handling of sewing without shifting or coming apart. Unlike pins, the sewing machine can stitch over, or even through it. It is easily removed when its purpose has been served.
A special “thank you” goes out to Connie Sue Haidle of Apple Blossom Quilts. Her YouTube demonstrations and Face Book group have inspired me to re-visit beautiful hand appliqué.
*4-H is a national educational organization in the United States dedicated to teaching the fundamental skills of agriculture, homemaking and consumer economics. Each state directs the program through a state college or university. The four “H”s stand for: Head, Heart, Hands and Health. Generally, teachers are local volunteers who are under the supervision of an agent of the state organization.