Four ways to ‘pin’ a layered-up quilt

quilter's pins, curved safety pins for holding the layers of a quilt

So you have a completed quilt top. You have layered it up with wadding (batting) in the middle and backing fabric. (For information on how to layer up your quilt, look here). You now need to secure the three layers together well enough to be able to add quilting to your quilt. There are four ways to do this.

1 Pin your quilt

You need to use safety pins, not dressmaker’s pins, because it it important that you don’t hurt your fingers whilst either hand-quilting or putting the quilt through the machine. The safety pins pictured above are specialist quilter’s pins with a bend in each side. This ensures that the clasp and the rounded end of the safety pin rest above the surface of the quilt and don’t distort the surface of the fabric. You need the quilt to be as flat as possible for quilting. You will start at the centre of the quilt (while it is still laid flat on a floor or table top) and gradually work outwards. Insert the pins at a distance from each other that is no bigger than the width of your hand. It is wise to work out your quilting design before this stage, so you can avoid placing pins in a spot you will be stitching on. Your task will be easier on your fingers if you use a grapefruit spoon to help hold the pin in place. You can read about that here. You will need lots of pins. Once purchased, however, you can use the pins over and over again.

PROS: inexpensive equipment which can be re-used; pins can be moved as needed when quilting; pins can be removed as you go, when quilting

CONS: relatively time-consuming; quite hard on your fingers

2 Tack your quilt with thread

You need a large reel of tacking thread and a needle. Choose a colour of thread that will show up against your quilt so you can see it clearly when the moment comes to take it out. It may be helpful to have a thimble to protect your finger. Use a length of thread that is no longer than the distance from the tip of your middle finger to your elbow. Put a good knot in the end (for a clear description of how to make a knot, see the YouTube video here). Start at the centre of the quilt and tack. Use a running stitch (going in and out of the fabric in a straight line) with, say, 2″ (5cm) long stitches straight up to the top edge. Then start again at the centre and tack down to the bottom edge. Repeat this process at a hand’s width distance to the left of the first tacking line. Then repeat it on the right of the tacking line. Continue until you have a series of parallel lines across the quilt. Move one quarter turn around the quilt and begin again at the centre. Repeat the whole process. You should end up with a grid of tacking spread right across the quilt.

PROS inexpensive equipment (you can use cheap thread or unwanted colours for tacking); provides a secure method of holding the layers; you can do quilting stitches right over the top of the tacking threads

CONS very time-consuming method; you will need to un-pick all the tacking threads after the quilting is complete

3 Use a specialist adhesive spray

This is a spray adhesive, specially developed to hold together layers of fabric. There is more than one brand available. The can shown above is one I have used and found to be effective. Layer up your quilt as normal, then fold back part of the top, spray the wadding and replace the top. Next, fold back the remaining part of the top (if it’s a small quilt), spray the wadding and replace the top. Then lift part of the top and wadding, spray the wadding and lower it down onto the backing. Move round the quilt and lift the rest of the top and wadding, spray the wadding and lower it down. If the quilt is large, you will need to carry out this process in sections, as described here. Hold the spray can the correct distance away from the wadding, following the instructions on the can. Don’t overdo the adhesive. A modest amount works well. Always wear a mask and work in a well-ventilated space.

PROS very convenient, no need to remove pins or tacking stitches after quilting; holds the layers together well

CONS this is an adhesive – you may well want to wash the adhesive out as soon as the quilt is finished; you may be affected by the chemicals – always test first; if you run out half-way through, you can’t get on with your quilting – always keep a spare can!

4 Use a micro-tacker

This gadget is very similar to those used to shops to attach price tags to textile items. The one here is called ‘Micro Stitch’ and is manufactured by Avery. The point is inserted through the fabric and the trigger sends a small plastic tack with a bar at each end into the fabric. The bar at the top of the tack will rest on the surface of the backing fabric and the bar at the bottom of the tack will rest on the surface of the quilt top. In the photo you can see a strip of white plastic tacks lying on the table on the right. A row of black plastic tacks is already inserted in the gadget. Just like choosing tacking thread, you should choose a colour that will show up on your quilt: white on a dark quilt and black on a light quilt. A good way of ensuring that you have pierced all three layers of your quilt is to insert an old racquet (tennis or squash) under your layered up quilt, which will slightly lift the layers and provide space for the micro-tacker to do its work. This tip comes from Barbara Weeks, former tutor on the City & Guilds Patchwork & Quilting Certificate course at Missenden Abbey several years ago. Putting the tacks in is one thing, but you do have to also take them all out. For this you need a specialist tack lifter, which you insert under the top bar, cutting through the tack.

It is important to get hold of both parts of the plastic strip. It is best to be rigorous about counting the number of strips you put in the quilt and to be equally careful about counting out the strips. The alternative is to go on finding plastic bits in your quilt for years afterwards!

PROS a quick method of holding the layers together

CONS relatively expensive – you need to buy the gadget, the tack lifter and the strips (which are not re-usable); this uses plastic (which I’m trying to avoid, see here); there is a danger of missing some strips when it comes to taking them out

Most quilters settle on one or perhaps two of these methods, sometimes depending on the size of quilt, the time or budget constraints or other factors.


Spring sunshine is appearing at last. ‘Key Lime Pie’ is a good beginner’s quilt which uses bright spring greens combined with blues and whites (though other colour choices would work well too!). You can buy the pattern here

‘Key Lime Pie’ quilt pattern by Amanda Jane Textiles

Published by Amanda Jane Textiles

I am a quilt-maker, designer, writer and teacher.

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