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Machine Basting Basics: Why and How

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Whether you’re a novice or an advanced sewer, you’ve likely heard the term "basting." And, we don't mean the yummy Thanksgiving turkey technique! In sewing, basting is a temporary straight stitch used to hold layers together until a final stitch is sewn. Since it’s a long, loose stitch, a basting stitch removes easily after sewing is complete. In this tutorial, we’ll explain 1) how to determine if your sewing machine has a basting stitch, 2) when to use a basting stitch in your sewing projects, and 3) why hand basting is sometimes needed as well. 

First a math riddle to crack up your sewing friends: When does 1+1 = 1? When you're basting two layers together! 

Does my sewing machine have a basting stitch?

It's a trick question. All sewing machines have a basting stitch. If you feel silly because you didn’t know that, no worries; it’s actually a common question sewing machine dealers hear all the time. 

A basting stitch is simply a straight stitch (center needle or left needle position) set at the longest possible length. Depending on the make/model of machine you own, the longest stitch length can vary. In addition, some sewing machines have a pre-programmed basting stitch, which we will discuss later in the tutorial.

To understand more clearly, we’ve sewn a standard length straight stitch and a basting stitch side by side. Since Janome supplies our studio machines, our standard straight stitch length on most models (the length the machine defaults to when we select the stitch) is 2.2mm. Using the same exact straight stitch, we increased the stitch length to 5.0mm. This is an average basting length; many machines can go up to 7.0mm or 9.0mm. 

If you're not basting, I bet you might be wondering why you would use an extra long stitch. Well, we can tell you!

If you're sewing something with super thick fabrics and/or many layers, a standard length stitch can appear shorter because the length is now also being used to get through the depth of the fabric/layers. In addition, a longer stitch made in thicker fabric doesn't pull out as easily as a long stitch in lightweight fabric (and of course, your regular sewing seam would be locked on both ends; basting stitches are not usually locked at either end).

So, a straight stitch can be adjusted longer as needed to account for fabric(s) thickness. In the picture below, the line of stitching on top, that we sewed through a few layers of fabric and batting, is the same length as the middle line from our first example! Looks shorter doesn't it?

You may own a computerized sewing machine with a pre-programmed basting stitch. These pre-programmed basting stitches can be automatic and/or manual. The automatic setting is a time-saver, simply adjusting the length to the longest setting so you don't have to manually set the length each time you want to sew a basting stitch. Below is a picture of one our of Janome machines, showing the basting stitch options.

The manual pre-programmed basting stitch can be compared with free motion sewing (or quilting). In essence, it’s a function where you control the movement of the fabric, not the machine. As in free motion sewing/quilting, with a manual pre-programmed basting stitch, you need to attach a Darning foot. Also, since the machine is computerized, when the pre-programmed basting stitch is selected, the feed dogs drop automatically. You can make short or very long basting stitches depending on how you advance the fabric under the foot. This is best used for quilt projects where you simply want to hold the layers together temporarily before the final quilting. In the photo below, we used a seam ripper to lift up a section of the thread in the long stitching example so you could see how much you can vary the length with this type of pre-programmed manual basting stitch.

If you have a non-computerized machine, but are able to drop its feed dogs, all you need is a Darning foot to create this same technique.

If you’re not sure how to set your specific sewing machine, the instruction manual should contain information on machine basting settings. If that doesn't help, we suggest visiting your local dealer for assistance.

When do I use a basting stitch?

Basically, you use a basting stitch wherever and whenever you need to temporarily hold layers together. Depending on the type of item you're sewing, basting stitches are sewn either at the exact seam allowance or just inside the seam allowance. Even though we’re always reminding you that we only use contrasting thread in our examples so you can clearly see the techniques, in this case, you actually want to use contrasting thread! Traditionally, all basting stitches are sewn in a contrasting thread so you can see them clearly to more easily remove them later.

Garment fitting

In garment sewing, a basting stitch is often used for fitting purposes. Whether you make a “muslin” (a prototype of the garment made from muslin fabric) first or cut the actual fabric first, it’s recommended you fit a garment before final sewing, especially if you’re not familiar with a pattern's design/fit. Using a basting stitch makes the process quicker and easier. This is because the longer stitch sews more quickly and removes more easily. In this example, basting stitches sewn for fit should be sewn at the actual seam allowance in order to get the most exact measurements. 

Zippers

Basting zippers in place before final sewing is very helpful. It allows you to make sure the zipper is positioned correctly, and it makes the process easier and more accurate because you're not worrying about removing pins. You can baste zippers at the exact line of stitching or inside the line of stitching. Don’t forget to attach a Zipper foot.

Home décor

Basting is a great technique to use for sewing trims, such as piping, rick rack, and pom poms. For example, when a trim is sewn into the seam of a pillow, it’s always easier to baste the trim to one of the layers first. Then, when you place the front and back of the pillow right sides together for final sewing, you are working with only two layers instead of three - less shifting! In addition, it eliminates the need to worry about catching all the layers evenly as you sew. Usually, this kind of basting is done inside the seam allowance.

Quilting

When a quilt is layered just prior to the actual quilting, the layers are always basted first. This holds the layers together to eliminate any shifting of the quilt top, batting and backing. If these layers don't remain lined up properly during the quilting process, the results can be disastrous. These basting stitches are sewn across the entire quilt and later completely removed.

Serging

If you own a serger, you may already use this technique. When you work with a serger, its knife trims off the seam allowance as the raw edges are wrapped with an overlocking stitch. Pretty cool in terms of fast finishing, but... if you make a mistake, it is dang hard to remove the stitching to correct it. Not to mention, you no longer have any seam allowance to speak of. So, if you baste the seams first, you can make sure you’ve sewn the item correctly. Then, you can use that line of basting to guide the fabric under the foot of the serger. In addition, it’s never a good idea to use pins around a serger; the knife can come down on the pin and cause tremendous damage, so basting is a great option for serging.

 

There’s really no need to remove basting stitches (indicated by the pink thread in the picture below) in the serger scenario because you're unlikely be able to see them through the overlock stitches. 

Other uses

A basting stitch is often the first step in other sewing techniques, such as gathering a set-in sleeve.

When you want to gather the edge of fabric, you sew one or two lines of basting inside the seam allowance, then pull the bobbin thread(s) to create the gathers. Gathers can be tight and pronounced or gentle and loose. It's simply a function of easing one piece into another, such as when inserting a set-in sleeve. In fact, two rows of basting stitches sewn inside the seam allowance around the top of a sleeve is really the only way to create a perfect fit. 
NOTE: For more about this technique, check out our full tutorial on machine gathering. 

This technique also works on garments with princess seams at the bust line. A little basting stitch at the curve will help to fit the front and side bodice pieces together with easily and precisely.

What about hand basting?

As in all sewing, there are times when we have to turn to a hand needle and thread. An example would be when an extra measure of accuracy is needed and/or when something is simply too big to fit through a sewing machine. 

Of course, you can vary the length of the stitch as you see fit. In some cases, it may help to do a simple backstitch as you hand baste to help keep the stitching secure. Hand basting pulls out even easier than machine basting. 

You have passed Basting 101; you should now be able to hold it together a little better!

Contributors

Sample Creation and Instructional Outline: Jodi Kelly

Section: 

Comments (10)

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@dorie - Thank you! We're glad to know you found the info helpful.

Corrine said:
Corrine's picture

Thank You for all this instruction, I am new to sewing clothes and I am in the process of making my grand daughters a Christmas Dress and I should have read this before thinking I knew what basting was, LOL not to go home tonight and fix my huge mistake! LOL

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Corrine - Ha! You are so welcome. And... that's the good thing about sewing, it's usually pretty easy to take out stitches. 

Sewing Person said:
Sewing Person's picture

Thank you! This was such an informative,useful article!

I am  a new quilter/sewer and I have so much to learn but this article is invaluable as foundational sewing information! Keep up the great work on teaching!!!

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@Sewing Person - Thanks for taking the time to let us know this was a help to you!

Karen J said:
Karen J's picture

I have been sewing over 50 years and I learn something new everyday. I make microwave bowl cozies and it just occurred to me if I did some basting of all the layers together, there would be less shifting. SMH

Kris Valle said:
Kris Valle's picture

Thanks! Do you double the thread if you are hand basting? And also, if your machine has a pre-programmed button for basting using the darning foot, would you use it for a sleeve cap? or, is that type only for quilting applications?

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@Kris - a single thread is fine for hand basting. In the photo above, it might look like it's doubled, but that's just the thread looping through the eye of the needle. For a sleeve cap, it's such a small section, re-setting to a pre-programmed stitch and changing the foot is probably not worth it - just lengthen the stitch and use your standard foot. But yes, the programmed stitch with a darning foot is excellent for larger applications.