The Language of Quilts

October 2009


Like any centuries-old craft, quilting has its own language. First, there are three layers to a quilt: the top, the batting fill, and the backing. After the three layers are put together or “sandwiched,” quilting stitches are made through all three layers. Finally, binding is sewn around the periphery of the quilt to conceal the raw edges.


The most common types of quilts are patchwork, appliqué, and whole-cloth. Nowadays, patchwork quilts are the most popular of the three. Patchwork quilts are created by machine sewing individual square blocks together to create a quilt top. The blocks can all be the same design or a collection of several different designs. There are hundreds of published quilt block patterns from which to choose. Many patterns have dozens of variations as well. Patchwork quilts are so popular today because after the quilter assembles the top and the batting and backing fabric are added, the quilt can be machine quilted on a long-arm quilting machine. The few quilters who own long-arm quilting machines usually offer to machine quilt for others but charge a fee. Of course, a patchwork quilt can be hand quilted, but may take a year or more to complete, so most quilters prefer to pay for machine quilting.


Appliqué quilts and whole cloth quilts demand much more hand sewing. Appliqué quilts contain irregular shaped pieces stitched onto background fabric. For example, if a quilter has a cut-out of Mary and her little lamb, she’ll hand stitch the cut-out onto the background fabric using tiny “invisible” stitches while tucking under the raw edges of the cut-out. Today, appliqué is usually used as embellishment to a patchwork top to minimize the time commitment. A quilt top made entirely of hand-sewn appliqué would require many months to complete.


Whole cloth quilts begin with a large sheet of fabric, pre-sized to fit a bed, and marked with a design in water-soluble ink. Before any sewing is done, the stamped fabric is sandwiched with the batting and backing fabric and then is pinned or basted together. The quilter then hand quilts the entire quilt by following the stamped design. After a few washings, the no-longer-needed stamped design disappears.


There was a resurgence of cross stitch quilts during the 1960s and 1970s. These were whole cloth quilts in which the top was first embroidered according to a stamped cross stitch pattern, and then, after the embroidered top was completed, the quilt was sandwiched and hand quilted.


There’s lots to learn about quilting, and some of the terminology is pretty catchy. Maybe later we can discuss fat quarters, jelly rolls, paper piecing, foundation piecing, rotary cutting, templates, sashing, bias strips, setting in seams, and strip piecing, to name but a few.