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Tips about your Backing

When a quilt top and the other layers are to be quilted by machine, be it longarm, shortarm or by a home sewing machine, it is important to consider how the back of the quilt will look after the quilting is complete. Books and magazines with quiltmaking instructions go into great detail about how to choose the right fabric for the top then how to piece it fast and accurate, but they drop the ball when it comes to choosing batting or backing fabric. Usually all the instruction one is given is the amount of fabric and batting to purchase then instructed to "Layer the top, batting and backing." and "Quilt as desired." Shame on them!

In a perfect world, the choice of fabric for the backing would be considered at the same time that the fabric is chosen for the quilt top. The backing fabric is usually the last thing a quiltmaker thinks about when planning a quilt. Often it is a beautiful fabric that "I just had to have it for this back!" This dream fabric can easily turn into a nightmare if the quilting method and thread choices were not considered.

I have found that there are three things that can make or break a beautiful machine quilted back: the starts and stops, the wobbles and bump and the choice of thread color.

Starts and Stops

Unlike hand quilting where the starting and stopping knots can be hidden between the layers, machine quilting requires that the stitches be reinforced. This can be accomplished by backstitching over the line of stitches; taking tiny, tiny stitches for the last 1/4" or so of stitching or leaving thread tails to be later tied and hidden between the layers.

The most visible of the starts and stops is a very dark thread, such as navy or black, on a very light backing such as white or muslin or ANY solid fabric. The starts and stops remind me of a cheap ball point pen that leaves the occasional blob in your writing.

Wobbles and Bumps

Other visual problems on the back of a quilt caused by machine quilting include wobbles and bumps. These most often occur when Stitching in The Ditch along seamlines. No matter how perfectly straight the seamline may be on the top many things can cause the stitching line on the back to have wobbles and bumps. Some of these things include

  • Intersections of three or more seams - These intersections create the layering of multiple fabrics in one small space. When the hopping foot or presser foot of the machine reaches this area, it has no place to go but to hop up or over the intersection. This hopping causes the line of stitching to jump out of it's previously straight line.
  • Pressing while piecing - Most quiltmakers never think of how the pressing of seams affect the quilting when stitching in the ditch. Careless pressing can result in the "ditch" being first on one side if a pieced unit and then suddenly appear on the other side. This also causes a wobble in your previously straight line. Pressing seams open is a big no-no if you want to stitch in the ditch as well as not pressing at all. Every professional quilter has seen their share of these!
  • Control of the machine - By design, hand guided machines are easy to move around. This is fine for following the smooth curves of a pattern and for beautiful freeform quilting but is bad news for straight line stitching in the ditch. The best solution to this problem is to use a straight edge against the hopping foot. Keep the straight edge in one place and move the machine along the edge. This will give a smoother, straighter stitch.

Thread Color

The least thought of element in planning a quilt can cause the greatest visual mishap you have ever seen. Here is the dilemma.

If the tension is not adjusted correctly, you will get "pokies". Pokies is a technical term for bobbin threads that show on the top and/or top threads that show on the bottom. Usually pokies are not a problem with proper thread tension and an experienced quilter. But they do happen and usually when they do happen it is in a place that is difficult or time consuming to repair and usually on a curve.

To solve this problem, it is wise to use the same color thread in the bobbin as is used on the top. This will camoflauge the pokies since you really can't tell if the thread came from the top or the bottom. Some quilters have a stated policy that the top and bottom threads will match, no matter what. Often this means that the perfect thread to use on on the top, is the worst thread to use on the bottom. The client will have the option of accepting the thread color for both the top fabrics and the backing fabrics; to match the top thread to the top and the bottom thread to the bottom and accept the occasional pokie; or to change the backing fabric.

Problems arise when you have a high contrast between the thread color and the backing color. The worst case I have encountered of the incompatible backing and thread union was a navy and white quilt top with a white backing. The quilting on the top called for (literally screamed!) mostly navy thread and a bit of white. It was custom quilting with lots of starts and stops and stitch in the ditch. When I pointed out the contrast problem for the backing, the client decided to accept it. My other suggestion was to use white thread in the bobbin and a clear thread on the top. I don't personally care for the clear thread but I have several clients who will use ONLY that thread and I do think that there are situations in which it is useful.

An Example

Here are pictures of my most recent ugly back. You'd think I would have learned by now! I pieced this purple quilt about three years ago and recently found it while attempting to clean my studio. I have no idea why I pieced this top.

I decided to quilt it up using the Circle Set Templates. First I thought I would use a teal blue quilting thread so I chose the backing that would match. I laid the thead over the backing and the top and decided it would work.

Purple Quilt

After numerous interruptions I got the quilt loaded and ready to go. I happened to have a navy blue thread on the machine from the previous quilt. I put the navy thread over the quilt top and saw that it was a much better color for that quilt than the teal. So, without remembering the backing (already loaded and ready to go!) away I went making circles all over the quilt. The result on the back.......

Quilt Backing See the ugly blobs? Some are worse than others. A larger or darker print would have camouflaged these starts and stops.






















Suggestions for Solving the Backing Problem

I encourage my clients to think about the backing fabric and the color of the quilting thread. I suggest that they choose a backing fabric that they like and one that is a print. Solid fabrics and fabrics that appear solid should be avoided at all cost!

The only time solids look good on the back is one that has been quilted with an allover pattern that has little or no starts and stops. It can look like a whole cloth quilt on the back. Prints will hide starts, stops, wobbles and bumps. Most threads blend in or are hidden by a printed fabric.

I ask them to think about the thread color and how it will look on the back. To test it, they can take the fabric and lay a thread over it. You can instantly see which one works and which one doesn't. This is a good way to audition threads for the quilting.

Get your clients thinking about backing fabric and thread. These are the last layers of the quiltmaking design process. Well informed clients mean more compatible backing fabrics and quilting threads. And more compatible backing fabrics and quilting threads means your quilting looks better and your clients are happier!