Below is a list of quilt terms and many include links to tutorials. Click each term to go to the definition. Some terms have separate tutorials that open in a new page.
Appliqué: attaching individual pieces of fabric to a background to form a design. These pieces usually have edges which are turned under, except for the process called raw edge appliqué. Raw edge appliqué can be seen in primitive designs or in art quilts. Finished edge appliqué can be turned under around freezer paper, turned under with the needle as you sew, can have its edges glued down or it can be lined. Applique pieces are usually curved and often are representational, such as depicting flowers, birds, faces. We have a list of tutorials for various types of applique here: How to Applique
Asymmetrical: a design in which there is balance but the elements are not duplicated on each side. A block such as maple leaf is asymmetrical since all four of its corners are not the same. In a block, this makes for interesting possibilities since different design elements appear depending on how the blocks are rotated. Any block divided down the middle by a diagonal line, such as Log Cabin, is asymmetrical.
Bargello: name of a quilt design which resembles the needlepoint pattern Flame stitch. In this design, the line made by a color is formed by staggering the appearance of that color up and down within vertical rows, often forming a design which resembles flames.
Batting: this is the layer between the quilt top and the back which provides the loft and also the warmth in a quilt. It can be made out of 100% polyester, 100% cotton or a combination of both. There are also wool and silk batts. These are much more expensive.
Polyester batt is usually a good choice for hand quilting while cotton works better for machine quilting. There are also batts which are 80% cotton with a thin glaze of polyester on each side to prevent separation after washing. These are excellent for machine quilting. High loft batts are generally recommended only if you will tie the quilt.
Cotton can be washed before using to preshrink it, but NEVER agitate. Simply soak it in the water of your washing machine, spin and then dry in the dryer. Any batt can be thrown in the dryer for 10 minutes on air only to fluff out the fold lines caused by storage.
Batting is also a verb and refers to the process of putting the three layers of the quilt sandwich together in preparation for quilting. See Layering for further information.
Bearding is the term used to describe what happens when small strands of batting come up out of the holes made by the needle when quilting. This can best be prevented by using good quality fabric with a close weave and high thread count. This does not mean to use sheeting but is rather a warning against low end, loosely woven fabrics such as inexpensive muslin. Bonded batting provides some protection against bearding since the glazed finish has no loose strands to be pulled out the holes. If your fabric is dark, you may want to use a dark batting. Batting that is 100% cotton or wool is more likely to beard than 80/20 Cotton/polyester or batting that has been needlepunched like Warm & Natural. Wool apparently continues to beard through the life of the quilt. Some people use the same little shavers that take the nubs off older sweaters to remove the beard on their quilts.
Bed sizes : You should always measure your own bed but here are some measurements for the tops of standard mattress sizes:
- Twin mattress 39x75
- Double mattress 54x75
- Queen mattress 60x80
- King mattress 76x80
Be sure to measure the depth of your mattress too if you want your quilt to cover it. Add 14" for a comfortable pillow tuck.
Bias Binding: this binding is cut on the bias of the fabric (see Grain Line below) and has a lot of stretch in it, allowing it to go around things such as scalloped edges with no problem.
Bias Square Ruler: this ruler allows you to cut perfect squares or to trim sewn pieces to perfect squares. It has a diagonal line down the center. The numbers from this line at the corner go to the opposite ends in the same order. See Squaring Up below.
Bias Strips: strips cut on the bias of the fabric. These strips have a lot of stretch in them whereas strips cut on the grain of the fabric have none or little stretch. Bias Strips are often used in celtic or knot work.
Binding: the finishing edge put on the outside of a quilt, enclosing the three raw edges formed by the backing, batting and top. It should be doubled and may be cut from the crosswise grain of the fabric for straight edged quilts. Curved edge quilts require bias binding. Basic Binding instructions.
Bleeding: describes what happens when there is excess dye in fabric or dye that has not been properly set. The wash water will take on the color of the dye. This excess dye can then settle on other fabric. Soap helps release excess dye when prewashing. Synthrapol® will keep dye from settling on adjacent fabrics when used in wash water. All heavily saturated colors should be prewashed to prevent bleeding after the quilt is assembled.
Blocks : the term used to describe a single complete quilting unit. For example, if you look at the illustration in the Cornerstones definition below, each complete star is a block. Being a pieced block means it is composed of the design and the background. Pieced blocks are usually made up of units. A block can also be made with appliqué. The block's size is determined by the size of the background fabric. The appliqué motif or collection of pieces is then stitched on top. The majority of blocks are square because squares fit together easily to create bed coverings, but they can also be rectangles and, in the case of specialty patterns, can have irregular shapes like hexagons.
Butted Seams: two border seams that meet in the corner by simply butting up against one another.
Cornerstones: this is the term used to refer to the square patches of fabric that form the connection when two pieces of border fabric meet at the corner and a separate square is inserted instead of having the borders butt or miter together. A cornerstone can also be used in the sashing as shown in the quilt image.
Couch - a technique used in embroidery to stitch down one thread with another. In quilting, this method allows you to zigzag over thicker threads, thereby attaching them to the surface without putting them through the needle of your sewing machine. It can also be done by hand.
Critique - evaluating a piece of art, whether fiber, paint, sculpture or even literature. In original design, we often need to look with a critical eye, which means to discern what works and what doesn't. Having a friend or classmate critique your work can help you move forward. Read these reports on Creative Critiquing
Crocking: the term used when dry fabric rubs excess dye onto an adjacent fabric. This most often happens with very dark colors such as brown, black, navy and red.
Design Wall: it can be as simple as nailing a piece of flannel to the wall behind your door, but it allows you to put up pieces and see them in relationship to one another. Batting also works as a "self-sticking" medium.
Electric Quilt: a software program, also called EQ, used to design quilt projects. There are many versions of EQ, the latest at time of writing is EQ8. Because this quilt program is quite sophisticated we have online workshops dedicated to learning to use it. Shirley Goodwin is our teacher. Find out more about her and the workshops she offers here: Shirley and her workshops
Fat Eighth: a fat eighth cut of cotton cloth measures about 9" x 21-22", (rather than a 1/8 yard cut, across the full width of the yardage, measuring 4.5" x 44").
Fat Quarter: a common fabric measurement in the US. Fat quarters are pre-cut pieces of cotton quilting cloth, taken from one yard of fabric, cut in half lengthwise, and in half widthwise, rather than lengthwise. This is often a more useful shape, approximately 18" x 22", than a normal quarter-yard cut, measuring 44" x 9".
Flying Geese unit: - this is one of the most popular of the small shape groups that exist in quilting. It consists of a center triangle and two right angle triangles attached to it on either side. There are many different ways to construct a flying geese unit. Click here for basic instructions.
Free Motion: Is a method of machine stitching that can be used for applique, embroidery or quilting. This technique is a form of stitching where the machine does not regulate the stitches, but rather you control them by moving the fabric around freely under the needle. Usually the feed dogs are lowered or covered to achieve this. Learn how to do this from this tutorial.
Fusible Appliqué: by using interfacing called fusible, you can iron the pieces of your appliqué to the surface. Different weights are available and affect how stiff the finished product will be. Edges are usually finished with satin stitch pr blanket stitch.
Fussy Cut: taking a clear template for a particular shape in your design, then isolating a single motif and cutting it out. This can then be repeated as many times as necessary. It is used to create whirling or kaleidoscope designs in patterns such as the 8-pointed star. (Makes your fabric look like Swiss cheese when you cut holes in various places)
Grain Line: fabric has three grain lines (the direction of the threads). The lengthwise grain runs the entire length of the fabric as it comes off the bolt. It is the absolute straight grain of the fabric and has no give or stretch.
The crosswise grain is also straight and runs from selvedge to selvedge. Most instructions have you cut strips that are on the crosswise grain. This has slightly more give that the straight grain.
If you pull a piece of fabric from the two diagonally opposite corners, you see the bias grain. Some clothing is made this way because it drapes better. Quilts that end in curved treatment will use bias binding. The bias has a lot of give and stretch. This can cause distortion in your quilt unless you are careful. Raw bias edges quickly stretch out of true.
Sometimes this works IN your favor, such as making stems for appliqué flowers where a curve is exactly what you want.
Graph Paper: just like the stuff you remember from school, this is paper that is divided up into equal smaller units so that you can draw accurate shapes. Some quilt graph paper is marketed with four squares to the inch and a darker blue line outlining the inch divisions. It comes in several sizes and makes drawing your own blocks much easier. There is also paper marketed to draftsmen, but this often does not have the inches shown in the darker lines. Draftsman paper can come eight squares to the inch. This allows for more accurate divisions in 1/8" increments but it can be confusing to move back and forth between the two grids, so beware. Be sure to buy good quality as elementary school paper is often inaccurate.
Half Square Triangles: this is the most used pieced unit in quilting. It is a square with a diagonal seam line. Two different fabrics are on each side of the line, usually forming a light/dark configuration. Log Cabin blocks are basically complex half square triangles. Mini-lesson.
Idea Journal: You can call this anything you like but it is a way to keep track of things you have tried. An idea book can be as simple as a 3-ring binder. You can have blank pages to write or doodle ideas and designs. It also helps to have some clear plastic sleeves that will hold sewn samples. This way, you can put in samples of ideas you have tried, new threads, color combinations or anything else you wish to keep a record of. Remember that you may not have the quilt itself to refer back to! Flipping through your own book of ideas will help you choose patterns or to show these ideas to others. It is also a very ego-enhancing way to keep track of your creative and technical growth.
Knotwork: this term is used to refer to Celtic designs. The knots are visual and formed by interlocking designs of bias binding strips.
Layering a Quilt : Your pieced or appliquéd top does not become a quilt until you have added batting and a back. These three layers are sewn together to become a quilt. If you do not batt the quilt correctly, the finished quilt will have ripples, pleats or other problems that prevent it from laying flat and smooth. Basic instructions and here are instructions with video clip of layering on a table Layering a large quilt.
Layout: this term refers to the arrangement of blocks into a quilt. A layout may be horizontal, which means the blocks are lined up in rows, with all the blocks parallel to the edges. Or it may be on point, which rotates the block so that the points are at 12,3,6, 9 as it related to the bottom edge of the quilt. A medallion layout uses a single center square surrounded by multiple borders.
Measuring for Borders: there are several types of borders and different ways to measure for them. The two main types are square (or butted) and mitered. For complete directions on measuring and attaching these border types, click here.
Muslin : Muslin originally came from Iraq and gets its name from the city of Mosul. It is a simple fabric that has not been overly processed and can be found in its natural color (off white) or white (bleached). The little brown flecks found in the weave are its trademark. These tiny specks are bits of the cotton seed or plant that have not been combed out in the process. Because muslin is not refined or processed like many other cottons, it is usually one of the least expensive textiles you can find and best of all, it takes dyes beautifully because it still exists in its natural form.
Muslin originally referred to a coarser kind of cotton, usually a bit on the heavy side, although modern muslin varies widely in thread count and weave. The inexpensive, very loose weaves are not suitable for clothing or quilting.
Needles : It is important to use the right needle for each task, whether sewing by hand or machine. Straight hand needles tend to be labeled indicating their use and have only three variables: length, eye size and thickness of shaft. In many cases, the only thing you have to consider is whether the thread will go through the eye and the needle will go where you need it to go. For example, when beading, it is important to know that the threaded needle will pass through the center of the bead. Specialty hand needles can be extra long for basting or bent in different shapes to complete specialty tasks such as doll making.
Machine needles are labeled with both American and European sizes. They are also often labeled as to type, such as ball point, topstitch, quilting and universal. The size of the eye can vary from one type of needle to another. There is a groove on the needle which guides the thread into the eye. A thicker thread or a more fragile one, like a metallic thread, will need a better groove.
When you are sewing by hand, you can always tell when a needle has a burr, gets rusty or has a dull point. It resists you when you try to take a stitch. Machine needles need replacing, too, but we are not as quick to recognize when they get dull. A good rule of thumb is to put a new needle in at the start of a new project or about every 10-14 hours of use. Ideally, a sharp needle slides between the threads of a fabric, but needle points get dull with use. When they get really flat on the end, you begin to hear a thunking noise as they punch their way through the fabric. Not only does this sounds bad, but it weakens your fabric.
You will find more detailed information and an excellent chart on needle use at www.superiorthreads.com/education/needles/needles-using-the-right-needle.
Perfect Seam Allowance: go to Seam Allowance below for instructions
Pieced: in this type of quilting, shapes are cut and sewn together to form a design. There is no background piece and the seams are hidden on the back side of the quilt top. Pieces may be geometric or may be curved.
Prewashing Fabric:Reasons why quilters prewash their fabrics:
- All cotton fabric shrinks, but it does not shrink at the same rate. Thus, if your border fabric happens to be a piece that shrinks at a higher rate than the interior, you could get more ripples than you planned on.
- Some fabric runs. I have seen wonderful quilts where the red or blue has rubbed or run into the light fabric after it is completed. The maker then either has to try everything to remove the stain or has to live with it.
- Washing removes the chemicals used to set the dye and THIS is the really important reason for prewashing. Almost no fabric is printed in this country. Overseas, they are still using chemicals that are illegal here because they are so unhealthy. One of those chemicals is formaldehyde.
- Have you ever ironed a fabric and noticed a terrible smell? That's the chemical in the fabric and inhaling it is unhealthy. If you store all your fabric unwashed, the chemical releases toxic fumes into the atmosphere of your room and you breath it. Eventually, your body will have enough and you will develop an allergy. The symptoms are not fun and they are not reversible. Why put yourself in that position?
- Those scrap quilts from our foremothers were often made from USED clothing. That means they were already washed. They got that puckered, loved look after they were quilted. If you wash and dry your fabrics before using them, your quilt will also pucker as you use it. It is not necessary to play Russian roulette with your health to get that look.
Process or Project class: a process class will teach you a technique or process, without necessarily involving any sewing at all. A project class will actually have a defined end, with a finished product.
Quarter Inch Foot: a special sewing machine foot used to sew scant quarter-inch seams for quilt construction. There are many varieties, and some are better than others in accuracy. You should test it before you buy one.
Quarter Inch Seam Allowance: this is the standard seam allowance in quilting. It reduces bulk in the finished work, making it easier to quilt over the surface. It is very important that this seam allowance remain consistent. Variations of even a couple threads often cause blocks that are not square and points that disappear. Here are some hints on perfect seam allowances.
Quarter Square Triangles: a square cut in half on the diagonal and then cut again from the other diagonal gives your 4 triangular pieces. These are referred to as quarter square triangles.
Quilt Sandwich: this term refers to the three layers that make up a quilt: the pieced or appliquéd top, the batting and the backing. Batting and backing are usually cut 2" bigger all around than the quilt top. This is the same as batting a Quilt. Basic instructions.
Rotary Cutter: this tool looks like a pizza wheel and contains an extremely sharp blade capable of cutting through multiple layers of fabric. For more information about a rotary cutter and how to use it safely and correctly, see this tutorial: Rotary Cutting
Rotary Ruler: - made out of Plexiglas, these rulers partner with the rotary cutter to give clean, straight edges on multiple geometric shapes. To have maximum usefulness, they should be marked down to 1/8" increments. Lip features make them harder to use.
Satin Stitch: a zigzag stitch done very close together to form a closed line of stitching. Can be wide or narrow. Good to finishing raw edges of appliqué or adding texture to pictorial quilts
Seam Allowance: the amount of fabric that is hidden inside a sewn unit. It is the fabric between the stitches and the edge of the fabric. In quilting, it is usually very important to have a perfect 1/4". Here's how
Self Healing Mat: used with the rotary cutter, this mat protects your table surface during cutting. They seal themselves after use for several years. They must be stored flat, not in sunlight or around a heat source, and should not be rolled or bent, either in hot or cold weather. The best mats have a smooth semi-hard finish so that the blade of the rotary cutter does not feel like it is sinking into the surface while in use.
Selvedge : the bound edge on the side of fabric where you can find the manufacturer's name, content and fabric name. You may also see a row of colored dots which show exactly what colors were used in the fabric. These are registration marks used when printing the fabric but can be useful for finding coordinating fabrics. The weave of this area is tighter and will pucker after washing, so it should never be sewn into garments or quilts. You can cut it off after you have cut your strips.
Shadowing: this is when a dark fabric shows through a lighter color. When this happens in the seam allowance of pieced blocks, you can grade away the dark seam to reduce the problem. It can also happen when lighter elements in appliqué are laid over darker elements. In this case, you can line the light fabric with a very light interfacing that does not extend into the seam allowance.
Sleeves: To hang a quilt on the wall, it needs a sleeve sewn on the back. Quilt shows also require a sleeve. This should be a tube of fabric to protect the quilt from damage from the hanging rod. We have instructions for making a sleeve here: how to make a quilt sleeve
Squaring Up: this is the use of a square ruler used on units, blocks or quilt tops to assure a right angle in all the corners. It is important to make sure that this is done, rather than using only a straight edge. Using just a straight edge, it is possible to end up with a parallelogram or some other non-square shape. Read squaring up for a detailed explanation.
Stitch in the Ditch - this term means that you are quilting in the seams between blocks or pieces. It can be used when you want the quilting stitches to be inconspicuous. STID (a common abbreviation) can also be used to stabilize a large quilt before more decorative quilting is added. It is best to use this only if you have pressed your seam allowances to one side. You never want to sew in the seam line if the seam has been pressed open. You will be sewing over nothing but the threads holding the pieces together.
Straightening Fabric - If the cross grain (weft) threads and the lengthwise grain (warp) threads do not lie at a right angle to each other, your fabric needs to be straightened. You can determine whether this is required by tearing off a strip. If the tear is at right angles to the selvedge, there is no need to straighten it. However, if it is not, pull on opposite corners to pull it back into a square shape.
Stretcher Bars - for some types of dyeing and fabric painting, fabric must be stretched taut and held motionless. Bars can be purchased or easily made at home. Click for a mini-lesson on making your own bars.
Symmetry: a type of design where one side exactly duplicates the other. An 8-pointed star block is symmetrical because no matter how you rotate it, it looks the same. Churn Dash is another example of a symmetrical block.
Templates: these can be made out of paper, cardboard, plastic or metal, depending on how they will be used. The are like pattern pieces, giving you something to draw around so that you can accurately replicate any shape. They can be used for piecing, appliqué and quilting designs. For a quick lesson on making your own templates for piecing, click here.
Top : term for the completed top layer of a quilt, before it has been joined to the batting and backing in preparation for quilting.
Turn of the Cloth: a tailoring term, referring to the entire dimension of a seam, including: the seam allowance, the actual line of stitching, and the fold created when pressing the seam open or to one side. For quilting purposes, all three must equal 1/4". (If you sew an ACCURATE 1/4" seam, this ends up being about 2 threads too deep, due to the turn of the cloth.)
Tunneling: This is when the fabric bunches up under the stitches when using a zigzag stitch on your sewing machine. The stitches pull the fabric in causing the fabric to bunch and thus a tunnel effect happens. Usually we do not want this effect. Read this tutorial on how to avoid it: What is tunneling and how to avoid it.
Units: this is the term used to describe the pieces within a quilt which can be sewn together to prepare for sewing the entire block. For example, in the block below, you will first sew two half square triangles together to form unit 1. There will be TWO of this unit, one with a red half square triangle and one with a blue half square triangle. Each of those will be sewn to a plain square of light blue to form unit 2. Those two units will be sewn together to create unit 3. You would construct the other unit in a similar manner, then sew the 4 assembled units to create the completed block. Every time you sew two pieces together, you should square them to the required size before sewing them to the next unit. See Squaring Up.
Value Finder: this is a tool that lets you look at fabric and see only its lightness or darkness. Red finders let you view anything but red. Green finders let you view anything but green.
Y-Seams - Y-seams are also known as Inset Seams. They are most commonly found where diamond-shapes are sewn together as in Baby Blocks or 8-Pointed Stars. Three seams come together at one intersection and all of them must start from the same place. Read the mini-lesson.
Washing Batting - Batting made with cotton or wool will shrink. On a full sized quilt, this could be 3"-6", depending on the kind of batting. Not only this will create a lot of crinkling but it substantially changes the size of your quilt. Even quilts where all the fabric and batting has been prewashed will get that soft wrinkled look when laundered.
Prewashing batting is done with no soap. You just want to get it wet and put it in the dryer. You need a top loading washing machine. Put the batting in gently, loosely arranging it around the center in the tub. Fill the tub and turn the machine off. You do NOT want it to agitate at all. If you think you might forget, fill the tub first, turn the machine off and then push the batting down into the water. It will take a bit of pushing and time since the batting will resist absorbing the water. You can use a wooden or plastic spoon in the winter when water is cold. I let it sit about 15 minutes to become saturated.
When the batt is thoroughly wet, advance the control to SPIN and let it spin out the water. Remember, you are skipping any cycle that might agitate the batting. That will tear it apart.
Gently, lift the batting out of the washer and dry it on whatever temperature you would use if washing a quilt. I generally use Permanent Press. The idea is to preshrink the batting.
Zigzag stitch: machine stitch that goes side to side. Can be wide or narrow. Good for joining pieces together on the surface or for a rough finishing edge. It can also be used with invisible thread for machine appliqué. When used many stitches to the inch, it is called satin stitch. That can provide a decorative finished edge to appliqué. No fabric shows through when you are using a satin stitch.