Tips for using “unusual” fabrics for quilt backing

April 29, 2014

What “unusual fabrics” have you used for a quilt backing? Perhaps some of these are on your list:

  • Bed Sheets
  • Polar Fleece
  • Blue Jeans
  • Double Knits
  • White-on-White Prints

You can probably name several more types of backing fabrics that are out of the ordinary – but are still popular choices among quilters. Some of those could be flannel, batik, Minkee, cotton sateen, and many more. While we can’t cover all the possibilities in this short space, we certainly can give you tips about dealing with some of the characteristics of each of these uncommon backing choices.

Bed sheets

For decades quilters have opted for the convenience of a bed sheet as backing fabric for quilts. After all, it’s one piece of fabric, reasonably priced, available in many colors, and can often be found in cotton! Some quilters sneer at the prospect of marrying quilt shop fabric with bed sheets in a quilt. Others see it as a frugal choice for budget-conscious quilters. Which side of the debate you are on does not matter for the purposes of this article.

What does matter is how you may handle a bed sheet should one come your way! First, educate yourself or your customer about the inherent characteristics of bed sheets. First, they are tightly woven; 180 threads per inch is now a “low” thread count in bedding terms, but is more than double the common thread count of normal quilting fabric at 78 threads per square inch. This tight thread density makes it difficult for a large longarm needle to pierce the sheet without tearing the fibers. If you make a quilting mistake and must “undo” some stitches, you may not be able to coax the needle holes closed.

In addition, if you must open up any existing seams in the sheet to make it fit the quilt or load properly on your frame, the factory-stitched holes may not recover, either. Shrinkage rates can be different between the quilt top and sheet backing. The quilt top and batting may try to shrink after the first wash, but the bed sheet may refuse to budge, resulting in a quilt that doesn’t lay as flat as you may like.

If you choose a bed sheet for backing, try washing it first to remove any sizing, and add a little fabric softener to help relax the fibers. Open up any seams before washing to encourage the needle holes to recover. When quilting, avoid over-tightening the fabric, which can cause tension issues. Try a thinner thread such as So Fine, and use a shorter stitch length to compensate for the needle’s tendency to flex in the tight weave.

Batik fabric

Batik fabric can behave much like a sheet due to its high thread count. Some of the above suggestions can help it work well as backing fabric. With either a sheet or batik as batting, you will have better tension if the batting is not densely compacted like Warm and Natural. The needle must work extra hard to penetrate the tight weave, and also to pierce the dense batting. This can increase bearding on the quilt back (areas where the batting pokes through on the back) as well as “pokies” or “flatlining” on the back of the quilt. Keep the quilt sandwich looser and use a shorter stitch length if possible. If you still struggle with tension, try a needle one size larger than your current one to give it more rigidity as it enters and exits the quilt.

White-on-white backing fabric

White-on-white backing fabric is notorious for creating tension problems. This fabric has small designs stamped on the main fabric using ink that creates a raised image on the fabric–it often looks like the design has been “painted” on the fabric. When this fabric is in the quilt top it poses very little issues. But when it moves to the back of the quilt, tension problems increase dramatically.

That’s because the longarm needle now penetrates this fabric from the “wrong side” to the “right side”, hitting the painted areas as it sews. This large needle then shatters the painted area, spreading flecks all over and creating tension headaches. The best solution in this case is to avoid the fabric for backing (unless you want lots of railroad tracks on the back of your quilt!) 🙂