A lesson in the basic elements of a quilt

The word quilt or quilting is confusing because of all the different meanings the word has.  To explain to you how tricky quilting terminology is I present to you this perfectly accurate description of a quilter:

Quilter: One who quilts and spend many hours quilting. Some people only make quilt tops and engage a quilter to do the quilting. Other quilters do their own quilting. 

 Yes, understandable right!? Let me explain some words in this sentence:

  • Quilt: the finished project. It is a blanket consisting of three layers which are sewn together through quilting
  • Quilting: Technically speaking, the verb quilting means sewing through the three layers of a quilt. Piecing is the term used for sewing fabric pieces together into a quilt block and quilt top. However, quilting is also used as a general term to describe every part of the quilting process. This includes all the steps from picking out fabric to putting on the final border of the quilt.
  • Quilter: Someone engaged in making quilts, be it as a hobbyist or a professional. Some quilters only make quilt tops, others finish the quilt tops for other people professionally.

Many of the readers of my blog already know about quilting because they are quilters themselves. However, for the people who don’t, I’ll delve into the different elements of a quilt in this post. I aim to inspire people to start making quilts. Basic knowledge is required for that. See these tutorials if you want to give quilting a go:

However, you don’t have to be disappointed in this post when you are an experienced quilter, I’ll use many fabulous quilts as an example. This will give you plenty of visual pleasure to enjoy this post.

What are the parts of a quilt?

There are four major components of a quilt:

  1. A quilt top > the front of the quilt
  2. The batting and backing > the padding and back.
  3. The quilting > Which keeps the three layers together
  4. The border > The sides which ties the quilt together

I’ve already talked about some of those parts before in this post where I talk about how to make a scrap quilt:

There is also a glossary with explanations of quilt and embroidery terminology:

1. The quilt top

A quilt top is the complete front piece of your quilt. A quilt top consists of several components, namely the quilt blocks and sashings. A quilt top either consists of one big quilt block or multiple quilt blocks combined and put together. The picture below shows a quilt top of a small bookcase quilt. Each book is a different block and you could call the brown shelving a sashing.

1.1 A quilt block

A quilt starts with a quilt block. To make a quilt block a pattern is used. A pattern can be improvised or tailor-made. Also, the pattern can be big or small, abstract or life-like and everything in between. The choice of the pattern depends on the style of the quilter or the recipient.

A quilt block is pieced together with various techniques depending on the pattern. Techniques such as patchwork, foundation piecing, applique and English Paper Piecing are most commonly used.

The look of a quilt is greatly determined by the pattern choice together with the fabrics used to make the pattern. Below are three examples of a pattern. A pattern can be made with all the available quilting techniques.

1.2: The sashing

A quilt consists of either one big block, multiple quilt blocks placed directly next to each other or multiple blocks divided by a strip of fabric called the sashing. Sashing is used to help the quilt blocks stand out. Also, it gives the quilt a calm look.

1.3 The finished quilt top

Once all the quilt blocks are put together you have the completed quilt top. A quilt top is made from one big block or many different quilt blocks put together.

All those quilt blocks can be made from the same pattern or different ones depending on the design and preference of the quilter. For example, a sampler quilt consist of a lot of different blocks each made with a different pattern. This is to show your skills as a quilter or to teach the quilter many different techniques in one quilt. The Dear Jane Sampler quilt is a good example of that. The Splendid Sampler quilt by Pat Sloan and Jane Davidson is another good example of a quilt consisting of different blocks to teach the quilter new techniques.

Top five rows Dear Jane quilt sampler

However, a quilt can also consist of the same pattern repeated many times over. This is usually done for utility quilts because it gives a calming look and increases the speed of piecing. Those patterns can be made with the same colours or with different colour and fabric combinations. This depends on the choice of the quilter. The quilt below is Delilah designed by Jen Kingwell. Members of a quilt group each made this quilt. You can see how different each of them looks. 

Thes quilts below show the difference in using sashing or not:

And the quilt below shows the different look of using different size of sashing in one design. The design is inspired by the Gypsy Quilt by Jen Kingwell

Kenyan quilt block finished
Kenyan quilt block finished

Lastly, these quilts by Klazien Hoomans show the effect of using the same blocks over and over again in one quilt.


2. The batting and backing of a quilt

2.1: The batting

Batting is a filling usually made from wool, polyester or a blend which gives thickness and warmth to the quilt. However, some people also use bamboo or any other materials they can find. Cheaper options are to use old blankets or fleece blankets. Although, not every batting is easy to sew through. The best choice for batting depends on the purpose of the quilt and the technique used to make it. The batting comes in between the front (quilt top) and back (backing) of a quilt. Batting is sold in big roles.

quilt batting

2.2 The backing

The backing is the backside of the quilt. This part can be pieced as well, but usually consist of a big piece of fabric. Big pieces of fabric are used because it’s quicker and easier. The back is usually not on display so it doesn’t have to be intricate or super pretty. A lot of people buy big pieces of fabric they like as backing or they use old bedsheets.

For my Kenyan quilt, I am using the fabric below. The piece was almost big enough for the complete back so it saved me a lot of time piecing. I thank my mom for her good insight to advise me to do so.


3. The quilting of the quilt

Quilting is the verb for sewing through the three layers of the quilt. This keeps the layers from shifting and also makes the quilt stronger. This can be done in 3 ways: 1. by hand 2. by a domestic sewing machine 3. by a long-arm quilting machine.

The quilting design people use varies from quilt to quilt and from maker to maker. Sometimes the quilting becomes the focus of the finished project and sometimes the quilting is used to emphasise the pattern used instead.  Quilting in this style is not visible upon first glance. The pictures below show the different quilting styles.

In this project, quilting is an integral part of the design of the quilt.

Look behind the lines mini quilt
Look behind the lines mini quilt

In these quilt blocks, the quilting is hidden and used to enhance the quilt pattern.


2. The border or binding of a quilt

Adding the border, also called binding, is the last part in making a quilt. The border closes up the raw edges and gives the quilt a neat finished look. There are different styles to do so. The style in the photo is called ‘mitred corners’. This style is my personal favourite.


Conclusion: Now you know more about quilts!

This article holds all the basic knowledge you need to start to talk about quilting and to start your own quilt! Quilting is not hard, it only looks hard because it is clever. Quilting makes use of a handful of basic tools and techniques and by ingeniously combining them almost any kind of design is possible.

Some quilts don’t follow the ‘rules’ for a quilt set down in this post though, because, exceptions confirm the rule. I’ll end this post with some of those ‘rule breakers’. Can you see where they break the rules? The person who comments with the right answers quickest gets a pat on the back and a boatload of praise from me.


Chilling rag quilt turtle
Chilling rag quilt turtle

Some questions for you:

  1. Would you call yourself a beginning quilter or an experienced quilter?
  2. What is your favourite part of quilting?
  3. How would you describe your quilting style?

See my DeviantArt or Instagram (username: bella.g.bear.art) for more artwork and WIPs. You can also follow my blog by clicking on the button on the left or by filling in your email address. There will be a monthly update at the end of every month and a new blog post every Sunday or Monday.

Other places you can find me is email (Bellagbearart@gmail.com), Facebook (@BellaGBearArt Page).

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  1. I am an experienced quilter. My favorite part is the design and then sewing the final binding on because it is then done and can be enjoyed :-)! My quilting style has been improvisational over the last several years but I have been revisiting traditional piecing from time to time (following patterns).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like why you like attaching the binding :-). It is nice to have a mix of quilting patterns. To me, it seems the improvisational style is more true to what my soul wants to express. The more traditional piecing taps into the history and power of all the quilters who have gone before me. How does that work for you?


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