Patchwork Tops - Where to Quilt them.

This is something that crops up time and time again and from talking to people it soon becomes clear that most of the confusion and difficulties come from a lack of knowledge and awareness of the quilting process itself. With that in mind, and with the help of some historical information I hope to be able to shed some light onto the ‘where’ and the ‘why’ of quilting a patchwork top, rather than the method of quilting used.

The first thing to look at is the actual construction of Patchwork.

It is not a single depth of fabric, although in places it is! On the other hand there are the seams to deal with where the pieces are joined together, these can vary from 3 thicknesses of fabric to at least double that where the seams meet.

Next to consider, and often overlooked, is the ‘grain’ of the fabrics contained within the patchwork. Unlike a complete piece of fabric, such as is used for a wholecloth quilt, these will, by the very nature of patchwork, be lying in different directions.

Also, another overlooked factor is the stitching of the patchwork pieces together. If this is something that you are unaware of a little trick is to take 5 or 6 strips of fabric, say 1” x 12”, and stitch them all together, side by side, and starting at the same end each time. The nature of the mechanism of the sewing machine will result in something which is not square but shifts off at an angle.

Now consider the effect that this could have on your piecing?

Paper Piecing tops can have their ‘grain’ going in many different directions. Even the sewing together of the pieces can have a variation depending on the evenness of the sewing together of the pieces. How many people when producing Paper Pieced Tops mark the grain line on their papers and line their fabric pieces up with that??

Next the Backing Fabric/Fabrics

Is it a whole piece of fabric or also of a pieced construction? If it is cut from a complete piece of fabric then it is important to get that matching up with the top.

A pieced backing, whether it be pieced all over or just a couple of seams to make it large enough will give you the same considerations as a pieced top with regards to the thickness caused by seams and the grain alignment of the fabric.


Historically, patchwork tops were either NOT quilted, simply backed and used as decoration OR quilted only in the areas where there were only one thickness of fabric on the top, pieced section. It was, and still is for some designs, quilted ¼” from the seams, this being because the seam allowance for patchwork is normally ¼” and the quilting stitches designed to hold all 3 layers together could be situated where there was no additional ‘bulk’ in the top fabrics caused by the seams.

As technology in both needles, threads and methods of quilting developed it became possible for patchwork tops to feature ‘all over’ quilting. But even with these advances care needs to be taken when changing from the sections where there are less layers of fabric. These will vary with the chosen quilting method and can range from changing to a stab stitch from a running stitch for hand work to minute alterations in foot pressure for some methods of machine quilting.

Quilting in the Ditch

This is something that is heard about frequently and I think there is a lot of confusion about what it actually is. So let’s start with a simple explanation. The ‘ditch’ is the place in patchwork where two sections are joined together. On one side there will be a single thickness of fabric and on the other three thicknesses ( as it comprises the piece that can be seen plus the two seams which have been pressed to one side).

In some patchwork patterns where the seams are pressed open there will be no actual fabric in the ‘ditch’ just the area where the stitches are joined together.

Despite some research I cannot find a definitive answer to how or why this method developed but I can share some of the ‘pitfalls’ of using it.

When using this method the quilter will need to change from side to side of each patch so that they are sewing on the side without the seams or the stitching will show on some areas and not on others. There are also the joins in the patches to consider where there can be a significant number of layers of fabrics in a small area and only 1 in another so that is a big step up or down to consider. If it is used on areas where seams are pressed open then the quilting is covering the ‘weakest’ point in the top and not actually being quilted through any of the top fabrics.

Quilting Patterns

As anyone who has seen my work will know I like to create an overall quilting pattern that will not only complement the pieced top but could also stand alone and be transferred to a whole cloth. I am only able to do this because of the development in threads and needles. There is no reason why different methods of quilting cannot be combined to quilt a patchwork top as long as the understanding of how each method will affect the patchwork is taken into consideration. This holds true for needles and thread. A thicker needle may leave holes in delicate fabrics. Threads need to be able to be strong enough to be pulled through the many layers of fabrics and wadding without shredding or breaking.

Does the quilting pattern enhance the patchwork design or do they clash. Is the stitch length suitable for the method of quilting and the place on the patchwork where it is to be situated?

I hope that this has given you some insight into what to consider when planning your quilting of patchwork and that whatever level you are with your quilting I have included something which you may have not considered and which will help you with your latest or next project.