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Machine Quilting without a quilt backing

by Laurel

Laurel writes...

I wish to quilt the top side of my project before I attach the back. I will be doing a meandering stitch.

It seems, however, that the stitches keep slipping.

Can this be done in the way I have explained?

Julie replies...


Now, I could read your question two very different ways. The first way, is that you want to decorate your quilt with the quilting stitches. Adding 'quilting' without a batting falls more into the category of machine embroidery. If you are merely trying to disguise or hide your quilting stitches by putting a false back onto your quilt, I'll address that, too, further down the page.

Here goes!

Use Quilting for Machine Embroidery

Your purpose is to enhance the surface of your quilt top. These stitches do not hold the layers of the quilt sandwich together. So instead of calling, or thinking of, this as 'quilting', let's refer to it, instead, as machine embroidery which is a better description. (More on this a bit further down the page!)

Psst! Here's the Secret!

As you've already ready experienced, quilting on a single layer of fabric just doesn't deliver the results you are after. The fabric wants to pucker up.

What's a quilter to do?

Why take a hint from our machine embroidering sisters and use a stabilizer.

Why Stabilize?

Typically sewers sew a seam with a line of stitching and two layers of fabric. And the seam looks nice (as long as the tension is balanced).

But run a single line of stitching through a single layer of our cotton quilt fabric and things start to get wonky. The more stitching you force between the threads, the wonkier it gets.

A stabilizer, well, stabilizes the fabric. It allows you to add more stitching without distortion.

For your purposes, here are a couple of methods I use to stabilize my fabric.
  • Starch: Mix a liquid starch like Sta-Flo with equal parts of water. (See Starch Quilt Fabric for how to apply the starch and prepare your fabric). The denser the stitching you want to add, the more applications or thicker starch mixture you may want to add or mix. You can literally starch your fabric 'stiff as a board' and still stitch through it.

    The good thing about starch is that it washes out. The bad thing about starch is that you must wash it out. You'll want to know before you remove the starch that you haven't used bleeding fabric.

  • Tear Away Stabilizers: These are meant to be removed after the stitching is complete. They feel like heavy paper and come in several weights. Again, the denser your stitching, the heavier weight you'll want. You may want to use a temporary spray adhesive like 505 spray or KK2000 to adhere the stabilizer to your fabric so that it doesn't shift, or you may find the a few strategically placed pins are all that's needed.

    Some tearaway stabilizers are 'sticky backed' or sticky after they are moistened. You'll pay for this convenience.

  • Dissolve-able Stabilizers: These stabilizers come in two forms—one washes away completely and the other merely falls apart, leaving a fine layer of fiber within your quilt sandwich. To learn more about these kinds of stabilizers see Water Soluble Stabilizer Demystified. Just like the tearaways, you can either use a temporary spray adhesive or pins to hold this stabilizer in place.

    The dissolve-able stabilizer will completely disappear after your quilt is washed. The water soluble will leave behind an almost imperceptible layer of fiber within the quilt after washing.

Quilting vs. Embroidery

As you've probably noticed, areas in your quilt with a lot of quilting stitches will visually recede. Areas with little quilting come forward.

Now if you add a lot of detail to your quilt, and you stitch it as 'quilting'—through all three layers—you've actually pushed that detail further into the quilt.

If your purpose is to bring visually forward those details created by stitching, then stitching before you add the batting is exactly how you want to proceed with your quilt.

Hiding the Quilting Stitches

If you're trying to hide your quilting stitches from view, then instead of quilting through the top and a layer of batting first and adding the backing later, try using a false back instead.

Exposed batting tends to catch or 'hang up' on your feet dogs, your presser foot—Walking or free-motion—, or anything else sticking out on your sewing machine. It's a pain.

Sandwich your quilt using a muslin, or some other lower cost (but not and your time are valuable...don't short change yourself with cheap quality!) backing fabric. Execute your machine quilting plan.

Could you use a stabilizer in place of this first backing?

Absolutely! Problem is, most commercial stabilizers are more expensive that the backing. Tearaways would need to be at least partially removed.

Now re-sandwich your quilt with a nice backing. At a minimum you'll want to go back and re-quilt the ditch quilting used initially to anchor the two layers together. You'll need enough re-quilting so that your piece will stand up to both use and washing.

I hope this information is useful to you as you plan your machine quilting for this project.

Readers, we welcome your suggestions. Please let us know your experiences using the 'post a comment' link below.

Comments for Machine Quilting without a quilt backing

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Quilting without backing
by: Gail

You answered a question about quilting without BATTING. I'd like to know if I can quilt a portion of my quilt through the batting before adding the BACKING. I have a large panel in the centre of my quilt that I would like to quilt to the batting only (because it would look a real mess on the back - I'll be partially outlining a fairy). Then I'd like to add the backing and "stitch in the ditch" the patchwork surrounding the panel.

Is this a bad idea?

It's a double bed size.

From the Editor: Further down on the page under "Hiding the Quilting Stitches", I addressed quilting without a backing as you describe.

In my personal experience, the batting wants to catch on my machine bed sporadically. I don't like that because it interferes with the flow of my free motion quilting. My preference is to use a false back, a simple muslin has worked for me in the past. I like my backs to look good, too!

~ Julie

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