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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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Tissue paper?
by: Lorraine

Could you just use tissue paper so that the batting won’t catch, and it will tear away completely when you’re done before attaching the real backing?

From the Editor:

Great question and good reasoning, Lorraine!

Off the top of my head, I would think it would work. To be sure (and not get myself stuck unnecessarily), I'd make a small practice quilt sandwich and mimic the quilting I intended to do on the quilt. Walking foot, straight line, free motion...just to make sure that the tissue paper I intended to use would rip or fall apart as I stitched through it.

Then when I was satisfied it would perform as I needed it to, then I'd move on to the quilt.

Testing is always a quilter's best friend!

Excellent question!



another option
by: Anonymous

I am not a good free motion quilter so use an old polycotton flat sheet as the backing to do the free motion on the top of quilt. Then add the good backing last and hand tie the finished quilt.
I cannot afford to pay for the quilt to be professionally quilted so i find you get a very good result doing this.

Just what I was looking for!
by: Anonymous

I'm going to be making a baby quilt with a minky fabric as the backing. I didn't want to quilt through the minky fabric but still wanted to have the top quilted. This was exactly the answer I was looking for!! I'm going to definitely use the muslin and then add the minky backing once I'm done.

Hiding my stitching
by: Trish

Thank you so much! I am making my first quilt, a oversized king patchwork quilt. I realized half way through that the back of the quilt looked terrible. I wasn’t thinking about both sides as I stitched. So, as I complete the quilting of the last couple of squares, I was wondering if I could add a layer to hide it. You have answered my prayers!

Thank you so so much from this newbie quilter.

From the Editor: You are most welcome! The Internet can be such a help when you're learning something new. It's terrific to be a part of it.


Julie Baird

False back to hide stitches
by: Anonymous

If you use a false back like muslin to hide your stitches, do you leave it on or eliminate as much as you can before you put the real back on? In this case, if you leave it on your quilt will have 4 layers instead of the traditional 3.

From the Editor: Yes, the false back is left on the quilt to hide the stitches.

~ Julie

One quilt two different designs
by: Linda

I am planning on making one quilt with two different patchwork designs one on the front and one on the back. I will be quilting feathers and two other stitch designs in different areas on the one side of the quilt which I intend to stitch before adding batting. My question is how do I join the quilt together if my patchwork doesn't match on both sides (the designs are totally different and won't marry up) so won't be able to do stitch in the ditch as it will have an impact on the other side.

Any ideas would be appreciated.


From the Editor: Without seeing the quilts I'm at a loss to give any meaningful advice.

If it matters that both quilt sides be stitched to enhance the patchwork of each, if they were mine, I'd make them into two quilts. By quilting the one side with feathers (and 2 other designs) that will leave a big empty space on the second side that should probably have quilting in it for the structural integrity of the quilt. Other than re-quilting the spine or portions of the design, I'm just not sure how you'd get any quilting in those spaces.

I wish I was more help.


Julie Baird

Can I quilt a block without stabilizer?
by: Anonymous

I have a set of blocks I would like to quilt individual on my embroidery machine then put them together. Can I use my fabric backing instead of stabilizer?

I am not sure how to do this, I want my design to show on both sides.

From the Editor: I'd test this thoroughly before committing to the entire quilt.

My understanding of embroidery designs is that they're digitized to look perfect on the front side. That sometimes stitches are pulled a bit to the backside to do this.

Try a couple of test blocks to check that this IS NOT the case for the designs you've chosen.

If you find you need some stabilization for perfect embroidery, I suggest starching the blocks.

Again, testing is important.

If you did a bleed test on your fabrics before piecing, you'll know that a liberal dose of starch won't cause the fabrics to bleed. If you pre-washed, there's a good chance they won't bleed, but pre-washing alone is not a guarantee of this.

After quilting, wash the whole quilt to remove the starch.

I hope this helps.


Julie Baird

Quilting to batting only.
by: Anonymous

Thank you. Very helpful!

making both sides of the quilt pop
by: Linda

I am wanting both sides of my quilt to pop (stand out in quite a few places) although both sides of the quilt are of the same theme, they are also quite different, the front is a quilt panel scene and the back is also a panel but is made like a patch work quilt with different size patches. None of the front stitching will match the back of the quilt. I fully understand about using either a stabilizer or muslin to basically stabilize the fabric before joining all three layers together

My question is after I have made both front and back pop how do I then join the the layers together without interfering/impacting with either the front or back of the quilt stitching,

I hope this makes sense.

Many thanks,


From the Editor:
If I understand correctly you're quilting two separate quilts so that you can have each quilted as you want them. Then putting the two individual quilts together.

The problem being how to join them so that you don't interfere with the quilting on each very different side.

The only thing that comes to mind is to use a fusible webbing like maybe Misty Fuse (very light weight fusible web) to literally turn the two layers of batting into one. Then go back and add hand tacking in strategic places to further strengthen the bond.

The downside...I can't guarantee how strong the bond will be.

If I was to pursue this idea, I'd try it first in a small quilt or tablerunner. Make the whole thing and then launder it as you normally would to test the 'sturdiness' of the sandwiching.

Readers, please join in and share your ideas on this project.



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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