Quilting Techniques

Get ready! You’ve got a number of options, some specialized lingo, and an amazing array of traditional and non-traditional quilting techniques, patterns, and tools available. So first, we’ll cover a few basics.

Types of Quilts

Quilts are typically categorized as either:

  • Pieced
  • Whole Cloth

But in addition to basic types of quilts, you have a variety of techniques to adorn your quilt.

Applique Quilt
c. 1850
The intricate floral design is cut and pieced
as needed, then meticulously stitched onto the
surface of the top piece.

A pieced quilt is one in which the top is highly decorative, comprised of other pieces of fabric which are sewn together. Common designs for pieced quilts include patchwork, crazy quilts, combinations of geometric forms, and forms from nature (birds, leaves, flowers, stars, moons).

A whole cloth quilt uses a single piece of cloth for the top, or if it is large, strips of the same cloth. These strips are sewn together to look like a single cloth surface, rather than multiple colors and fabrics as in the pieced quilt. The whole cloth quilt relies upon the beauty of the quilting stitches as its focus. White work quilts are whole cloth quilts done entirely in white fabric, to show off the quilter’s stitching skills.

A whole cloth or pieced quilt may include other elements of decoration and construction. These include appliqué, trapunto, and embroidery. Appliqué is a decorative design made out of fabric or lace which is then applied, transferred, or sewn onto another piece of cloth. Trapunto is a technique of adding padding to the underside of a quilted area, to give more of a noticeably sculptured dimension. This technique is often seen on whole cloth quilts. Embroidery is decorative stitching sewn into the surface of the cloth for additional embellishment. It is used in many sewing applications.

Hand Quilting Versus Machine Quilting

Both hand quilting and machine quilting require skill and practice. But if you can sew, you can quilt! And straight stitch sewing is all it takes to begin.

Some prefer hand stitching for the top piecing, and machine quilting when it’s time to put the “sandwich” of layers together. Others complete the entire process by hand, or, machine-stitch everything.

Trying to decide which method might be for you? Check out the Pros and Cons of each here:

Method Pros Cons
Hand Piecing
  • Portable
  • Tactile (relaxing)
  • More control for some quilters
  • “Traditional” quilters love the feel of the process in their hands
  • Much slower than machine piecing
  • Harder on the fingers and hands
  • Exact and strong stitches difficult for some
Machine Piecing
  • Fast
  • If you’re good at machine sewing, very exact
  • Strong
  • Stitches are identical
  • Much easier if using thick fabrics
  • Not portable
  • Not “traditional”
  • For some quilters, less “sense” of the activity because less tactile
Hand Quilting
  • “Traditional”
  • Occasion for group work, i.e. a quilting circle
  • Slow if only 1 person
  • Tedious work for some quilters
  • Requires hoop or frame
Machine Quilting
  • Fast
  • Easier on the hands
  • Easier for one person to do
  • Easier to go through medium and heavy weight batting
  • Easier to adjust to different fabrics and fabric thickness
  • For some, more control, and more exact
  • Less tactile
  • Not traditional
  • Requires sewing machine
  • Not explicitly “social”


Quilting is the term used for actually stitching together the top, middle, and backing. Quilting stitches are small, strong, and form an integral part of the design, but often, subtly. Most people use quilting stitches to secure all three layers together.

Quilting Machine Stitches
Close-up of quilting stitches
(machine quilting)

Another technique is tying. Rather than sewing through the quilt sandwich, yarn or thread ties are used to secure all three layers together.

Tying a Quilt
Close-up of Tying
Blue Yarn on Red and Black
Geometric, 1910
Collection of Shelly Zegart

Whether you choose hand quilting or machine quilting, your quilt stitching should make an attractive design both on the back and front surfaces of your quilt. Be sure to remember this when planning your quilting pattern.   

You will see a fine example of hand quilting in the next section, Quilt Designs.  

For more information on quilting terms and techniques, a wonderful glossary is available from the Public Broadcasting Service: http://www.pbs.org/americaquilts/index.html.  

Ready to start with a traditional pieced quilt? To learn more about patterns and designs to choose from, click next.

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