Quilts and Quiltmaking in America

Glossary of Quilt Terms

Appliqué -- A needlework technique in which a piece of cloth is sewn onto a larger piece.

Backing -- A piece of cloth forming the underside of a quilt. May be several pieces seamed together.

Batting -- see Filler.

Bell thread -- A brand of commercial thread sometimes used to tack, or tie, quilts.

Bias -- The diagonal direction on a piece of woven cloth. Cloth stretches more along the bias than in the directions parallel to the woven threads.

Binding -- One of a number of techniques for encasing the raw edges of a quilt. "Binding" also refers to a separate strip of fabric used to bind the edges of a quilt.

Block -- A basic unit of quilt construction, usually in the form of a square, which is typically repeated and combined in rows to form a quilt top.

Cards -- A pair of wooden paddles with rows of wire teeth designed to "card" raw cotton or wool, that is, to align the fibers and even out the fluffiness so that the fiber can be used as quilt batting or spun into yarn.

Cathedral Window -- A novelty technique in which squares of fabric are folded and sewn together in such a way that small pieces of contrasting fabric may be inserted to form a design of interlocking curves when many squares are sewn together. This technique, very popular during the late 1970s, creates a fancy, finished bedcover which does not require quilting.

Comfort -- see Comforter.

Comforter -- A thick, heavy quilt, designed to provide warmth.

Counterpane -- A general term for a bedspread, that is, a textile intended to serve as the visible top layer when a bed is made up with several layers of bedcovers.

Countypin -- A variant term for counterpane.

Crazy -- A patchwork technique in which irregularly shaped pieces of fabric are attached to a cloth foundation. Crazy quilts may be decorated with embroidered designs.

Cutaways -- Remnants from apparel factories, usually forming irregular shapes. Factories sometimes sell cutaways to quiltmakers, often by mail order.

Diamond dye -- A brand of commercially manufactured dyes for home use.

Domestic -- A term sometimes used for unbleached muslin, dating from the nineteenth century when printed fabrics were generally imported and plain fabrics were generally manufactured domestically.

Drafting -- The process of drawing a quilt design, often from a picture or an existing quilt, rather than using ready-made templates or patterns.

Fan -- A quilting design of repeated concentric arcs that forms an all-over stitching design usually unrelated to the design of the quilt top. Popular during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fan quilting is considered by some observers to be old-fashioned and undesirable in contemporary quiltmaking.

Fancy quilting -- A relative term for the process of making quilts in which the decorative function is paramount. Fancy quilts are usually considered by their makers to have value and meaning beyond their use as warm bedcovers. See also Plain quilting.

Feed bags -- see Sacks.

Filler -- The middle layer of a quilt, usually a fluffy layer of cotton, wool, or polyester, which makes a quilt warm and gives it a characteristic puffy look and feel.

Frame -- A device, usually made of lengths of wood, for holding the layers of a quilt taut so that they can be quilted together smoothly, without folds or puckers. In a full frame, the entire quilt is stretched out at the beginning and the side rails are rolled up in the quilt as portions are quilted. Other frames are designed to maintain a constant distance between the side rails, so that the quilt must be rolled and unrolled like a scroll until the quilting is completed. Quilt frames are sometimes hung by ropes from the ceiling so that they can be raised out of the way when not in use.

French knot -- An embroidery stitch formed by wrapping yarn around a needle as it is drawn through the cloth.

Hoop -- A large pair of wooden rings sized so that one fits inside the other, which is sometimes used instead of a frame to keep the layers of a quilt taut and even during the quilting process. A hoop is more portable than a quilt frame. It is similar to an embroidery hoop, although larger.

Lining -- see Backing.

Linsey -- A type of coarse, home-woven fabric typically having a cotton warp (lengthwise threads) and a wool weft (crosswise threads).

Marking -- One of various methods for transferring a design for quilting stitches onto a quilt top.

Mountain Mist -- A brand of commercial quilt batting available since the mid-nineteenth century and still sold by the Stearns & Foster Company of Cincinnati, Ohio. Quilt patterns were printed on the paper wrapped around the batting, providing quilters with a source of new patterns.

Muslin -- Historically, a fine cotton fabric used for clothing and home furnishings. In the twentieth century, the term "muslin" usually refers to an inexpensive woven fabric that has not been dyed and is available bleached (white) or unbleached (natural off white). Unbleached muslin has been very popular for quilt backing.

Padding -- see Filler.

Patchwork -- Usually refers generally to the process of combining fabrics to make a quilt top. Sometimes the term refers specifically either to appliqué or to piecing, but more often it includes both processes.

Pattern -- Refers generally to the elements repeated in the design of a quilt, and a particular quilt pattern typically has one or more names. The term is also used more specifically to refer to the set of templates (often paper or cardboard) with which the individual pieces of cloth are cut to form a particular patchwork design.

Piecing -- a needlework technique in which two pieces of cloth are joined together with a seam.

Plain quilting -- A relative term applied to the process of making quilts that are intended more for practical use as warm bedcovers than for decoration. Even plain quilts, however, typically display some aesthetic appreciation of color and pattern. See also Fancy quilting.

Quilt -- A textile bedcover typically formed of three layers: a decorated top, a plain backing, and a fluffy filling between them. The layers of a quilt are usually sewn together with stitches through all the layers; alternatively, they may be tied or "tacked" together with yarn knots.

Quilting -- Specifically, a needlework process in which layers of a quilt are attached to each other with continuous stitches, either by hand or with a sewing machine. More generally, the term refers to the entire process of making a quilt.

Roebuck catalog -- see Sears, Roebuck.

Running stitch -- A hand-needlework technique in which the needle accumulates several stitches on it before needle and thread are drawn through the cloth. The running stitch is used in both piecing and quilting.

Sacks -- Cloth containers in which animal feed, flour, sugar, salt, or other bulk commodities have been sold, which are then taken apart so that the fabric can be used for clothing, quilts, or other needs.

Sashing -- One term for the strips of fabric that are sometimes used to separate and join the blocks of a quilt.

Sears, Roebuck -- A company which pioneered mail-order merchandising in the late nineteenth century. Quiltmakers often used the pages from Sears catalogs as foundations for string patchwork.

Secret tacking -- A quilting technique in which the needle and thread travel through the filler between stitches. Secret tacking forms stitches that are farther apart than those produced by a running stitch, but closer together and less visible than the knots produced by tacking.

Silk -- Technically, silk is a protein fiber made by a particular type of caterpillar; however, the term also has been used to refer to synthetic fabrics, usually rayon, that imitate the luster of silk and were often marketed as "manmade silk."

String patchwork -- A utility needlework technique in which long, narrow sewing remnants are sewn to a paper or cloth foundation. String patchwork is similar to crazy patchwork, except that the "strings" are generally longer and narrower than pieces in a crazy quilt.

Strip -- A construction technique in which long, narrow pieces of cloth are joined lengthwise, sometimes with long rows of quilt blocks, to form a quilt top. The term "strip" is also used to describe the long pieces of fabric between blocks (see Sashing) or to describe the small, narrow remnants used in string patchwork.

Tacking -- Tying the layers of a quilt or comforter together with yarn knots. Thick bedcovers are often tacked instead of quilted.

Template -- A precisely measured, reusable model, often of paper or cardboard, which is used to size the individual pieces of cloth when they are cut for patchwork or to mark designs for quilting on a finished quilt top.

Thimble -- A small, dimpled cap, usually of metal, designed to fit over the end of the finger to protect it from injury as it repeatedly pushes a needle through cloth during sewing or quilting.

Top -- The uppermost layer, or "front," of a quilt, which is usually intended to be seen.

Tying -- see Tacking.

Wadding -- see Filler.

Wall hanging -- A quilt, usually smaller in size than a bedquilt, designed to be displayed vertically as a decorative element.

Whole cloth -- A bedcover or quilt in which the top is a single piece of cloth (or lengths of cloth joined together), rather than being made of patchwork. The top may be a printed fabric or decorated in some way.

Yo-yo -- a novelty technique in which circles of fabric are gathered into flat pouches and sewn together to make bedspreads or other items. The technique has roots in nineteenth-century handwork, but became very popular in the twentieth century.

Quilts and Quiltmaking in America