Hand quilting is relaxing to do (once you have got the hang of it!), and gives beautiful results, which are different to those obtained by a sewing machine.

Maybe you would like to try it, but are not sure where to start? This is the first in a series of blog posts, in which I will discuss suitable fabric. Future posts will cover Wadding, threads, hoops, marking, transferring designs, and finally stitching.

Any fabric can, in theory be hand quilted, but the most popular choice is medium-weight cotton fabric.

Amish Baskets
Try “needling” the fabric

The cotton fabrics that you use for patchwork should be suitable for hand quilting, but you will struggle if it is tightly woven (such as batiks) or too heavy (e.g. furnishing fabrics), so it is a good idea to test if it will “needle” easily.

Just “stitch” in and out several times with an unthreaded needle, and then pull it through. If this felt stiff and difficult just with the top fabric, then it’s going to be worse with the wadding and backing as well – so choose something more suitable. Don’t forget to test your proposed backing fabric too – purchased sheets for example are often a very tight weave, so are not really suitable for hand quilting.

Patterned or Plain?

Ohio Star block enhanced by simple quilting

Highly patterned fabrics will not show up the quilting stitches very well – compare how the stitching shows up on the two fabrics in this Ohio Star block . For your very first attempt, this can be an advantage, as you will not be tempted to keep unpicking it if it looks uneven! However, once you are starting to feel more confident, plain or semi-plain fabrics are a better choice, as they will show up your quilting nicely.

So, if you have already made a patchwork top with the usual quality of cotton fabrics, you could choose to hand quilt it.

Something simple like the Ohio Star above is ideal. Outline quilting the pieces ¼ ” away from the seam lines is a good place to start.

Choose which parts you want to stand up most – and outline quilt on the other fabric to squash it down in comparison.

Pieced or wholecloth?

Ship Ahoy pencil case

I would not recommend hand quilting anything that is made up of a very large number of small pieces, such as complicated foundation piecing, as there are too many seams to stitch through – and to be honest, there will be enough interest in the patchwork to make elaborate quilting a distraction.

This little lighthouse is less than 3″ square – and I certainly wouldn’t try hand quilting it.

Catherine Wheel

A project where you don’t need to stitch across many seams is easiest. I chose to quilt simple parallel lines in the pale background background of this Catherine Wheel. The direction of the lines enhances the swirling feel of the design.

Irish Chain lap quilt

This quilting motif fills the empty space

Designs such as Irish Chain are ideal for hand quilting, as a motif can be chosen which fills the large, blank areas.

I used plaids for this quilt, but chose a low contrast pale fabric so that the quilting motif could be seen better.

A wholecloth quilt is one which has no patchwork, but where all the design interest lies is in the quilting.

Plain fabric shows the quilting up best. Fabrics with a slight sheen to them, such as cotton sateen, have been particularly popular for wholecloth quilts for over a hundred years, as they catch the light, and show up the texture of the quilted surface beautifully.

Centre of Blue Paisley Welsh wholecloth

Have a look at this blog about antique wholecloth quilts to see some lovely examples, or click to see some in my own collection.

Fabrics other than cotton can be successfully used.

Amy Emms, who kept the tradition of North Country quilting going through the mid twentieth century, had a particular fondness for polyester satin, as seen if you click on this link to a tea cosy in the Quilters Guild Collection.

I used a burgundy wool fabric for this hand quilted cushion.

This page is part of a set about Hand Quilting Basics

Click on the links to discover more:



  1. Ami Richards

    I really enjoyed reading your article and found it informative. Being relatively new to sewing / quilting (just 2 years) I haven’t tried any hand quilting anything yet. However I look forward to reading all your other parts and then maybe I might bite the bullet (needle!) and give it a go.

    1. Carolyn Gibbs Post author

      Thank you Ami – glad you are getting tempted to try this lovely technique. If you are a relative beginner, you might find some of my other posts in this Hints & Tips section helpful too, if you have enjoyed my style.

  2. Eve Nicholls

    Great article! There are a few things I feel differently about, which is always good starting point for discussion.

    Batiks – vary a lot. Don’t dismiss them out of hand, plenty of us are happily hand-quilting them. The needling test is an excellent idea. I’ve come across a few batiks that are very stiff and hard to needle, and they stay that way, so if you notice a fabric is like that and you plan to hand-quilt, don’t use much of it. In general, they’re a bit harder to needle at minimum, so factor that in when considering batting choice, which type of needle and thread you’re using, and whether you have disabilities that make it harder to quilt.

    Using semi-plain or plain fabrics – yes, they show up quilting better, but there is absolutely no need to limit yourself to those if you are hand-quilting, because there is usually a way to make the quilting show up. Thread thickness and stitch size make a big difference. If you are using thin thread and tiny stitches, the quilting is more likely to show up as a sort of indented line, whereas with perle 8 thread and big stitch quilting, you can see the quilting line clearly, especially if you pick a contrasting colour for your thread. And if the batting is quite puffy, the stitching will show up even more. I’ve quilted extremely busy, large-print fabrics where the quilting shows up nicely.

    It’s advisable to make sure your quilting shows up well when you’re a beginner, even though you may be tempted to hide it, because you need to see how it looks in order to get your stitches even. Whether you are going for big stitches or small stitches, stab stitch or rocking stitch, it’s the evenness that’s crucial.

    It’s lovely to see Welsh quilting in this article. It’s definitely my favourite quilting tradition. I hope we’ll see modern quilting shown as well.

    1. Carolyn Gibbs Post author

      Thanks for your comments Eve – I know that you are an experienced hand quilter, but perhaps with a different style to mine! I am very much in the traditional camp for my own work, but it’s lovely to see hand quilting being used in more modern ways as well.