If you're new to stitching, you may have difficulty differentiating between quilting and embroidery. While both feature a needle and a thread, they each have their own unique processes and outcomes. So what exactly is the difference between quilting and embroidery?
What Is Quilting?
Quilting refers to stitching together three layers of fabrics to create a decorative padded material. Each layer serves its own specific purpose:
The top fabric: Also known as the quilt top, this layer is made of patches of colorful fabric that give the quilt a decorative look.
The middle layer: Often called the padding, the middle layer consists of insulating material that provides extra warmth.
The bottom layer: The bottom, or backing, is made of plain fabric and serves as the underside of the quilt.
Most quilting is done using either straight stitches or free motion quilting.
What Is Embroidery?
Embroidery refers to the art of embellishing fabric using decorative stitches. It comes in a wide range of colors and can be found across several items, including:
The decorations can either follow established embroidery designs or be done by free motioning. To better understand the differences between quilting and embroidery, let's take a closer look at the various techniques, types of threads and machines used in each process.
Quilting Techniques vs Embroidery Techniques
A number of different quilting and embroidery techniques have emerged over the years. While some have failed and been abandoned, others have grown and progressed to the standards we follow today.
Here are some of the most popular quilting techniques.
Hand quilting is the process of stitching fabric pieces together by hand to form a quilt. The primary goal is to create stitches that will bind the three different layers of fabric together. While free hand-quilting, a quilter uses a quilting frame or hoop to hold the fabric off their lap. They then use a thread and needle to stitch across.
The type of stitching used here is often referred to as stab stitching or straight line stitching. In this process, the quilter pushes the needle through the fabric from one side and then pushes it back from the other side to complete the stitch. They continue with this method, resulting in straight lines of stitches.
Another stitching technique commonly used in hand quilting is rock stitching. In this process, a quilter wears a thimble on one finger, places their hand on top of the quilt and then uses the other hand to push the needle from the bottom of the quilt, rocking it back and forth as they work. This method can help keep the stitches neat and even.
In machine quilting, a quilter uses a quilting or sewing machine to easily attach different layers of fabric together. The quilt top, middle insulation layer and quilt bottom are tacked together or pinned on a flat surface before being pieced together with straight stitches (this process is also known as straight line quilting). Machine quilting tends to be both faster and more proficient than hand quilting, and it allows users to experiment with different machine feet, stitches and quilting techniques.
Free Motion Quilting
Like regular machine quilting, free motion quilting is performed by a quilting or sewing machine and relies on stitches to connect the different fabric layers. The major difference is that this type of quilting offers a wider range of freedom in terms of design. A small needle is held in place above the quilt by a free motion foot or darning foot, which lets the quilter move the fabric in any direction they want. Free motion allows for straight, circular or even wavy quilting stitches.
For bulky quilting projects or projects that require a large amount of material, it's advisable to use the longarm quilting technique. Using large sewing machines with quilting heads that extend 10 to 14 feet, longarm quilting lets the worker create a king-sized quilt in a matter of minutes. The machine can sew all three layers of a quilt at once and even gives you the option to guide the quilting head by hand or by automation.
Here are some of the leading techniques used to decorate fabric.
Counted Thread Embroidery
This embroidery style requires the embroiderer to count the threads of the fabric they're using before working each stitch over every thread. Counting the threads helps determine which size stitches to use and the size of the finished embroidery. The counted thread embroidery technique is especially common for even-weave fabric and canvas projects.
In this technique, the embroiderer creates new patterns on a piece of fabric by using different types of stitches to make a design outline. The job is finished by overlapping the back stitches. Some of the stitches commonly used on the design outline include:
Chain stitch (results in looped stitches that resemble a chain)
Stem stitch (forms a thin line that outlines shapes)
Outline stitch (similar to the stem stitch, but the working thread is held above the line of stitching)
Backstitch (the needle punctures the fabric behind the previous stitch, resulting in more durable stitches)
Whitework embroidery, often referred to as French laid work, is stitching that uses a thread that's the same color as the foundation fabric. This embroidery technique is most commonly seen with white fabric, in which the stitches are made using white floss.
Candlewicking is a classic embroidery technique. Traditionally, it calls for an unbleached cotton thread that's used to create designs and patterns on a piece of muslin (a lightweight cotton cloth). However, it's not restricted to the white or natural fabric — the style can be used with any color.
In this embroidery technique, the embroiderer takes different shapes of fabric — such as strips, squares and triangles — and stitches them together, either by hand or machine, to form a larger fabric design. Ideally, the patches of fabric should feature different colors that create a vibrant look when combined.
Quilting Threads vs Embroidery Threads
The distinction between a quilting thread and an embroidery thread is so fine that a novice in the sewing industry might have difficulty telling them apart — the threads can even be used interchangeably in some cases. However, there are a few fundamental differences between the two, mainly in four aspects: strength, material, weight and sheen.
Strength-wise, quilting threads have the edge over embroidery threads. Quilting threads are designed to keep three layers of fabric firmly in place, while embroidery threads are designed for the surface embellishment of fabric.
The ideal quilting thread is made from 100% natural cotton fiber, while embroidery threads are typically made of rayon or polyester. However, it's not uncommon to find a quilting thread that has a polyester core or an embroidery thread made of silk or cotton.
Both threads are in the 35 to 40 weight range. However, quilts made with heavy fabrics tend to use threads of a higher weight class — for instance, paper piecing (in which a printed pattern is used as a base and stitched on directly) requires the use of the 50-weight quilting thread.
Sheen and Finish
The sheen refers to the luster or shine of the thread. Embroidery thread usually has a higher sheen as a result of its looser twists. Quilting threads, on the other hand, are stiff and have a low sheen.
Quilting Machines vs Embroidery Machines
While hand quilting and embroidery are fun and creative pastimes, they're also time-consuming and can be easy to mess up (particularly for people new to the art). The first sewing machine was developed in the late 1700s in an effort to increase efficiency and conserve time. Modifications were made over time, and soon different types of machines evolved and flourished.
Sewing machines help speed up the sewing process by using an electric motor, feed dogs and presser feet to move the fabric along the stitches. The feed dog is a metallic element inside the needle plate that shifts the fabric back and forth between stitches, while the presser foot holds the fabric in place. Some sewing machines also have a needle position option that helps guide the presser foot and lets you shift the needle to your desired spot. A popular option is the left needle position, which helps feed the fabric into the machine smoothly.
Given its versatility, many people make quilts using a standard sewing machine. However, the quilting capabilities of a regular sewing machine are limited. Quilting machines cater specifically to quilting projects by offering a larger workspace that helps handle bulkier material.
There are two main types of machine quilting: straight line quilting and free motion quilting. The former has a walking foot feature that serves as a second pair of feed dogs, enabling you to feed through multiple quilt layers and slippery fabrics. It also holds the quilt in place as straight stitches are performed. Conversely, if you're doing free motion quilting, the machine typically comes with a darning foot that gives you a wide range of motion while minimizing skipped stitches. There's also an open toe version of the machine that lets you achieve more accuracy and precision by setting the needle to the left foot position.
Other features of a quilting machine worth considering include the number and styles of stitches offered, the sewing speed and the stability features of the machine. If you're handling a project that requires a narrow seam allowance, a quilting machine with a quarter-inch foot will do the trick.
Just like with quilting, standard sewing machines can also be used for embroidery projects. Budding embroidery hobbyists are usually content with a regular sewing machine or a "sewing combo" machine that lets you both sew and add decorative accents. However, the more experienced commercial embroiderers and tailors typically prefer a computerized sewing and embroidery combo machine.
There are a number of different embroidery machines currently on the market. Some of the factors you should consider before choosing one include:
Hoop and multi-loop capability
Presence and number of built-in stitches
Built-in designs of the machine
Start Sewing Today!
Now that you understand the difference between quilting and embroidery, it's time to start your own project! Whether you're looking to create a quilt or add some embroidery to a blanket, you'll benefit from using high-quality and durable materials. At Stitchin' Heaven, we offer over 10,000 materials, including unique fabrics, speedy machines and an assortment of quilting kits. Take a look through our site to learn more!