If you're new to stitching, you've probably wondered, "What's the difference between quilting and sewing?" Simply put, sewing is a broad category that encompasses any stitching of fabrics together with a thread and needle. Quilting is a specific type of sewing that involves attaching three layers of fabric together to create a padded material. The middle layer is usually insulating, which helps provide extra warmth. Here's a closer look at the differences between the two.
The practice of sewing has been around since the last Ice Age. Using animal bones and sinew, people would sew together hides and furs to create clothing and shelter. In 1790, Thomas Saint invented the first usable sewing machine. This machine has been adapted over the years, allowing for new and more advanced features.
Quilting has also been around for centuries — it can be dated back to ancient civilizations of China and Egypt. The layer of padding between two layers of woven cloth provided warmth, comfort and protection, which helped the quilt escalate in popularity. The invention of the sewing machine boosted sewing speed and made it easier to create quilts.
The Basics of Sewing
Sewing is a versatile practice that can be applied to many items, from seams and buttons to borders and decorations. A typical sewing kit comes with needles, scissors and shears, thread, marking tools and pins and pincushions. The needles found in basic sewing kits are known as "sharps" and have short round eyes (which refers to the hole at the top of the needle where the thread is tied). Sharps are not ideal for all sewing projects — for instance, embroidery projects require a needle with a larger eye.
Once you've gathered the materials, you can thread your needle, tie a knot to hold it in place and begin sewing.
Types of Stitches
There are several types of stitches that can be used in sewing, but the most common one is the straight stitch. Also known as the running stitch, this is usually the first type of stitch people learn. To complete it, simply pass the needle in and out of the fabric at regular intervals. The result is a straight line that can be used to hold two pieces of fabric together or create a design. Other common types of hand stitches include:
Back stitch (used for seams and decoration)
Darning stitch (used to repair worn-out threads and holes)
Embroidery stitch (decorative stitch used for designs)
Whip stitch (ideal for protecting edges)
Sewing machines come with their own types of stitches that can be executed more quickly. An example is the zigzag stitch, which is typically used to enclose fabrics and minimize fraying.
Depending on your project, there are a few different processes you may encounter while sewing. These include:
Weaving: During weaving, two sets of threads are interlaced at right angles to create a fabric.
Pattern making: This is used for creating unique designs. It involves tracing a pattern onto a garment, then cutting it out.
Alternations: Many sewing projects require alterations, in which a pattern or design is changed to approve the overall appearance.
Ultimately, sewing is a broad category that may include a number of different steps, depending on the project. While both sewing and quilting involve cutting fabrics and making stitches, quilting has a more specific process.
The Basics of Quilting
Although quilting is a form of sewing, it has its own special techniques and steps. You start by selecting a pattern for the quilt top, such as squares or triangles. Once you've chosen your fabrics, you can then cut and sew the patchwork. While most sewing projects use sharps, quilting is usually done with betweens (a shorter needle with a more rounded eye). There are two main types of quilting you can try: straight line and free motion.
Straight Line Quilting
Many hand-quilting projects use the straight stitch, or running stitch, to piece three separate layers of fabric together. It's sometimes used in conjunction with the rocking stitch, which involves bringing a thick needle through the fabric while rocking it back and forth. This helps keep the stitches neat and even. Many quilters also tie a knot at the beginning and end of their quilt pattern to hold the stitches in place. If you don't want the stitches to show, you can try the "stitch in the ditch" technique, in which the stitch is made within the seam line of the quilt.
Free Motion Quilting
Free motion quilting, which requires the use of a quilting machine, lets you experiment with a number of different patterns and designs. These quilting machines come with a darning foot or free motion foot, which is a small needle that stays above the surface of your quilt and lets you easily move the quilt in any direction as you work.
Aside from cutting and piecing together your fabric, there are a few different processes you can use to create your quilt. These include:
Basting: This step is performed before stitching the quilt. It involves using temporary stitches or adhesives to hold the quilt in place and prevent it from becoming distorted.
Binding: Once your quilt is completed, you can sew fabric around the edges (known as binding) to make them more durable.
Appliqueing: In this ornamental type of needlework, pieces of fabric are sewn on top of the quilt to create elaborate designs.
Quilting Thread vs Sewing Thread
There's a wide array of thread options available for sewing and quilting projects. In general, it's a good idea to match your thread to the fabric you'll be using. For instance, you should use cotton thread for natural fibers and polyester thread for synthetic blends.
Some types of threads are better suited for certain projects than others. Common thread types include:
Polyester: These threads tend to be durable and work for most sewing projects, from blankets to decorations.
Cotton: Cotton thread is better for delicate fabrics. It's also heat-resistant, which is helpful when using an iron in your project.
Wool: Wool is typically thicker and is best for embroidery projects.
Silk: Because it's very fine, silk thread should only be used with silk products.
Heavy-duty: This thread, which is usually made of polyester, is too strong for most garment projects. It's best for sewing canvases or upholstery.
While any of these threads can be used for sewing, quilting is typically done with cotton thread. It's both fine and durable, which helps it keep quilts together without getting in the way. Moreover, it can withstand heat if the quilter wants to iron on designs.
Another factor to consider when selecting a thread is the weight. As a good rule of thumb, you should use heavier threads for heavier fabrics (keep in mind that the smaller the thread weight, the heavier it is). Most quilts are made with a 50-weight cotton thread.
Sewing Machines vs Machine Quilting
Not everyone has the time or willpower to complete projects by hand. Fortunately, there are machines available that can do a large portion of the work for you.
A sewing machine helps you complete projects quickly and more efficiently. A regular sewing machine is powered by an electric motor and features a needle attached to a spool that moves down and punctures the fabric. Underneath the fabric is a surface known as a needle plate — after the needle hits this, it rises and the thread folds into a loop. A rotating hook, also known as a bobbin case, widens the loop and forms a knot. The needle is then pulled up, and the knot is tightened in place.
The fabric shifts between stitches with the help of feed dogs and presser feet. The feed dog helps "feed" the fabric to the motion, facilitating the movement of stitches over the fabric. It's composed of metallic bars that resemble teeth, which move back and forth inside the needle plate. The presser foot is an attachment that holds fabric in place, letting the needle do its job.
The best sewing machine has a needle position option. This comes with guides on the presser foot that let you adjust the sewing machine needle to your desired position. The left needle position puts more fabric underneath the presser foot, which helps it feed into the machine more smoothly.
While you can make a quilt using a sewing machine, there are machines available that are specifically designed for this purpose. Quilting machines are better equipped to work with multiple layers and can adapt to the unique features of quilts. You can create a machine quilt through either a free motion or straight line quilting machine.
As mentioned earlier, a free motion machine features a darning foot that gives you a wide range of direction and lets you experiment with several patterns. Straight line quilting machines use the simple straight stitch to attach the different fabric layers. Most employ a walking foot, or an even-feed foot, that holds both the quilt top and the back in place as it works.
Another feature commonly found in quilting machines is a quarter inch foot, which is used for piecing together different patches of fabric. Its size lets you meet the narrow seam allowance (a 1/4" seam) typically found in quilts. This is especially helpful for new quilters who may have difficulty maintaining this measurement.
Starting Your Project
Sewing is more than just moving a needle and thread through fabric. Each project uses different patterns, stitches, thread types and techniques to achieve the desired result. The decorative top, warm insulation and comfortable padding found in quilts makes quilting one of the most popular sewing projects out there.
Whether you're sewing or quilting, it's important to use high-quality fabrics and materials. Stitchin' Heaven is a family-owned, Texas-based premier quilt shop that's been catering to sewers and quilters of all levels since 1996. We have over 10,000 materials to choose from and offer quilting kits in an assortment of patterns. Scroll through our site and start your project today!