Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Backings are more than Just a Piece of Fabric

As a longarmer, I have seen the gamut of tops and backings this last year -- nearly 100 or more. Every quilt is unique and made with tremendous care. The quilt is sent off to me to quilt magic into it. But I find it most unfortunate when a quilt arrives and the backing just makes me roll my eyes. Backings are more than just a piece of fabric. The selection of the backing needs to be made with as much forethought as is used in selecting the fabrics for the top.

Some quilts are perfectly fine with that pieced conglomeration of scraps that seems to be completely in vogue right now. Other quilts, however, look messy. Some types of quilts look great with a very busy and bold print for a backing, while others really need taming with a more solid backing. What I want to try and decode is how to select a backing for the top you have, and for the end result quilt you desire to have. Because, as I have said many times before, All backings are not created equally.

I am going to show several quilts here. Some have backings that I believe could have been better selected. If I happen to show your quilt, it is not to be perceived as an insult. Everyone wants to know the magic behind a better selection, and sometimes seeing differing examples helps. I'll be the first to tell you all that I love the quilts I have chosen to show here. I just might have made a different choice in picking a backing.

This first quilt is actually my quilt. It was a donation, and I was very rushed to finish it. I was also trying to make it on the cheap, so I did not want to buy any additional fabric. As a result, the back is unsightly. I knew this going into the quilting. But...I still chose to custom quilt this quilt. I chose thread colors of black & white, with like color bobbins. As you can see, there are areas of dense quilting, feathering, pebbling, etc.
The back is partially this black and white and red print (below). To me, this is too busy to handle any custom quilting. But you already know my rationale for using it. I just did not care. But it is obnoctious to look at. Agreed? Yes, agreed. One thing I do, as many other quilters, we would not use a black bobbin with a white top thread for fear that any tension mismatches would show. That is the only thing that would have made this back look better.
Another area of that same quilt had a red stripe of this pig fabric. Again, too busy to support intricate quilting. How should I have quilted it, you wonder?...I don't think that I should modify the quilting design, but I do believe that a solid red or white or black backing would have showed off the quilting better.
Moving on to another example...This is an absolutely gorgeous quilt, and she requested custom quilted, which was stitched in ivory and green threads (with matching bobbins).
The backing that was provided with this quilt, though a nice match to the fabrics, was overly busy for custom quilting. When you custom quilt a quilt, you want the patterns and textures to be able to show on both sides. I really dislike when the stitching interferes with a pattern. How would this have been done differently? For a custom quilting, I'd suggest selecting a backing that is much less printed. I'm not saying a solid is a necessity, but the coral polka dot from the front or a mottled-type solid would work nicely. It would have made it definitely a 2-sided quilt.
Last example of busy backings... Another very pretty top, and the backing chosen was a coordinating print from the same line of fabrics (next picture). The custom quilting definitely makes the quilt (from the front anyways). As I mentioned before, the white areas where I have done flowers and feathering have a white bobbin. Blue quilting has a blue bobbin thread.
When you see this on the backside, it is a train wreck. Getting my drift? :-))
Imagine how this quilt back would have looked with a deep ochre backing or a medium sage/olive (like the leaves in the prints)? It just needs a calmer backing fabric, and not on one end of the color spectrum because the way it is, only the contrasting thread shows. You want both the navy and the white threads to show to get the full effect of the custom quilting. Selecting a purely blue backing makes only the white quilting show. Likewise, a pale backing would only make the blue quilting show. Choose a mildly printed or solid somewhere in in between these colors, and then both colors of bobbin show, and suddenly you have a 2-sided beautiful quilt!
So let's now look at some examples of better chosen backing fabrics. The first 2 are my quilts, but I have worked with several quilters to choose a backing that will accentuate their quilt, rather than just back it. Here's some of the thoughts that go into the selection...

What is the dominant color of the top? What color do you think that the top will be mostly quilted in? I may have suggestions to this, but you need to consider it when selecting the backing if you have not consulted the quilter first. Obviously, this quilt is largely green, and the thread chosen was selected to blend with the border. It actually blends with the sashings pretty well also.
Here's how the back turned out. It is all texture. ALL texture. No visible thread lines, as you'd have if this were, say a red backing.
From more than four feet away, it appears to be a solid. But as you see below, it is clearly not. It's a small print, in the same tone as the body of the quilt, and in the same tone I expected the thread to be in. Another logical choice for backing would have been the green of the border. If a red or burgundy tone were chosen, they would have matched the top nicely, but the quilting would have been anything but subtle. We would have exchanged a textural look for lots of visible stitchings. This is not a look I prefer.
Another quilt to consider...
This one has a nice background sandy-tan print, and tone-on-tone piecings in this same color. I knew when the backing was chosen, that a tan thread would be used on much of the quilt. I used another color for the aqua featherings.
What I chose to do on this quilt was to use a small print aqua for the backing. It is a dimples print, but from 5 feet away, it reads as a solid. I'll be honest, when I chose this backing, I wasn't at all in the mode I am now of really thinking about backings, thread colors and how the quilting will "read". I knew I did not want to see tan bobbin threads on this backing so I used a pale aqua 60wt thread in my bobbin for the entire quilt. I very rarely mismatch top and bobbin threads, but did in this case. If I had this quilt to do over today, I probably would have chosen a sandy-tan colored backing instead.
I prefer to see the backings of quilts as textural rather than a spider web of stitching lines.
Here's a quilt I recently finished and posted about. You have heard some of my mis-adventures with quilting it, but the issues started from the day I opened the box. The quilt is made from rather luscious Cherrywood hand-dyes. It is soft and colorful.
The backing that was originally sent with the quilt was a kind of hideous (OK, mind you, that is my opinion) floral. It was not a soft print, and I could see right away that there were going to be issues with how the back of the quilt was going to look. I knew, without a doubt, there would be a lighter tone of thread as well as a rather deep tone. Where this is a show/raffle quilt, I also knew that I was not experimenting with a different bobbin thread. I just did not need one more issue that can potentially come from tension mishaps. Now, I can tension my machine nicely, but we are all succeptible to mis-tensions now and then and they would not look good on the front or the back of this quilt.
Lucky for me, when I approached the recipient of the quilt, she willingly agreed to my suggestion to order a new backing from the Cherrywoods. A few weeks later, 6 yards of ochre fabric, which is a tad darker than the border of the quilt, arrived. Having a very solid fabric can cure one issue of not having a busy quilt back, but it also has a way of showing everything you stitch, good and bad. I would much prefer to have this backing, but for the newer quilters, it can also be a bit daunting. I just hope you can see how much more attractive this quilt is (below) finished with a mottled solid back rather than the floral. It totally lets the patterns and textures show.
Now, I have done a lot of rambling about backings, and in retrospect it almost looks like I am saying that you ought to go with a solid backing all the time. But that is not the case. You need to be the judge of what will be best for your quilt.
1. Do you want custom quilting or an all-over pattern? Many all-overs look just fine with busier prints and threads selected to blend on the back. For me, the exception is when the top has white or ivory thread, then I generally prefer the light thread regardless.
2. If custom quilting is desired, consider the thread colors that may be used to accentuate the top's piecing, and select a backing that is neither of these if several colors are involved, or if just one color thread is expected, then I would probably choose a backing closer to this color.
3. If you have intricate piecing on your top, then you probably don't need excess busyness on the back in terms of pattern or visible thread colors.
4. Saving those busy coordinating prints for another quilt top, rather than feeling that they really need to be on the backside of your quilt. Something more understated will usually come across as more elegant, and will allow the quilting to take center stage.
My list of No-No's for quilt backings...
1. No muslin
2. No thin cheap fabric. This is harder to tension properly. Put as much effort into the back as you did the front.
3. Do not overpiece the back and expect more than minimalistic quilting. It just becomes too busy. Furthermore, nice custom quilting is hard when there are seams in unpredictable places. You can make your quilt double-sided without piecing the hell out of both sides.
4. Use solids, small tonal prints, mottled prints for backings when custom quilting is desired. Save the bolder prints for simpler quilting schemes.
5. Many believe that batiks are inappropriate for backings. I have used them successfully, and have created several lovely quilts. I think that the secret is in selecting a small needle.
Now that you have seen my overly opinionated beliefs on backings, I welcome your thoughts. And as I said, I only selected the quilts I showed here because they truly are lovely. The backings are lovely (just not the greatest choice for a custom quilt).


Yvette said...

I need to print this. Thank you!

Linda said...

Thank you! That was such an awesome post. It's a great how-to guide for backings. Your examples totally made sense. Thanks again for that informative post!!

Puddles of Grace said...

I appreciate the time it took for you to write this post... and I really appreciate the information! I will certainly use more consideration for my backings! Seriously, as a self taught quilter these are the tidbits of info that I need!

Kathy said...

This is a very informative post! Thank you for writing it.

Brenda said...

Thank you for sharing this. It made a lot of sense. I had not heard this about backings before. Thank you for the time it took to post examples with what you were saying.

Sue said...

Very interesting perspective and good examples. We're so often told to use busy prints on the back 'to hide the stitching', that it's hard to get past that mindset when the quilting is so distintive. Thanks.

Feather on a Wire said...

It's lovely to see a quilter paying as much attention to the back as the front of a quilt.