Thread Matters 2021: Creating Definition in Quilting Stitches

Greetings Aurifil family! As Master Educator and Aurifilosophy Program Coordinator I’m thrilled to introduce fellow Aurifilosopher Cassandra Beaver of The (not so) Dramatic Life! Cassandra has an aesthetic that is uniquely hers! You’ll find her creating modern or contemporary quilts alongside traditional and art quilts. Her artistic design energy  is endless and she’s an awesomely talented free motion quilter too! If you’re participating in the Aurifil 2021 Color Builders program, you’re already benefitting from Cassandra’s amazingly beautiful foundation paper pieced Endangered Species designs.   Be sure to visit Cassandra’s website to check out all of the wonderful lectures and workshops that she offers.   

Aurifilosophy has gone Virtual! Consider scheduling a virtual program for your shop, group, or guild. Learn more about Aurifilosophy and find your favorite Aurifilosopher here.  

Happy Stitching!

Karen L. Miller ~ Redbird Quilt Co.

Quilting stitches are a powerful design element that can play a major role in the way a viewer experiences the overall design. As makers, we can decide how we want our quilting stitches to contribute to the aesthetics of a particular project. Quilting choices range from unifying the project through continuity, to bold quilting that is the star of the show. These are, however, not the exclusive options. Many quilting styles fall between these two ends of the spectrum.

The most unifying techniques tend to use a 40 or 50 weight thread in an all over design such as matchstick quilting or an all over edge to edge free motion design. To me, this quilting style functions almost as a filter that you would use on a photograph. By looking at the overall quilt through the lens of a single repeating quilting design, the elements of the project meld together.  This is probably the style of quilting that most quilters use the most frequently.

On the other end of the continuum is bold quilting that plays a major role in the overall design of the quilt. This quilting may use thread colors that have a strong contrast with the fabric, or a heavier thread weight may be used. 

There is a great deal of space between these two extremes to experiment and determine which techniques work for you and the style of quilt you are producing. Some variables to consider include:

  • Incorporating custom quilting either in a single thread color or multiple colors matching the individual fabrics
  • Selecting a thread color with a significant contrast to the fabric
  • Juxtaposing linear and organic quilting motifs
  • Incorporating multiple stitch types (straight stitch with decorative stitches and/or machine stitching with hand stitching)

Trying out new combinations of quilting techniques is fun, but it can sometimes be intimidating to experiment on a project you have spent a tremendous amount of time piecing or appliquéing. To make this type of activity more exciting and less stressful I like to use pre-printed panels to try out different techniques. 

I designed the panel used in this post as a means to experiment with combining linear and organic motifs, then had it printed at Spoonflower.  If you are interested in trying new techniques on this panel it is available here: 


What are the key elements of the design that you would like to define? 

In this panel the main design elements are the flower, the leaves, and the striped background.

Threads that are a heavier weight or a contrasting color are an excellent choice to define specific areas of a design. In this panel, 12wt thread has been used to define the key areas of the design.

Which areas would you like to visually unify?

As I quilt, I want to ensure that the petals of the flower and each leaf remains cohesive. 

Threads that are a light weight and/or match the color of the fabric tend to visually recede and allow the quilting texture to add to the design without overpowering the image. The organic quilting lines in the petals and leaves on this project help to merge the colors in the printed design together into a unified whole.

Are there any areas that would benefit from decorative machine or hand stitching?

Hand quilting or more organic machine stitches may help to unify the floral motif with the straight lines in the background.

Many sewing machines have a wide array of decorative stitches, and many are excellent for machine quilting. When experimenting with them make sure you try them using various thread weights. On my machine, most decorative stitches look best with either 40wt or 28wt thread.

Hand quilting, particularly large stitch hand quilting, can be combined with machine quilting to add a wonderful texture as well as an interesting visual element. You don’t have to stay with a simple running stitch either- try some basic embroidery stitches to add extra visual interest! 

Here are a few embroidery stitches to consider:

  • Plus Stitch
  • X Stitch
  • Herringbone Stitch
  • French Knots
  • Seed Stitches
  • Whipped Back Stitch

note: I love Creative Stitching (Second Edition) by Sue Spargo as a reference for embroidery stitches.

A note about embroidery stitches: When incorporating decorative stitches, always try a sample first, especially if you want to use or display the project in a way that the back will be visible. The front and back of decorative stitches tend to look very different. For a cushion cover like this one, some unruly stitches on the back will not be noticed, but on a quilt being used or displayed, you may want to be much more careful about stitch selection and execution.


Start with the unifying machine stitches: These tend to melt nicely into the pieced, printed, or appliquéd design. By starting here, you reduce the likelihood that you will be stitching over the defining or decorative stitches that you want to stand out more. Whenever possible, I like to start with the lightest thread I am going to use, typically 50 or 40 weight, move to 28 weight and finish with the heaviest 12 weight.

Do all machine quilting first: The machine stitching stabilizes the quilt which will make any hand quilting easier. Occasionally I like to use some machine quilting as the baseline for hand accents. My favorite stitch to do with this technique is a whipped backstitch. You can see it around the flower and leaves as well as incorporated into the serpentine stitch. The machine does the base stitch for you, and all that is left is wrapping each stitch with a contrasting thread.

To work the whipped back stitch, machine straight stitch a line using approximately a 3-3.25 stitch length. Any thread weight will work with this technique, but I tend to prefer 28wt or 12wt.

To hand finish the stitch, knot and bury a 12 weight thread at the beginning of the seam. Once the end is secured, wrap each machine stitch with the second thread leading with the eye of the needle so you do not stitch through the fabric as you wrap the line of stitches. 

I suggest doing a short test line of both the machine and hand components of this stitch. On some machines you may need to loose the tension slightly in order to do the handwork involved with this whipped backstitch interpretation.

Incorporate both matching and contrasting threads: If you aren’t sure which thread colors are best for your project start by selecting colors that match the fabrics in your project, but remember that you can use them in areas that they don’t match the fabric. By using the same set of thread colors throughout the quilt you are creating a sense of unity. Also be willing to occasionally pull in colors that are not in your project. A purple was not in the print of this panel, but when I added it in the thread palette, the entire project came together.

Threads I used for this project:
12wt in 1135 (Pale Yellow)
12wt in 2975 (Brass)
12wt in 2225 (Salmon)
40wt in 5002 (Medium Red)
12wt in 2245 (Red Orange)
12wt and 50wt in 2530 (Blossom Pink)
28wt and 50wt in 2535 (Magenta)
12wt in 2545 (Medium Purple)
12wt and 50wt in 1200 (Blue Violet)
12wt and 50wt in 2810 (Turquoise) 
28wt and 50wt in 6737 (Shamrock Green)
40wt in 1147 (Light Leaf Green)

For my machine and aesthetic I have found that 40 and 50wt threads work well for unifying stitches. 28wt thread is great for machine decorative stitches as well as many small to medium length hand stitches. For strong defining stitches and medium to large hand stitches I prefer a 12wt thread. 

Let the stitching tell the story: Allow both hand and machine quilting to help create the design. Feel free to combine stitches in a way that enhances the quilt regardless of whether or not the stitch has an official name. In the quilting of this panel, the center of the flower combines several stitch types to give dimension to the image.

Have fun with it! Choose a small project to start with- cushion covers, placemats, mini quilts, and mug rugs are great places to start!

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Cassandra loves to create. For her, it takes many forms and her blog focuses mostly on her life as a fiber artist. Her mother taught her to sew around the age of three or four. She learned to quilt first, then she started sewing clothes, and then quilted clothes. After that she entered a career where she spent a lot of time sewing clothing as well as other things. Cassandra has recently returned to the quilt world, and is excited to share her adventures.

Most of her professional life has been spent in the theatre. She is trained as a scenic and costume designer, and has also spent many years working in various technical roles behind the scenes. Those experiences inform her overall design aesthetic as well as helping her to develop skills which allow her to execute (almost) anything she can dream up. Hence… the (not so) dramatic life.

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