If you live in a climate where the weather gets cold, you can’t beat polar fleece as a quilt backing: it’s soft, light, warm, and machine washable and dryable. Where I live in Northern California, the nights are cold almost all year round, so I back almost all my quilts with polar fleece fabric instead of the traditional batting and backing layers. There’s nothing that chases away the cold of chilly evenings like a quilt backed with fleece. In fact, I find cotton or bamboo batting a little thin and insubstantial–not quite snuggly enough for true comfort.
Quilting with fleece is inexpensive because you use one layer of fleece instead of a layer of batting, plus a layer of backing fabric. Fleece also comes in wider widths than the quilting fabric most often used for backings, so it’s often possible to back your quilt without having to piece the backing fabric to make it wider. Children and adults alike love fleece quilts for their softness. With a little practice, any quilter can work successfully with fleece.
Here’s a string quilt I made for my daughter. This one has white fleece backing:
Five Things to Love About Fleece Fabric in Quilts
Fleece fabric is made from polyester, so it is (1) warm, (2) water-resistant, (3) doesn’t fray at the edges when cut, (4) doesn’t shrink when washed, and (5) comes in a great variety of different finishes, colors and prints. The photo at the top of the post shows a tie-dyed look I like a lot.
Polar fleece comes in three weights:
- 100 weight, also called light weight or micro fleece.
- 200 weight, also called medium weight or blanket weight.
- 300 weight, also called heavy weight, which is used for cold-climate outerwear.
I like to use 200 weight fleece for my quilts. 100 weight micro fleece is extremely stretchy, so much so that it is hard to avoid wrinkling when you quilt with it, and 300 weight fleece is quite thick and bulky. Sometimes my sewing machine struggles to sew through it.
How to Get Ready for Quilting with Fleece
I’ve quilted with cheap fleece (the kind you can get at big-box fabric stores), and I’ve quilted with the real deal, Polartec fleece made by Malden Mills, which you will probably have to buy online. And I am here to tell you that the Polartec fleece is definitely better. It holds up better when you wash it. It doesn’t pill or start to look worn after a few months. It’s just better. Polartec is available from online fabric retailers. Even when using more expensive fleece, you may still save compared to using a conventional quilt backing by replacing the double layer of quilt batting and backing fabric with a single layer of fleece.
You can piece together smaller pieces of fleece to make them large enough to back a whole quilt. Don’t bleach or use fabric softener or dryer sheets when you wash fleece, and never iron fleece with the iron set above the polyester setting – it will melt.
Dealing with Stretchiness
The biggest challenge in quilting with fleece is its stretchiness. Here’s how to get the best results:
- Set your machine to a longer stitch of 7-9 stitches per inch (3-3.5 mm).
- Use a walking foot.
- Choose the right needle: 70/10 or 75/11 for micro fleece, 80/12 or 90/14 for medium weight, and 100/16 for heavy weight. Use a universal, ballpoint or stretch needle.
Step-by-Step Instructions for Using Fleece as a Quilt Backing Fabric
- Find the right side of the fleece. Often it isn’t easy to tell which is the right side and which is the wrong side. Here’s a tip: fleece curls to the right side on its lengthwise grain (parallel to the selvages), and to the wrong side on its crosswise grain (perpendicular to the selvages). Use a piece of tape to mark the side you want to have showing.
- If the fleece isn’t wide enough to back the whole quilt, piece it to make it at least 2 inches (5 cm) larger than the quilt top on all sides.
- Baste the two quilt layers together. I used to pin baste, but I’ve converted to spray basting because it is so much faster and easier. (Although it does have a nasty smell, and overspray can make your work surface sticky.) Prepare for basting by putting the fleece right side down on a large flat surface like a bed, dining table, or clean floor.
- Lay the quilt top right side up on top of the fleece, then smooth away any wrinkles. Baste with your favorite method.
- Stitch in the ditch to secure the quilt layers together, working from the center out. Sew with the fleece side down, against your sewing machine’s feed dogs. This helps keep the fleece’s bulk and stretch under control as you sew.
- Add free-motion quilting as desired, then square up the quilt and bind it as you normally would.
If you are bothered by jammed threads or uneven stitches, you may want to try putting a shim under your presser foot. Fold a piece of lightweight cardboard or heavyweight fabric like denim or twill until it is as thick as the layers of fabric in your quilt. With the quilt layers under the left side of the presser foot, put the shim under the right side. This can help the presser foot stay balanced.