Nine patch lap quilt by Jayne Hill. The reverse shows the pieced flannel back which clearly shows the Feather Meander quilting pattern which Jayne long arm quilted.

Nine patch lap quilt (Front) by Jayne Hill.
Ever made a quilt where you like the back of it as much (or even more) than the front? No, I am not talking about the occasional disaster where, despite all your hard work and planning, a quilt doesn’t quite look the way you envisaged once it’s finished. I am thinking about a deliberate use of assorted fat quarters, spare blocks and sometimes even a completely pieced scene, to enliven the side of the quilt that’s not usually the subject of much scrutiny.
Once upon a time it was considered ‘correct’ to back a quilt with either a gentle floral print, or plain calico. Whilst this can look stunning, there is so much more that you can do on the other side of your quilt! In 1987, quiltmakers Danita Rafalovich and Kathryn Alison Pellman coined the term ‘Backart’ for this type of decorative treatment on the reverse of quilts, as they felt the terms ‘two sided quilt’ and ‘pieced back’ did not fully express the opportunities offered by the empty back of a quilt. Since then, more and more quiltmakers are discovering that a quilt offers more than one side for creativity and expression.

Play quilt for Davis Catchpole by Jayne Hill - reverse and front

The Turquoise Quilt by Celia Darbyshire - reverse and front
Backart can be as simple or as complex as you wish. The first quilt of mine to contain backart was a simple one-patch created for my friend’s new baby. With the top assembled I didn’t have anything to hand which seemed suitable for the back. However, I did have enough of the quilt top fabrics left over to make up a large enough backing if I pieced them all together. The result exceeded my expectations, created a double-sided play mat for baby Davis and started my interest in nonstandard quilt backs.

(Top) Paul Klee Revisited by Christine Hiscott
(Bottom) Sawtooth Star Quarters by Lillian King (original design on the front by Mary Jane Best)
Photographed by Jonathon Farmer

Patchwork permutations

My mother-in-law then requested a lap quilt with a flannel or brushed cotton backing as that was far more cosy on winter nights. Once again, I didn’t have enough of any one fabric that was big enough, but when I pieced together all the scraps left over from a different project I think the back turned out better than the front. This Ninepatch quilt clearly illustrates that backart allows you to create a quilt with two personalities. Through a careful choice of colours and fabrics you can create a quilt for all seasons, in which the front could have a bright, fresh spring/summer feel. Flip the quilt for a warmer, more mellow mood for autumn/winter.

Autumn Leaves by Diana Harbour
Photographed by Diana Harbour
Because of the standard width of craft fabric, usually 112-114cm, any large quilt will have to have a quilt back which is seamed. Why not take this one stage further and investigate the possibility of backart? The only major consideration should be to look where the seam lines will be. As Roberta Horton notes in her book, The Fabric Makes The Quilt, major seams on the front and back should not coincide, as this avoids bulk and makes hand quilting easier.

Leftovers, anyone?

Celia Darbyshire pieced a quilt top based on a Block of the Month from Altering the design to her own preference resulted in leftover nine patch blocks. When I suggested she created a large nine patch for the back, made up of nine one metre pieces, she added her own style to that idea and created this gorgeous backing. The quilt was a wedding present for her son Adam and new daughter-in-law Helen.
Backart is an ideal opportunity for using every precious piece of fabric in a quilt as illustrated in Paul Klee Revisited by Christine Hiscott. The front of the quilt was inspired by the watercolours that artist Paul Klee painted in North Africa in the early twentieth century. Christine hand dyed fabrics for the front of the quilt and then echoed the free form piecing on the reverse. The careful positioning of the appliquéd dome motif at the bottom right balances the pieced one patch block at the top, clearly showing that composition should be considered as carefully on a pieced back as on the front.

Letting Go 3 by C June Barnes
Photographed by Marion Haslam
Another quilter who enjoys piecing quilt backs is Lillian King. Her passion is for scrap quilts and her talent at eking out fabrics and combining disparate scraps is clearly shown in her fat quarter quilt which was featured as a project in Popular Patchwork June 2001 magazine. The reverse includes odd fat eighths of fabrics, some left over from other projects, along with pieced chequerboard patches, surplus to requirements on the front. Not only is Lillian’s quilt re-emphasising the traditional ‘make-do’ roots of patchwork, it also creates a marvellous double-the-value quilt which can be used with either side uppermost on display.

The Frog and Turtle Quilt by Linda Seward
Photographed by Creative Exhibitions Ltd
Another advantage of backart is that allows one to continue a quilt theme onto the reverse in a more simplistic or abstract way. Diana Harbour’s Autumn Leaves lap quilt was made using blocks from a BQL swap. She has created a complementary pieced back which uses a couple of nine patch blocks left over from the front and leafy fabric designs. A particularly nice touch are the appliqué leaves, which contain the names of everyone who made a block for the front of the quilt.
Taking backart still further, Linda Seward used both sides of The Frog and Turtle Quilt to express different moods within the same theme. The quilt was made for Linda’s brother Jerry and his new wife, Jennifer. The couple have exotic frogs and turtles as pets, hence the quilt theme. As Linda looked for suitable fabrics to use, she found that the material available fell into two styles - brightly coloured, more childlike prints and naturalistic designs. Rather than confine herself to just one style, Linda created a completely double sided quilt to accommodate both. She used patchwork frog and toad patterns, designed by Margaret Rolfe on the bright side and incorporated a traditional block called Toad in a Puddle on both.

Almost Amish lap quilt by Sarah White, longarm quilted by Jayne Hill using a curly feather design.
Another unplanned feature of a backart quilt will be the effect of the quilting on the reverse. Normally when one quilts by hand or machine, the pattern is considered from the front only. You can choose an overall quilting design which disregards the piecing layout on either sides, or you could plan a design for the front and just see what happens when you flip the quilt. This is illustrated in C June Barnes’ quilt Letting Go 3 which contains several pieced blocks on the reverse. The random nature of the machine quilted design further enhances the liberated piecing of the patchwork blocks.
On Linda’s quilt, a machine quilted sunburst pattern which radiated from the centre point of the pieced Log Cabin blocks hit the centre of the Dresden Plate patchwork on the reverse - what serendipity! An even more radical choice if you are feeling brave is to consider the quilting from the reverse to complement the backart.

Home is Where the Heart is by Jayne Hill

Quilting Questions

Whilst the term backart is often used to refer to pieced backings, the concept can also be used for quilting. Sarah White wanted a simple and traditional calico backing to complement her Amish style sampler quilt. She chose an interlocking pattern which was stitched on a longarm quilting machine and so created a wholecloth quilt on the back.
This wholecloth effect can be enhanced by choosing a bobbin thread colour to contrast with the plain calico backing. With my longarm quilting machine I often add a considerable amount of quilting to my tops. Home is Where the Heart is was made for a dear friend, and this quilt now lives in St Louis, Missouri. Because of the dark green patterned fabric chosen for the pieced blocks on the front, my quilting in the tree blocks shows up far better on the back.
Hopefully this selection of quilts has opened your eyes to the creative possibilities of backart. Why not consider the following suggestions for incorporating it into your own quilts?

Other ideas for quilt backs

  • Piece a selection of fat quarters that you don’t like very much (we’ve all got them sitting in the stash with a thought bubble which says, “why on earth did I buy this fabric?”).
  • Use uncompleted workshop projects which have been sitting in a bag reminding you guiltily of another UFO. Add an appropriate fabric (or fabrics) to make up a backing large enough for your quilt. It doesn’t have to be a superbly designed masterpiece, or balanced and symmetrical - just the right size!
  • Have you ever won a selection of blocks at a quilt group raffle, got home and thought, “what the heck am I going to do with these?” Why not add wide (6in or more) sashing strips to each block, then piece together until large enough to use as a quilt backing?
  • Ever bought a drop dead gorgeous piece of fabric that you love so much you cannot bear to cut it up? Use the whole piece as a centre block for another pieced quilt backing.
  • We’ve all started to piece blocks for a top, made half a dozen and thought “I don’t like this enough to continue”. Surround those blocks with large enough pieces of suitable fabric to make a backing.
  • Simply use your imagination! You never know, you might end up liking the back more than the front!

First published in Popular Patchwork December 2002