Back Your Quilts with Polar Fleece: Durable, Light, Warm, Washable – New Quilters

Photo of stacked and folded polar fleece fabricIf you live in a climate where the weather gets cold, you can’t beat polyester fleece as a quilt backing. Fleece is soft, light, warm, and machine washable and dryable.

Where I live in Northern California, the nights are chilly 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.

Fleece — a Less Expensive Choice

Quilting with fleece can save you some money because it allows you to make a two-layer quilt instead of the traditional three-layer one. The fleece layer replaces both the batting (wadding) and backing layers. Fleece also comes in wider widths than the standard quilter’s cotton most often used for backings, so it’s often possible to back your quilt without having to piece the fleece backing to make it wider. (You can also avoid having to piece your backing fabric by choosing the increasingly-popular 108″-wide quilter’s cotton fabrics designed for backings, though.) The variety of fleece patterns and colors available is practically limitless.

Here’s a rag quilt I made last year that is backed with solid white fleece:

Photo of quilt with fleece backing

And a baby quilt backed with blue fleece in a starburst pattern:Photo of baby quilt with polar fleece backing

And a Chinese Coins quilt backed with polyester fleece in a chrysanthemum print: Photo of chinese coins quilt with polar fleece backing

Five More Advantages of Fleece 

Comfort is even more important than cost to me when I make quilts. Fleece backings have some advantages there as well. Because most fleece fabric is made from polyester, it is 1) warm, even when wet, (2) water-resistant, (3) doesn’t fray at the edges when cut, (4) doesn’t shrink when washed, and (5) comes in a huge variety of different finishes, colors and prints. If you want to make a quilt that involves a commercial character like Winnie the Pooh or Dora the Explorer, you can probably find a fleece print that features the character you want.

Fleece is durable enough to wash over and over, which makes it perfect for a baby or child’s quilt.

Choosing the Perfect Weight for Quilting

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.

Does Quality Count?

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.

However, I’ve sometimes had trouble finding real Polartec, so I mostly use big-box fleece these days. It’s not as good as Polartec, but it’s still good enough for almost any quilt I make.

Dealing with Stretchiness

The biggest challenge in quilting with fleece is its tendency to stretch as you work with it. 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.

Other Handling Factors

  • Don’t bleach or use fabric softener or dryer sheets when you wash fleece
  • Never iron fleece with the iron set above the polyester setting – it will melt.
  • I have found that fleece is a bit harder to free-motion quilt than a quilt backed with regular quilter’s cotton. It drags more on the bed of your sewing machine. You can still do free-motion quilting on a fleece-backed quilt, but I have found that it’s easier when you use motifs that are fairly large and free-form, like a loose stipple or free-form leaves. Save your small, detailed quilting motifs for cotton-backed quilts.

Step-by-Step Instructions for Backing a Quilt with Fleece 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 basting spray does have a nasty smell, and overspray can make your work surface sticky.)
  4. Prepare for basting by putting the fleece right side down on a large flat surface like a bed, dining table, or clean floor.
  5. Lay the quilt top right side up on top of the fleece, then smooth away any wrinkles. Baste with your favorite method.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Save Those Fleece Scraps

If you’re the kind of quilter who hates to throw away scraps, you can piece together smaller pieces of fleece to make them large enough use for your backing. This picture shows the back of a rag quilt I made to keep in the back of my car. (I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not the best-looking backing in the world, but since the main one using it was the dog, I thought it was good enough for its target audience.) This backing was entirely made from scraps left over from other quilts. Thrifty!

Post originally published Nov. 18, 2011. Revised and updated April 25, 2017. Featured photo by See Things Differently,

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Felicity Walker

Felicity Walker is the author of the best-selling Quilting for Beginners book series and other books for quilters. She has been quilting for nearly twenty years and loves finding easier, faster, and more fun ways to make quilts.

  • RC says:

    Excellent article. The only way that I quilt now. I love the way that fleece backed quilts drape. Love the lack of shrinkage and the snuggleness.

  • Marie Ravening says:

    I’m a hand quilter, and wonder what it would be like to hand quilt a fleece backed quilt. Has anyone tried it?

  • Cindy says:

    I use my fleece backing as a binding, too. I cut my fleece backing an inch larger on all sides than the top, fold the fleece to the front(top) and use a decorative stitch to sew the fleece down. Nice since the fleece doesn’t fray.

    • That sounds like a really great idea, Cindy, and one we haven’t tried! It’s going on the to-do list. Thanks for your suggestion. So many people have a hard time with the binding step, and this sounds a lot easier. Question for you: how do you handle the corners? I’d love to see a photo.

      • Cindy says:

        Hi Christine! I cut diagonally across the corners then fold them inward onto the top to form a sort of miter. I say ‘sort of’ because I don’t measure angles. I just eyeball it. The fleece can easily be manipulated so that edges match, then I either run my decorative stitch up into the corner to close it or hand-stitch it later, either butting the two edges or slightly overlapping. I took sample pics but don’t know how to post pics here. Feel free to email me:

  • Diane Bartelt says:

    I am having issues with skipping stitches & breaking thread. HELP! Using a walking foot & changed out to a new needle. Is my issue that I am sewing a design stitch on the machine? Or, something else that I can try, machine sewed fine for about 50 inches.

    • Hi Diane,

      When I have those troubles, I first rethread and change needle and reseat the bobbin, just to make sure there aren’t any obvious issues. If that doesn’t solve the problem, I make sure I am using the same thread in both top and bobbin, and switch to a heavier needle. For decorative stitches that move the needle from side to side, I find that a 90/14 or even 100/16 needle works best. Best of luck!

    • Caryl says:

      Decorator stitches that have side to side movement cannot be used with a walking foot. The walking foot can move back and forward but the teeth gripping the fabric prevent the lateral stitch from forming properly, hence distorted or broken stitches.

      • That’s interesting, Caryl. My walking foot is definitely set up to allow for side-to-side needle movement and decorative stitches, but what you say makes sense. The pulling action of the walking foot only goes forward and back, not side to side.

  • Annie says:

    I am making my first quilt for my grandson from his others grandmas shirts. I was thinking of 2 layers of fleece for the backing. Have you ever done that?

    • No, I haven’t ever done that. I don’t think I would want to try machine quilting two layers of fleece in the ordinary way — too much chance of slippage or wrinkling between the layers. I think it would probably work if you hand tie or machine tie the layers. That will be one warm quilt!

  • Michelle says:

    Would these hold up to being tied? I don’t think I have a walking foot and not experienced with quilting. Thanks.

    • Yes, they would. I think you would have to tie them at pretty close intervals to counteract the stretchiness of the fleece, but fleece itself is tough and durable. If you want to tie by machine, I would use either the stitch on my sewing machine that is usually used to sew on a button, or if your machine has decorative stitches, set the machine so it only sews one stitch at a time and use one of your decorative stitches. Good luck, Michelle!

    • Chandra says:

      I’ve been sewing fleece backed quilts for years and just use my regular machine. I use decorative stitches or regular straight stitches and the best part is you don’t have to stitch too close. Most of mine have maybe 8” rows or even just a few borders and a diagonal through a center panel. My mother has 6 of them and she is obsessive about washing so they are washed weekly and they have held up pretty well! Good luck!

      • Christine Mann says:

        Fleece backing is one of my favorite quilting discoveries. I much prefer fleece to cotton batting. Thanks for the comment, Chandra.

  • Sharon Pemberton says:

    Question regarding using fleece, (I’m using chenille type fabric)as the backing on a baby quilt…
    How should I secure the two layers together? My machine is a low end Brother & I’m worried it might not let me do stitch in the ditch I normally do. I don’t want to ‘tie’ it as it’s for a new born.
    Any suggestions, PLEASE???

    • Thanks for the question, Sharon. Here’s what I would do: spray baste the layers together, then use a walking foot on my sewing machine and stitch all the seam lines in the ditch. If you don’t have a walking foot or think the layers are too thick for your machine to handle, you can still “tie” the quilt by using the stitch on your machine that is ordinarily used to sew on buttons. Just put the button stitch in all the locations where you would have tied the quilt with yarn or embroidery floss. The stitches will be safe for an infant and will secure the layers. Hope this helps.

  • Hi to every, here in Minorca it is very difficul get such a beautifull feece I do not know what to do. Thank you for the examples

  • Lydia Johnson says:

    where could i find quality 200 weight red plaid fleece online?

  • Angela says:

    For lap size quilts I buy the Fleece blankets and use them as backing for my quilts. They are perfect for backing quilts. Way cheaper than buying fleece fabric. Love the blog.

  • Julie girsch says:

    I have made a number of tshirt quilts and fleece seemed to be a natural backing. They all went to grandchildren in the north. Unfortunately, I also used batting. They will be extra warm.

  • Barbara Austin says:

    I have been making quilts for only 2 years, mainly Lap size,for Charities, & Queen size for family gifts, I have ever only used Polar fleece for the backing. I have 2 methods that i use, For the Lap size I use the ‘flip & sew “method, & the Queen size is always QAYG, I have made more than 200 quilts with these methods, Possibly 150 Lap, & 50 Q.S These methods are SO easy with polar fleece, I just LOVE using it. I ALWAYS wash it before use, as it will shrink differently to the 100% cotton top, (I always wash all my fabrics first) I love the bright bold colors, & designs of the fleece. I also live in a cold area, which the fleece is so cozy to snuggle into. I also have found out that the Charity quilts that I have donated are much appreciated as the new owners, just love to wrap themselves in a beautiful quilt, some feel the love, & some feel the extra warmth. I have never used batting, & cotton backing, only ever polar fleece, & i just LOVE IT!

  • Debbie says:

    Thank you for this article. I have a quilt that my granddaughter help pick out material for her mother. She is only six so she picked out fleece because it is so soft. Well quilt top is done and waiting to be put together but I was unsure, do I put batting or not. Now I know. Thank you so much for the information. No batting Nana.

  • My granddaughter asked for her quilt to be backed with fleece. Since I am a newer quilter this had me stumped. Thank you for this article and answering the question.

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