Quilt Backings

After you make the quilt top you will be faced with the question of "What now?" You may have heard you need a batting and a backing, and that you have to do something with the three of them.

Fabric for Backings

You have a couple of options. An obvious one is to use a bedsheet larger than your bed size, like maybe a King size sheet. The advantages to this are that the fabric comes in one big piece, it's easy to find in stores, and you don't have to do much fitting. A couple disadvantages are that the color choices may be limiting, and the fabric may be more difficult to sew through than you expect. Bed sheets tend to come in two varieties, poly-cotton blends and high thread count 100% cottons. The blends will have that synthetic feel to them, may eventually pill, and could be difficult to needle because of the fiber content. The really good cotton sheets, on the other hand, feel wonderful, but may be so tightly woven you can't needle them either.

The key is to not choose a sheet just because it's convenient, or reject them just because it's a bed sheet. Take into account the quality of the fabric and how easy it will be for you to sew through it. If it is difficult now, how are you going to feel in a month?

One word of warning: second-hand sheets can be wonderfully soft and tempting to use to give you an "old fashioned" feeling. Unfortunately, the cotton in these older sheets tends to have been very well washed and may simply fall to ribbons in your quilt. Don't let this happen to you!

Another option is to use some sort of yardage that is wide enough to be the back of your quilt. Once difficult to find, there are now several sources of 104" wide quilting-weight fabrics. The selection is still somewhat limited, mostly floral damask type prints, but they are out there.

Finally, there is the pieced back. This is what most of us do for our quilts, take regular 44" wide fabrics and piece them. There are two styles of pieced backs, I will be describing the "plain" method.

Piecing a Quilt Back

You need to begin with sufficient yardage for the backing. Take the length of your quilt and double it, adding a half yard to your total. The extra half yard is allowance for shrinkage and uneven cutting. Thus, if you have a quilt top that is 80 inches per side, you need at least 160 (+18) inches for the back. Ideally you want this in one length, or two 89" lengths. Smaller pieces means more sewing and a possibly crazy-patched look to your backing (more on this later).

It's tempting to sew the two pieces together and call it good, but that leaves you with an aesthetically unpleasing seam right up the middle of your quilt. What we're going to do is sew the backing so you have three pieces and can place the two seams on either side of the center of the quilt. It just looks better.

If your quilt is going to be wider than 88" you are probably going to need three times the backing fabric rather than two. The three panels of fabric get sewn side-by-side and should be wide enough that you won't have to do any additional piecework. The instructions here are for making three equal pieces out of two, and you won't need to do that.

Begin by cutting your yardage into two equal lengths, making sure both lengths are longer than your quilt top, especially if you are going to use the backing wrapped around to the top to be the binding.

Line up the two pieces, right sides together, matching any directional printing (plaid probably does not make a good quilt back) and sew the long seam down one side. You can cut the selvedge off if you want to, but it's not necessary.

Turn the two pieces over and sew the other side in the same direction (otherwise the fabric may stretch or shift just enough to give you a puckered seam). You should now have a giant tube of fabric.

Iron your seams flat to set the thread in place.

Lay the tube out flat on the floor or your workspace, and fold it in half from seam to seam. If you can get a helper to handle the yardage with you, so much the better. Cats often want to help, but unfortunately they aren't real good at folding.

Fold the fabric in half the long way, being sure to get it even all the way down. Use your hand to crease the fold just a little bit, so you can see it when you open it up.

Open up the fold. You should now have a straight line halfway between your seams, from top to bottom. You're going to cut along this line.

Hold the top layer of fabric up away from the bottom layer and cut along the crease. DO NOT CUT BOTH LAYERS! My cats like to help with this part, too, but haven't got the hang of scissors yet.

Open up the fabric. You should now have a pieced backing large enough for your quilt, with about 22" of fabric pieced on either side of a central panel. Iron the seams flat and open. This will be your last chance to smooth out any puckering.

Assembling the quilt sandwich

Whether you worked with two pieces to start with, or three, you now have a large piece for your backing. What you do now is lay it out on the floor, a large table, or your bed, and prepare to layer the batting and the quilt top. Briefly, you want to smooth out the backing with the right side down, maybe tape it down to keep it from shifting, and then lay out the batting on top of that.

Smooth out the batting but don't stretch it. Batting tends to stick to the backing fabric, which can be nice once you have it where you want it, and more than a little frustrating if you don't.

Lay out the quilt top, right side up on the batting and smooth it out. Make sure it is centered on the backing, use the seam lines as a guide.

When you have everything in place you either need to baste it or pin it thoroughly to keep anything from moving around between now and the time you finish quilting it. The more you baste the easier it will be to get good flat quilting done on it later.

You can leave the sides open with the batting hanging out, or you can fold the extra fabric over the batting to protect it. Don't do the binding now. The backing will stretch just a little bit as you quilt it and create puckers along the binding if it is sewn ahead of time.


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