The binding and the quilt label are two of the last tasks to be completed on a quilt. And at this point, it’s easy to let these two items slide into the “Oh-my-God-is-this-quilt-EVER-going-to-be-done” category and rush through them.
Let me encourage you not to do this. The borders, binding, and labels are the punctuation in your quilt sentence. They are the very last statement you can make about your quilt and they should be given same care and workmanship that the piecing and applique are given. Borders will be addressed in the near future, but since I’m binding three quilts right now, I want to explain how I do my binding in the hopes that it may take away any fear you have about the process. I’m pretty old-school when it comes to some areas of quilting and binding is one of them. I like my binding to be dark, as it takes the most wear and tear on a quilt. It’s one of the first things to disintegrate on an older quilt and the first thing that’s going to show dirt on a newer one. I like my quilts bound with a double-fold and I like them done by hand. I also like them cut on the length-wise of the grain instead of the cross-wise grain.
When planning this step, the quilt and the binding must be given equal consideration. The binding will go around the perimeter of the quilt. It should harmonize with the top and serve as the last “frame” of your quilt. Generally speaking, I cut my binding out when I’m cutting everything else out for my quilt. The pattern gives the size of the finished quilt and often even the number of strips needed for binding the quilt. So, let’s pick the process up at this point.
The reason I cut my binding out at the very beginning is so that it’s done and ready for me at the end. For me it interrupts the work flow if I have to get up from my machine and do more cutting and then sew it together. If it’s already cut and waiting in my project box for me, all I have to do is pick it up, sew the strips together, and then begin the binding process.
I also cut both my binding and borders on the length-wise grain (running parallel with the selvedge). The length-wise grain is less stretchy and more stable. If borders and binding are cut along the length of the grain, they won’t ripple. It also helps stabilize the center of the quilt. If your quilt is show-bound, it’s even more important to make your binding this way. I’ve worked with two quilt judges over the last couple of years and the first thing both of them did was run their hands and fingers over the binding to make sure it was full and that the binding wasn’t “bumpy” where the strips were joined. If the binding is cut on the length of the grain, the strips are longer, so there are fewer of them, and therefore less chance of “bumpiness.”
Ideally, the quilter should buy enough yardage to cut one continuous strip of binding with no seam – especially if the quilt is headed towards a national show. This can be expensive, but I do know a couple of quilters who do this religiously, no matter where the quilt is going. The way they absorb this extra expense is that their binding is always a basic, solid color — black, blue, dark brown, dark gray, etc. They buy seven or eight yards, designate it for binding use only, and can get several quilts bound out of each color.
So how do you determine how much binding you need? As stated before, the binding has to cover the perimeter of the quilt, so add the measurement of all four sides together to get the amount needed. Add 15-20 inches to this to compensate for turning corners, and then a little more if you plan to use left-over binding as a border around the quilt label. How wide should you cut it? Well…that depends.
Typically, binding is cut 2 ¼-inches wide. That’s the “look” of today’s quilts. Binding width changes from time to time and from quilt type to quilt type. For instance, if a quilter is making a “historically accurate” Amish quilt, she or he may want to cut that binding a little wider, as older Amish quilts did have wide binding. If the quilt has two batts in it, then you may want to cut the binding somewhere between 2 ¼ and 2 ½-inches. One of my show-bound quilts is an applique quilt that has two batts—a wool batt next to the top and a cotton batt under that (the added wool batt makes the applique look as if it’s trapuntoed). It was dubbed “the beast” by my long-arm artist because the batts made it so heavy. Because there were two batts, and one of them was wool, I cut that binding at almost 2 ½-inches to make sure it would be wide enough to cover the edges. Remember, the binding’s job is to cover the raw edges of the top, batting, and backing completely, so it must be wide enough to accurately do this. If for some reason 100% polyester batting is used, the binding may have to be cut less than 2 ¼-inches because those battings are thinner.
Cut the strips the desired width and sew them together on an angle. Angled seams distribute the bulk better than vertical seams and are less “bumpy.” I lay one strip on my machine bed at a 180-degree angle and then position the second strip on top, right sides together, at a 90-degree angle and sew from top left corner to lower right corner.
Do this until all the strips are sewn together. Then trim the seams to ¼-inch and press open.
Then press the sewn strip in half, wrong sides together. This is a double-fold binding strip.
Now let’s give the quilt top some consideration. Once the top is quilted, the batting and back are still extended beyond the top’s edges. It will all have to be trimmed off before the binding can go on. The one thing that you don’t want to do is to trim the back and batting even with the top. Trim it between 1/8-1/4 of an inch beyond the top. This extra will make sure that the binding is fully filled and there are no empty spots in it.
The next decision to tackle is thread. The thread should match the binding. In this case, I have a pretty blue fabric that I’m using for the binding, but it’s difficult to match. I had to fall back on a neutral mid-tone gray for this one. The back of my quilt is white. At this point, it would be really easy to determine I need a gray thread on top, to match the binding and a white thread in the bobbin to match my back.
Nope. Not in my quilting world.
In fact, I deliberately use a bobbin thread that contrasts with the back of my quilt back. I know that doesn’t seem to make any sense, but trust me, I’ll show you why in a few paragraphs. So, I also wound my bobbin with the gray thread I used on top of my sewing machine. And I used my dual-feed walking foot. This allows the quilt top, with all its bulk, to feed evenly through the machine and allows the binding to be sewn on easily and without rippling.
Now let’s start the sewing-on-the-binding step. Avoid beginning to sew at a corner. My binding method (and most binding methods) are difficult to accurately perform if the binding strip is started at a corner. Begin about midway down one side and line the raw edge of the binding strip up with the raw edge of the quilt top – not the edge of the batting and backing that is cut 1/8-1/4-inch larger than the quilt top.
Open the binding strip up so that it lies flat.
Turn the left side over to form a 45-degree angle.
Take a few stitches and stop with the needle down position. In fact, if your sewing machine has the needle-down function, you will want to use it while sewing on the binding. Believe me, it makes life a little easier.
With the needle still in the down position, raise the presser foot and fold the binding back to its original position, lining up the raw edges of the binding neatly with the raw edges of the quilt top. This process causes a “pocket” to form and that’s what you want it to do.
Continue sewing until you get to ¼-inch away from the edge. Tie off.
Flip the binding up, so that it forms a 90-degree angle with the binding you’ve just sewn down.
Fold it back down, so that the fold is even with the raw edge of the sewn binding.
Begin sewing again ¼-inch down from the top of the fold. This should line up with the previously sewing binding.
Repeat this process for all three sides of your quilt. Begin the fourth side this way also, but you’re going to run into your binding pocket that you made at the beginning on this last side. When you get to this point, tie off, and cut the remaining binding off, but leave about a six-inch tail.
Now you’re going to tuck that remaining binding tail into the binding pocket.
As you’re working through this process and making it your own, you may find a shorter binding tail works best. I always cut mine about six inches to see how it’s going to fit in the pocket and then begin to trim it. It’s always easier to make that tail shorter than to wish you had left it longer! I use a chop stick to push my binding tail into the pocket. You may need to work with it a bit to get it to lie smoothly. When the tail is tucked in all nice and neat, sew the remainder of the binding to the quilt (usually this is a small gap of only a few stitches).
Take the quilt to the ironing board and press the binding out.
Flip your quilt over and look at the back to make sure there are no puckers. Notice on mine how nicely that dark gray thread shows up. Now I will tell you why I use a contrasting thread on the back of my quilt…
When I turn my binding to the back to slip stitch it down, the contrasting thread serves as a sewing guide. If the folded edge of my binding meets that gray thread, I know that it’s being sewn on straight.
And look how full my binding is! That extra batting and back I left around the edge makes sure that every spot of my binding is full and pretty.
Because of the way the binding was sewn, the corners will miter nicely, fully and easily. And don’t forget to put a few slip stitches in the corners of the miters.
This is the way I bind at least 98 percent of my quilts. As with everything, there are exceptions.
First, if you are binding a quilt with scalloped borders, disregard everything in this blog. Those a specialty bindings that have to be cut on the bias and may have to be cut smaller than 2 ¼-inch wide. That’s a whole different blog.
Second, if you have a directional print, such as a stripe, a check, a plaid, or polka-dots, you may want to disregard this blog. You may opt for cutting them on the bias for a different effect, or cutting directionally so that it looks uniform. That’s a different blog, too.
Third, even though I much prefer a hand-sewn binding on most things, I don’t always do that, either. If I’m making a quilt for a baby or child that’s not an heirloom – you know, one that is probably going to be literally loved to pieces – I’m putting that binding on by machine because that little quilt is surely going to be seeing the inside of a washing machine a lot. I also do machine binding if I’m making a quilt for a cancer patient or some other charity organization. Those quilts will be laundered a lot.
One of the great things about this method is that other than measuring the perimeter of the quilt and figuring out how much binding is needed, there is no math. I have found, in the many years I have taught quilting, that most quilters tolerate math pretty well. They’re formulating how much fabric to buy, how many pieces to cut, and in some cases, altering the pattern to fit their vision. But when the project is almost over and they have to deal with more math with the binding, it’s easy to just tuck that project away and promise yourself that you’ll deal with it in a week or two. With this method, the binding is cut and waiting for you and you don’t have to drag out your calculator.
Until next week, Quilt Fearlessly my friends…
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam
Sir Sam, Chief Binding Inspector