Backs for the Quilting Groove

I didn’t have jury duty.

I dutifully called the night before, as instructed, and was told by a disembodied voice that “Although you have a valid juror number, your services are not required at this time.”

Words cannot adequately express how happy I was.   I’m off the hook for at least three more years.  I have never been so grateful to be so unwanted.

So right now, I’m busily getting ready for a one-day quilt retreat with my guild and preparing for a raw-edge applique presentation that I’m giving to the Heart of the Triad Quilt Guild in Kernersville on July 2.  I’m there a month before Pat Sloan is, which I guess is much better than following after  Pat Sloan.  That’s kind of like a paint-by-numbers project after you’ve just been given art lessons by da Vinci.  I have my power-point presentation all loaded and my notes ready to print.  I’ve just got to finish making my samples and my handouts.  However, let me set all of that aside and talk about quilt backs for a few minutes.  Quilt patterns will tell you how much fabric is needed for the back, but like their little catch phrase. “Quilt as Desired,” a lot can be open to interpretation.

Years ago, in the mid-eighties when I learned to quilt, quilt backs were generally all muslin because that was all we had to work with.  The top could be fifty different ways of wonderful, but that back?  It was going to always be either plain white or cream muslin.  Period.  Most of us were hand quilting everything then.  Muslin was easy to needle and it would show your stitches quite nicely.

Today, things have changed.  There are fabrics manufactured extra wide, intended to be a one-piece quilt back.  Somewhere along the way we quilters got really creative with our backs and learned to piece them with fabric that had previously only been seen on the quilt top.  And from this, things only got prettier.  What used to be considered nearly an after-thought with a quilt suddenly became as showy as the front.  And I think that’s awesome.  In my opinion, a lot of quilters, once they get that center top done, consider the borders and the back a last gasp of effort. Don’t be that quilter…please…

I think that currently quilts and their backs can be divided into two categories:  Those that are destined to go to the longarm artist….and those that are not.  Let me emphatically state right now that any of this stuff we’re discussing in the rest of this blog – if you’re taking your quilt to a longarm artist for quilting,  please run any of these ideas by them first to see exactly how he or she wants you to set the backs up. Some longarms like vertically pieced backs.  Some like horizontally pieced backs.  Some are fine with a back that has lots of pieces, some are not.  And what works on my longarm may not work on another one.  Don’t just assume.  Talk to your longarm artist.

That disclaimer taken care of…let’s proceed.  The easiest back to deal with for both the person doing the quilting and the piecer are the fabrics that are wide enough for quilt tops and don’t have to be pieced.

backing fabric

Per rule of thumb, a quilt back should be at least 4 inches wider at both sides and at the top and bottom of the quilt top.  Most longarmers are happier if they have six inches as the margin.  The reason for this is that the back and the batting shrink a little in the quilting.  That extra margin enables the back and batting to be sufficiently big enough for the quilting process, whether the top is quilted on a stationary or moveable machine.  A fabric that is designed to be used on the back (extra-wide, generally 108 inches) can be cut as one piece so there are no horizontal or vertical seams for the quilter to deal with.  This is my favorite, whether I’m quilting a small quilt on Big Red or one on Loretta, my long arm.  And these fabrics are pretty, too.  Long gone are the plain muslin days…these fabrics are stellar.  I’ve purchased quilt backing fabric to use on my quilt tops.  No shame in that game.

What must be considered with this kind of backing fabric (as well as any other fabric used for backing) is the quilting itself.  If the fabric is a solid color, the quilting will be showcased on the back.  There is no design in the material to hide quilting mistakes, irregular stitches, tension issues, or poorly made tie offs.  So, if you’re confident in your quilting skills or those of your longarm artist, a solid-color fabric should be fine.  However, if you’re not confident in any of these areas, go for a printed background.  The design in the fabric hides a lot of quilting “goofs” and in many ways is far prettier than a solid color.

If you can’t find a quilt backing fabric that coordinates with your quilt, or you simply have fallen in love with one of the fabrics you used in your top, piecing the back may be the best option for you.  This is not hard to do, it’s just an extra step.  There also are a few things that are done differently from traditional piecing.

  1. Remove the selvages.  Selvages can create tiny puckers along their length.  Then measure the fabric to determine how much fabric is left after the selvages are removed.  Some fabric lines have really large selvages (about an inch), so this step is an important one in discovering how much material you will need.  You do not have to do this if you purchase quilt backing fabric.
  2. Measure the height of the quilt and add 8-12 inches to this figure. That 8-12 inches is your extra margin, depending how much you or your quilter are comfortable with.
  3. Divide that figure by 36 to get your yardage. Then add a little extra.  If you’re planning on binding the quilt with the same backing fabric, be sure check your pattern for how much is needed and add this in also.
  4. When sewing the pieces together, forgo the 1/4-inch seam and go for 5/8-inch or slightly larger.  The back of a quilt generally undergoes more stress than the front (especially if it’s hung — it bears a lot of weight) and that larger seam allowance helps it deal with the stress of quilting and the stress of simply being the back of the quilt.  Also, press this seam open.  This spreads the bulk evenly over the area and makes the quilting process easier and smoother.

In arranging the layout for the pieced back, it’s important to avoid having any of the seams in the center of the quilt – either horizontally or vertically.  The reason for this is that when quilts are folded, that’s where the crease usually falls.  Having the fold falling on the seam can weaken the seam over time.  Most quilters prefer having one large panel of fabric run down the center of the quilt back, flanked by two smaller panels.  But there are times when this may not be the best choice.  Vertical seams work well with quilts that are 61 inches and larger.  Horizontal seams tend to work better with quilts that are 40-inches to 60-inches wide.




However, remember, preference should be given to the machine that you’re quilting on.   Machines are very different from each other.  Loretta doesn’t seem to mind if the seams run horizontally or vertically.  Big Red likes them vertical.  Picky critters.

Couple of facts to keep in mind as you are piecing the backs.  First, cutting the backing lengthwise will help stabilize everything, including the borders (which should also be cut lengthwise when at all possible).  Do not under any circumstance cut some pieces of the back on the crosswise of the grain and some on the lengthwise of the grain.  Talk about a nightmare…everything will run wonky then, as some of the weight of the quilt will pull the seams in different directions along the grain lines.  And if the quilt is going to be hung for any length of time (we’re not talking about a quilt show hanging), you probably will want to cut the backing along the lengthwise grain.  Crosswise grain cuts will stretch over time and the quilt will sag in places.

Next week we’ll look at some creative ways to piece your back and a take a peek at some fabric alternatives for it, too.  Until next week, Quilt with Excellence!


Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam






3 replies on “Backs for the Quilting Groove”

Your tips are very informative and challenged some of my assumptions. Thank you for this very detailed article.

[…] Backing – Remember that backing fabric shrinks disproportionally to other quilting cottons – as much as eight percent.  You may want to prewash your quilt backing fabric, if you’re using this material instead of piecing your back from regular quilting fabric. Just for reference, here’s the link to my blog on quilt backs: […]

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