A Primer on Quilt Binding Techniques (Part 1)

Hello, everyone!  I’m preparing to teach a local class on Quilt Binding called “Finishing Strong.”  While getting ready for the class, I realized that this information is good information to have on my website. Besides, my sewing buddy, Barbara, has been after me to write down some of my binding tips for her. So, I’m killing two birds with one stone — making my friend happy and giving the information a trial run!

There’s quite a bit of information to cover, so I will divide the information into three (or more) posts. Here is what we will cover:

  1. What is Quilt Binding and what is it’s purpose?
  2. The various ways to construct binding,
  3. How to calculate how much binding and fabric you need,
  4. How to attach quilt binding to your quilt, and
  5. Techniques to get a beautiful mitered corner and a perfect finish.

I was so excited about the class that I put my graphic designer hat back on and created some handouts and charts. I will make those available on the website as downloads in my Freebies section later in the series, so please come back to check them out. Today’s post covers some introductory information, and each day will build a little on the previous post. Let’s begin!

What is Quilt Binding?

Binding is a strip of protective fabric you attach to the outside edges of the quilt. I like to think that it’s a lot like putting a bow on a present. It’s that finishing touch that makes all the difference to the final presentation!

There are several types of binding that you can make, but the type most commonly used in quilting is “French Fold” binding. In the French Fold binding technique, you first fold the strip of binding fabric in half before you attach it to the edges of the quilt. This means that you have a double layer of fabric covering the edges of your quilt. And that translates into an edge that is much stronger than it would be if you used just a single layer of binding fabric.

French Fold quilt binding is definitely the way to go, because it results in a quilt that is better able to stand the test of time. Face it. That quilt is going to get washed a lot. It’s going to be used, and perhaps even a little bit abused, once it gets put into family life. And that’s a good thing, cause quilts were meant to be used and loved.

Illustration of Binding Strips folded for French Fold Binding
Binding Strips folded for French Fold Binding. Notice that the folded strip now has a finished edge and a raw edge.

What does Quilt Binding do?

Some of this may seem a bit obvious, but let’s go over it just the same. The binding on your quilt serves three main purposes. Quilt binding:

  • covers and protects the raw edges of the quilt;
  • holds all the layers of the quilt together;
  • frames your design, adding to the beauty of your quilt;

Points 1 and 2 are pretty self-explanatory, but let’s pause to talk about point 3. I think one of the most important decisions you can make is what color/design of fabric to use when you bind your quilt.

Quilt Binding Design Tips:

From a design perspective, you can either frame it to accentuate and enclose the design or you can frame it so that the edge “floats.” What do I mean by that?  Well, take a look at the quilt designs below that I drew in Illustrator. In the first one the dark binding frames the design by enclosing it. The second image shows a binding that matches the border (or floating into the border), so that the border serves to frame the design of the quilt. The design seems to “float” in the negative space.

Air Castle Quilt with Dark Quilt Binding which FRAMES design
Air Castle Quilt with Dark Quilt Binding which FRAMES design
Illustration of an Air Castle Quilt with White Quilt Binding in which design FLOATS
Air Castle Quilt with White Quilt Binding in which design FLOATS

Here is another example, but this time the design goes all the way to the edge.  Notice what happens visually when the binding is dark and what happens when the binding matches the background. My personal preference when a design goes to the edge is to choose a dark binding that will frame it. The “frame” ties the design together, so that your eye knows where to focus.

Illustration of a Quilt with a Dark Quilt Binding that frames the design
Quilt with a Dark Quilt Binding that “frames” the design

Illustration of a Quilt with a White Quilt Binding that matches the background
Quilt with a White Quilt Binding that matches the background

The bottom line is that you should take the time to think about the final look of the quilt once the binding is attached.

And one more thing to think about if you are considering a white binding: dirt. will. show.  So, if you’re quilt is going to be used a lot, you might want to reconsider white for that scenario.

Wait for it…

After I have pieced my quilt top, I choose my binding fabric. It is rare for me to choose it ahead of time. (The same is true for my backing.)  If the quilt is primarily from a certain line of fabrics, I often try to purchase enough up front to have a few binding options from the leftovers. But more often than not, I purchase my binding and backing after the top is pieced. I like to see how the binding, backing and top all relate to each other, and it’s hard to do that before the top is pieced.

When you are ready to choose a binding, I recommend that you audition several fabrics by laying them along the edge of your quilt top. Stand back and make sure you like the effect. Many times I’ve initially thought that I would prefer a solid for my binding and I’ve ended up using a tiny floral print that coordinated with my backing. It just depends on the quilt and your preference, so try several options.

One more little design tip about binding:

I learned this one when I first began to quilt from my quilting mentor, Miss Emma. A lot of quilters know this trick, but it’s a good one that bears repeating.  Plaids, checks and striped fabrics make visually interesting bindings. Stripes look especially good cut on the bias. (We discuss this in detail in a later post.)  If you purchase some fabrics from a line that has some checks, plaids or stripes, then pick up at least 3/4 yard of any that you think might work as a possible binding.

Your First Decision:

The first thing you must decide when you make binding is how wide to cut those strips of fabric. Let’s visualize this. First, you fold the strip in half. After it’s attached to one side, it is folded over the edges and is attached to the back of the quilt. Each of those steps takes up a little bit of the width. Several factors affect how wide your finished binding will be:

  • The thickness of your quilt.  If your batting has a high loft, it will consume more of your binding width.
  • Your seam allowance. The wider allowance you use, the more width you take up

To keep things simple, we will always attach binding using a 1/4″ seam. There may be times when a wider one makes sense, but for now, a 1/4″ seam is our standard.

So, how wide should you cut it?

Most quilters cut binding that is 2.5″ wide.  I cut my quilt binding strips 2.5″ wide if I plan to attach the binding completely by machine. Am I trying to make this super-fast? Is this quilt subject to frequent washing?  If so, (think Baby quilts or placemats), then I attach the binding with a machine technique. If I plan to hand stitch the binding to the back (more important for heirloom or competition quality quilts), then I cut my binding strips 2.25″ wide. For machine techniques, I know I need that little extra .25″ to make sure the needle doesn’t miss the binding. In either case, I want my binding to fit snugly against the edges of my quilt when I attach it. So, after a lot of experimentation, I discovered that these two widths work great for me.

The Squish Test:

A hallmark of quality quilt binding is that it fits nice and tight. Here’s a test: take a quilt that is already bound, and squeeze the binding lightly between your fingers and thumb. Do you feel any squishy or gappy areas that are not filled up by the quilt? If so, then the binding is not attached tightly enough.

I think that’s enough for today.  I’ll be back in a week to continue this topic.  Next week we will discuss different options for cutting those strips and how to prepare your binding!

Happy Quilting!

Maria

Happy Quilting!