Binding Basics - Part 1: Introduction

Introduction to Binding Basics

by Ann Johnson

Binding is the finishing touch of making a quilt. Some quilters enjoy adding binding; they find it relaxing and satisfying. Sewing the binding by hand provides a quiet time to enjoy the pleasure of completing a project and the tradition of creating an heirloom. If the quilt is to be given as a gift for family or friend or a charity donation for a stranger experiencing crisis and tragedy, the quilter may reflect upon the recipient for whom the quilt is intended. Quilters at the other end of the continuum view binding as an intimidating and dreaded step; most of us are somewhere in between.

I hope the detailed, illustrated instructions in this tutorial will help you apply binding to your quilts and quilted projects whether you are a beginning or seasoned quilter. The content summarizes my recent review of binding instructions in quilting books and online resources. My comments are influenced as well by discussions with numerous quilters over the years and my own experience. Based on these resources, the type of applied binding discussed here is by far the most common type currently used by quilters; it has the following characteristics:

  • French-Fold (Double-Fold): This binding is folded in half before it is sewn onto the quilt which provides two layers of fabric to protect the edge of the quilt. It is important to distinguish between double-fold binding and “double-fold” bias tape (packaged or made with a bias tape maker). Bias tape is not well-suited to the wear and tear a quilt receives, especially with repeated washing, because only a single layer of fabric covers the edge. The same holds true for both straight-cut (not bias-cut) strips made with a bias tape maker and the technique of folding the backing fabric to the front for self-binding. Most quilters make their own binding for each project.

  • Cut on the Cross-Grain: Binding strips cut selvage-to-selvage across the width of fabric offer the strength of a straight grain, some flexibility to move with the quilt, ease of cutting, and use the least amount fabric. While borders are often cut on the length of fabric to provide maximum strength of grain, this can be a detriment for binding strips because there may be inadequate flexibly and a broken lengthwise thread greatly weakens the durability of the binding. This is less of a concern with cross-cut strips because they are usually cut slightly off-grain. Bias-cut binding is the most flexible (because it is cut on the stretchy 45°angle) and durable (goes across grains) but uses more fabric and requires more effort to make. Bias binding is needed for quilts with rounded corners or edges with curves and can add a design element. This tutorial will focus on cross-grain binding.

  • Machine-Sewn on the Front and Hand-Sewn on the Back: Several binding strips are pieced end-to-end to make binding long enough to go around the quilt; it is then folded in half along the length. With the raw edges on the edge of the quilt, the binding is sewn on by machine, folded to the back, and the folded edge is sewn on the back by hand.

  • Mitered Binding on 90° Corners and Quilts with Straight Edges: Mitered binding refers to the way the binding turns the corner on a quilt; the mitered fold mimics the mitered corner on a picture frame. The majority of quilts are square or rectangular so the corners are usually 90° (right angles) and have straight sides. For binding on quilts with corner angles other than 90° and those with rounded corners and curved sides, you need to go beyond basic binding techniques, which will be addressed in a different tutorial.

Why is binding important?

The main purpose of binding is to join and cover the raw edges of the three layers of the quilt “sandwich” (the quilt top, batting and backing) and protect the edges from wear and tear. The quality of technique is important; a badly applied binding detracts from the appearance of a quilt that is otherwise skillfully pieced and quilted. Well-made binding appears straight (unless on a curve), is completely filled with the three layers of the quilt sandwich without limp, empty spaces and covers the machine stitching line when folded over the edge and sewn onto the back of the quilt. Binding also provides a visual frame like a border; it may be used as a design element.

How do I choose fabric for my binding?

Binding fabric selection is determined by the type of project, the need for durability, and personal preference in terms of using binding as a design element. Binding takes the brunt of the wear and tear on a quilt that will be used and washed. A double-fold of a good quality quilter’s 100% cotton works well for most quilts. Thinner fabrics and single fold binding may be sufficient for a wall hanging or miniature that is handled less and rarely washed.

As a design element, binding adds a final border or frame to the quilted project. Ideally, the fabric will “honor” the quilt, add visual interest, complement or repeat the other fabrics and not detract from the attention due to the rest of the quilt. Most quilters like their bindings to contrast the quilt top and frame it. Other quilters, who prefer the binding not to be noticeable, repeat the same fabric for the outer border and binding. For practical purposes, binding is often a darker color. Scrappy bindings are a good way to use up scraps leftover from the quilt. Some quilters prefer to select the binding after the quilt top is finished. Kits usually include binding.

Stripes and plaids are popular for binding; they are often cross-cut (selvage-to-selvage) or bias-cut. Cutting stripes and plaids on the bias adds an interesting design element. A diagonally printed stripe is great because it can be cut on the width of fabric and look like you made bias binding without the hassle. A fabric with a linear design may need to be “fussy-cut” (unfold fabric and cut strips individually) if you are trying to follow a design. Designs are often printed straightest along the selvage; this may be one time lengthwise-cut strips would have the advantage. You would have to weigh the design benefit versus the less desirable functional aspects of making the binding this way.

End of Part One - Part Two covers makin