Binding Basics - Part 2: Making the Binding

Making the Binding

by Ann Johnson

What size binding should I use?

Asking quilters what size binding to use and strip size to cut may elicit as many different answers as asking “Do you pre-wash your fabric?” Binding size is a personal preference, but there are some general guidelines. Binding size refers to the width of the finished binding as it appears from the front of the quilt. The size of the binding is determined by the size of the seam allowance used when the binding is sewn on and how loosely or tightly the binding is folded to the back. A 1/4” seam allowance is by far the most common size; sometimes 3/8”, 1/2” or 5/8” is used. Keep in mind if there are points next to the binding, because there is no border or corner blocks are pieced, the seam allowance needs to be 1/4” so the points are not cut off. Alternately, the batting and backing can be cut slightly larger for a larger seam allowance.

The binding size controversy lies in deciding what size binding strips to cut. While the math should be simple, quilter preferences are diverse. Beginning quilters and those with hand discomfort often prefer to cut slightly wider strips. Other quilters, especially for quilts to be entered in judged quilt competitions, prefer a tight binding made from a smaller strip with the folded edge just barely covering the stitching line on the back. My personal preference is to use 2” strips (2-1/4” with flannels) and a 1/4” seam allowance for most quilts. The following suggestions, which incorporate these variations, are based on a review of numerous quilting resources and a Connecting Threads customer survey. The most commonly used sizes are in bold. If you prefer looser binding or are using a high loft batting or flannel fabrics, use strips on the wider end of the range. For a tighter binding using regular quilter’s cotton fabrics and low loft batting, use a strip size on the narrower end of the range.

Based on a recent customer survey of binding and strip size preferences and for the sake of consistency, Connecting Threads patterns now will suggest to cut 2-1/4” wide strips and use a 1/4” seam allowance; customers who prefer to cut strips slightly smaller or larger are welcome to do so.

How much binding is required?

Measure the quilt’s perimeter (add up the four sides) to determine how much binding is needed. Add 10” or more to allow for mitering corners and joining ends. Divide the total by 40” (safest usable fabric width, especially if pre-washed) to determine how many cross-cut (selvage-to-selvage) strips are needed to make the quilt binding. Be generous with your estimate! For example: a queen size quilt may be 102” x 112” ----> 102 + 102 + 112 + 112 = 428 + 10 = 438 ÷ 40 =10.95 =11 strips cut on the width of fabric. Many patterns will tell you how many strips to cut. Another way to figure out a quilt’s binding requirements is to physically lay strips around the edge of the quilt; this works especially well when several smaller strips of several fabrics are used to make a “scrappy” binding.

How do I cut and piece the binding strips?

After deciding how wide to cut the strips and how many strips are needed, cut the binding strips across the width of fabric with the fabric folded wrong sides together. Align the selvages to help keep the cross-grain perpendicular to the selvages; a readjustment of the fold is often needed. Use an acrylic quilting ruler, not the lines on the cutting mat, to cut the strips. Refer back to the diagram of fabric grains in Part One as needed.

Piecing binding strips with a diagonal seam and pressing the seam open (the same way borders are pieced) make the binding flatter and less noticeable. Using a matching thread will also make the seam show less (if using contrasting thread, use a smaller stitch length). The first step is to lay the strips so the direction of the diagonal stitching line can be determined; using the same method every time will decrease errors. Laying two strips on top of each other with a diagonal seam will result in an “L” shape. Until you are confident about the direction, pin on the diagonal stitching line and open the strip to see if it is a straight line or a 90° angle (especially if you are going to chain-piece!). Note in the lower example that the selvages are cut off when the seam allowance is trimmed; it is not necessary to trim them off earlier. Some quilters prefer to cut the selvages off and/or cut the diagonal lines before piecing; this results in stretchy bias ends to be matched and pinned.

  • Lay the strips with right sides together and perpendicular to each other. Draw a diagonal line exactly from corner-to-corner on the edges where the strips intersect as shown; this is actually easier to visualize if the strips extend beyond each other slightly. If the line is off, the pieced strips will not be straight (upper example). With more experience, it is possible to skip drawing the line.
  • Pinning is optional, but it will keep the strips in place together when you start sewing.
  • Sew along the diagonal line; chain-piecing makes sewing the strips go faster and keeps the pieced seams joined together for trimming (do not cut the strings yet). Note that the tail end of the strip on top becomes the strip on the bottom when the next strip is added. Always keep right sides together. It helps to look directly where you are sewing to (where the sewing line will end) and not at the needle; your eyes will guide your hands there. This technique is especially useful if you choose to sew the diagonal line without drawing it first.

  • Trim off the extra fabric, leaving a 1/4” seam allowance. This can be done at the cutting table with a rotary cutter and ruler (not shown) or by hand with scissors at the ironing board. The method shown below shows trimming off the “bunny ears” as well. Note that the chain-piecing brings the next seam to you without searching for it!

  • Press the binding in half lengthwise and seams open as you come to them. Many quilters like to spray the binding with Mary Ellen’s Best Press, starch or sizing for more stiffness. Although pressing the binding is by far the most common practice, some quilters skip this step due to lack of time and/or energy or the idea that the precise location of the fold changes as the binding is folded to the back of the quilt.
  • Rolling the binding on an empty toilet paper or paper towel tube helps keep the binding tidy for storage, if not attaching it right away.

End of Part Two - Part Three covers preparin