Finishing Your Quilt

Finishing Your Quilt

A quilt consists of three layers: the quilt top, the batting layer in the middle, and the quilt back. Quilting — whether by machine or hand — or tying holds the three layers together, and the binding encloses the raw edges of the quilt. Together, these elements add the finishing touches to your project. While there are many finishing techniques and styles to choose from, which techniques you choose is largely a matter of personal preference and may vary from project to project. This section provides an overview of options and outlines the steps necessary to finish your quilt.

Plan Your Quilting

At this stage, you have some decisions to make: would you like to quilt by hand or machine? Do you want an all-over pattern on your quilt, or do you prefer to accentuate the piecing with your stitches? Maybe you would you rather tie the quilt for a homespun look, or maybe you’d rather someone else do the quilting for you. Read on for help deciding how to finish your quilt project.

Traditional quilts were often quilted in patterns created by tracing readily available household objects, like teacups and saucers, or perhaps something from the toolbox in the barn. Take a look around your home, and you’ll probably find similar objects you can trace to create an overlapping grid, for example. Quilt shops carry loads of precut quilting stencils in many different patterns. You can make your own stencils by cutting shapes in template plastic or lightweight cardboard. We also offer some Quilting Templates you can use for machine or hand-quilting on our website.

Regardless of whether I’m quilting by machine or hand, I tend to like simple quilting patterns, by machine or hand, that don’t compete with the piecing. A diagonal grid takes a while to mark (and quilt), but is beautiful and works with almost any type of piecing. My signature Figure-Eight long-arm machine-quilting pattern is another versatile favorite.

This section includes details for marking your quilting lines, but if f you don’t want to take the time to mark your quilting lines, there are some options available to you. Outline quilting follows the piecing or seam lines of the patchwork, so you can skip the marking process. Variations on outline quilting include stitching-in-the-ditch, which means quilting very close to the seams, on the side without the seam allowance underneath. Appliqué motifs look great with a close outline of hand-quilting stitches. Echo quilting is traditionally worked about ¼" from the seam line of the shape to be outlined. Often the lines are repeated, or echoed, several times at the same distance apart, with each line emanating outward from the shape. I usually like to stitch-in-the-ditch of the shape and then stitch echo lines 1" to 1-¼" apart.

Another option is to have someone else quilt your top for you. There are many affordable long-arm quilting services, and often there is no need to baste or mark your quilt in preparation, which is a huge time-saver. Check with your local quilt shop or guild for resources. There are also hand-quilting services as well, usually Amish or Mennonite craftswomen, who do amazingly fine stitching.

Why not organize your own old-fashioned quilting bee? Bees, like barn-raisings, were a popular way to socialize and make light work of arduous or time-consuming tasks in the mid 1800’s. You may not get fine quilting skills from friends and family, but you will have a quilt invested with an abundance of love and memories.

Mark Your Quilting Lines

As with so many other aspects of quilt making, there are numerous tools and techniques available for marking the quilting lines on your quilt top. Whatever marking tool you use, be sure to test it on your fabrics first and carefully read the manufacturer’s instructions.

If my quilt top is dark, I use tailor's chalk to mark my lines. It shows up well, and doesn’t drag on the top. Quilts with lighter backgrounds are a little harder to work with, as none of the options is ideal. A silver marking pencil works well, and I sometimes use a water-soluble marking pen, but do be aware that the latter has drawbacks and must be thoroughly washed out of the quilt after quilting. If you use stencils, a pouncer (either store bought or homemade) is a fast and easy option for marking through the stencil. Painter’s tape, available in different widths, can be used for marking straight lines on quilt tops. If you put the top away for long periods of time, remove the tape first so you don’t get a sticky residue on your quilt top.

If you have limited space, it’s a good idea to choose a quilting pattern that doesn’t require you to lay out the entire top for marking. Instead, choose patterns you can mark one block at a time, or use outline quilting so you don’t have to mark at all. When quilting block by block, hera markers are useful for making temporary indentations on your fabric that you can use to guide your quilting without ink or chalk (in a pinch, you can use the back, dull side of a butter knife the same way).

Prior to marking, make sure your quilt top is well pressed (I usually press the reverse side of the quilt top first to correct any wayward seam allowances, then press it again on the front), and smooth it out on a large, flat surface. It’s generally easier to mark your quilt top before you layer it with the batting and backing, especially if you’re using pins to baste, which can get in the way. If you’re using a hera marker, you can mark each portion of the quilt sandwich directly before quilting, working around the basting pins as needed.

Make a Homemade Pouncer

You can purchase a ready-made tool for pouncing (marking through a quilting stencil), or you can make one with household materials, as our quilting predecessors did. Place a handful of chalk dust, cornstarch, or baking soda in the center of a small square of muslin, and tie up the ends to make a sack.

Lightly pounce or rub over the stencil holes to transfer the markings. Re-mark as needed if your pattern wears off during the quilting process. As with all marking materials, test first on your fabrics to make sure you can remove the marks.

Create the Quilt Back

The easiest way to create a quilt back is to use extra-wide fabric specifically made for backing quilts (called wideback). Other options include piecing the back from quilt-top leftovers or using fabric from your stash. I usually choose colors that complement, rather than match, my quilt top. If a quilt top has a lot of white, I tend to choose lighter colors for the back so it won’t show through to the front.

For machine quilting on a long-arm machine, piece and trim the backing so it is 8" longer and wider than the quilt top. If you are hand quilting or tying your quilt, make your backing 5" longer and wider than the top (3" larger is enough for smaller crib and baby quilts). It’s a good idea to measure your finished quilt top — rather than using the stated size in the pattern instructions, as yours might vary a bit — and add the extra inches to determine the backing size.

If you plan to send your quilt out for long-arm machine or hand quilting, your quilter may have different size requirements, so check with them before you make your back.

Your batting should be the same size as your quilt back. Long-arm quilters frequently offer batting options if you don’t want to bother providing your own, so check with your quilter if this interests you.

Make the Quilt Sandwich

Once you’ve marked your quilt top, you’re ready to make the quilt sandwich in preparation for quilting or tying. Wrong side up, lay the quilt back on your work surface or floor, first smoothing it lengthwise, then widthwise, and tape it in place using painter’s tape. If you’re working on a rug or carpet, you can use T pins to pin the quilt to the carpet pile. It’s important to keep the back taut (but not stretched) so there won’t be any wrinkles or bunches in your finished quilt. Center the batting on top of the quilt back and smooth it out, working from the center outward. With the right side up, center the quilt top on the batting and smooth it outward from the center as well.

Baste the Quilt

Once you’ve made the quilt sandwich, the next step is to baste the layers together to keep them from shifting during quilting or tying. You can secure the layers with basting pins or by hand basting with a needle and thread. With either method, you will form a grid, basting about every 3"-5". If you hand baste, use running stitches 2"-3" long. Begin basting from the center of the quilt diagonally out to the corners, then baste vertical and horizontal lines. Slide your cutting mat under the backing to protect your floor while basting or your patience if you have carpeting. Use your ruler to slide the mat to different positions. Remove the basting stitches or pins after you have finished quilting.


Hand Quilting

I love the subtle texture of hand-quilting, which add a soft dimension to the otherwise flat design. Hand quilting intimidates some quilters, but it’s not hard — if you can sew, you can hand quilt. You do need some patience, though, because hand quilting takes time. You can use a hand-held quilting hoop to keep your layers taut, or invest in a quilt frame if you are committed to the technique. Personally, I prefer to quilt in my lap without a hoop.

Your sewing doesn’t need to be expert, but aim for consistently sized stitches on both the front and back using a running stitch. With practice, your stitches will become smaller. Many quilters use a size 8 or 9 quilting needle (called betweens). As you gain more experience, you can try a smaller needle (size 10 or 12). Be sure to use a thread designed for hand quilting or sewing, which is less likely to twist or knot.

Big-stitch quilting is a bit more forgiving and achievable if you’re just starting out. Use a heavier thread (like pearl cotton #8), an embroidery needle with a sharp point and large eye, and a stitch length that feels natural to you (¼" or even longer).

Machine Quilting

Machine quilting can be just as beautiful as hand quilting, and it is more durable to boot. The hardest part about machine sewing the three layers of your quilt together is wrangling it under your machine, especially if it is large. With the right tools for your machine (a walking foot for straight-line quilting and a darning foot for free-motion designs), however, it’s certainly a less time-consuming method than hand quilting.

Quilting thread color is subject to personal preference. You’ll notice I sew most of my quilts in off-white thread, whether it’s machine or hand quilted. I like the way it seems to unify all the piecing. If you’re new to quilting, you may wish to match your thread to your predominant quilt colors so inconsistencies will be less visible.

Hand-Tied Method

Hand tying is the easiest and quickest of all the methods to secure the layers of a quilt. Choose wool or cotton yarn, pearl cotton, or embroidery floss in either a contrasting or matching color. I love the texture and homespun liveliness of a quilt tied with wool that has felted up with decades of washings. Quilt designs with consistently sized patches or units lend themselves well to tying and don’t need to be marked for tying.

With your acrylic ruler and chalk or pencil, mark a grid on the quilt top as needed. The grid can be regular or offset, at intervals anywhere from 1"-12" apart, depending on the look you desire and the quilting-distance requirements of your chosen batting.

Use a light- to medium-weight thread or yarn and a sharp, strong needle with an eye large enough for the yarn. A piece of balloon or silicone needle pullers will give your fingers some grip to pull the needle through, if necessary. All tying is worked from the quilt front.

For the most basic of tying stitches, simply insert the needle at a tying point, going down through all layers and leaving a 2" tail of yarn on the quilt surface, then come back up about ¼" away from where you entered. Without cutting the yarn, insert the needle at the next tying point and repeat. Complete all the ties in the same way, then cut the thread between each point and tie a square knot (right over left, then left over right) at each point. Leave as is or trim the thread at each tie to no less than ½" if desired.

For some quilts, I like to use a double strand of yarn to make a more prominent tie. Other options include taking an extra stitch at each tying point to make a stronger bond (and a thicker stitch on the back); making an X-stitch; using French knots; or using a popcorn stitch, which will make the fuzziest of tied stitches.

Square Up the Quilt

Before binding, trim the excess batting and backing fabric and check that the sides of your quilt are straight and that the corners are square. If necessary, square up the sides and corners of your quilt. Machine baste ¼" from the edge to hold the layers together.

I use a long (8'), flat aluminum bar to make squaring up quilts a cinch. It’s about the width and thickness of a metal ruler, and is lightweight. It’s available at home building supply stores, and is an inexpensive addition to your arsenal of tools. It’s also great for marking long quilting lines.


Binding is a long strip of folded fabric that encases the raw edges of a quilt. There are many ways to bind a quilt, but my favorite method is the double-fold, straight-grain technique. The technique produces a narrow, ⅜"-wide edging on both the front and back of the quilt, with square corners. You’ll machine sew the binding onto the quilt front, then use a blind stitch to hand-sew it to the back.

  1. Measure the perimeter of your quilt, and add 18" to allow for seams, turning corners, and finishing the ends. Divide that number by the width of your fabric (don’t include the selvages). This number represents the number of 2-½" x  WOF strips you’ll need to cut for your binding. Round up to the nearest full number – if you need a bit more than six strips, cut seven.

  2. To join the strips, layer two strips perpendicular to each other with right sides together, and align the ends. Sew diagonally across the strips, as shown, and trim the excess fabric to a ¼" seam (Diagram 16a). Repeat to sew all the WOF strips into one long binding strip. Press the seams open.

  3. With wrong sides together, fold the strip in half lengthwise and press.

  4. Starting at the center of one side of the quilt and leaving a 5" tail of binding free, align the raw edge of the folded binding with the raw edge of the quilt top. Use a ⅜" seam allowance to sew the binding to the quilt, stopping ⅜" before the corner (Diagram 16b). Backstitch, snip the threads, and remove the quilt from the machine.

  5. Fold the loose end of the binding toward the right, creating a 45-degree angle (Diagram 16c), then back toward the left, overlapping the sewn corner (Diagram 16d). Align the raw edge of the binding with the second side of the quilt and clip or pin in place.

  6. Start sewing again ⅜" from the edge and backstitch. Be careful not to catch the fold of binding at the corner. Continue sewing along the second side with a ⅜" seam allowance. Repeat to make your way around the quilt top, stopping about 12" from the beginning of the binding. Backstitch and remove the quilt from the machine.

  7. Lay the strips flat on the quilt top and overlap the two binding ends by 2-½" (or the width of the binding strip), then trim. [Diagram16e] Unfold the ends and layer them perpendicular to one another with right sides together and ends aligned. Sew diagonally, as you did when joining the strips, and trim the excess fabric to a ¼" [Diagram16f] Press the seam open. Refold the binding and finish sewing it to the quilt.

  8. Turn the binding over the raw edge to the back of the quilt, and blind stitch the folded edge of the binding to the quilt back.