It’s Hip to be Square (and other backing thoughts)

Let’s talk backing.

Poor backing, it can sometimes be an afterthought. So much time and energy goes into making a beautiful quilt top, and then you finish and you’re like, “Oh yeah… backing.” For your longarm quilter though, backing is the first thing we think of when it’s time to load a quilt. In this post, I’ll share everything you ever wanted to know about backing fabric specifically for longarm quilting. For today, backing is the star!

1. It needs to be square!

If you’ve ever looked at a Quilting Services page on a machine quilter’s website, I would stake the farm* on the fact that at some point, “Square your backing!” or the equivalent is said. What does this mean? A square backing is one in which the top and bottom edges are parallel, and the sides are parallel. All four corners are 90º angles. There is no fullness- meaning if you spread that backing out on the floor, it would lay flat. No ripples or funky parts that won’t stay down.

  • Why does it matter? When I said backing was the first thing your longarmer thinks of, I wasn’t kidding. It is the first part of your quilt that gets loaded onto the frame. It is literally the foundation of the quilt sandwich- everything else rests on top of it. We pin the top and bottom edge of the backing to the top and bottom canvas leaders. These canvas leaders are on rollers that roll opposite of each other, so that we can get that backing taut. If the backing isn’t square, it won’t be nice and flat and taut. Part of it will be, but another part might hang loosely, or twist funkily. Don’t let all this talk of the top and bottom edges distract you- the sides are just as important! We have lines on those leaders to mark the center, and we find the center of the top and bottom edges of the backing (by folding in half and bringing the sides together) and match it up to the leader lines when we pin.

Here’s what it looks like. I loaded this backing unsquarely, for example purposes:

Messy floor... oops

See how it’s all droopy and ripply and and the seam lines aren’t straight and it’s generally just crazy? I can’t layer batting and a quilt top on that to quilt it.


But see how nice and flat this quilt sandwich is? Underneath is a square backing that is giving me a great foundation for quilting.

It is important to pay attention to the grain of the fabric when cutting and piecing your backing. Here is an excellent article that goes over fabric grain if you feel a bit mystified about it. No matter how perfectly straight your cuts or piecing seams, if you’ve cut your backing off-grain, when your quilter rolls your backing up and the bars are pulling the fabric, it will stretch weirdly. You don’t want this! Fortunately, because backing requires such a large amount of fabric, you usually will be using it at the full width of fabric, or joining multiple full widths. Still, I mention it because it’s something to be mindful of and will greatly improve the quality of your finished product if it’s done correctly.

2. It needs to be sewn with a 1/2″ seam. 

In piecing a top, 1/4″ is the gold standard, but that isn’t best when piecing a backing. Instead, use a 1/2″.

  • Why does it matter? The rollers that I mentioned that roll opposite each other to get your backing taut put pressure on backing fabric. A 1/4″ seam is more likely to pop open than a 1/2″- so think of it as a safety measure.

3. It needs to be bigger than your top. 

Different longarmers have different requirements for how much bigger, so check with yours. For me, I ask for an extra 4″ on all sides, so a total of 8″. In other words, if your top is 80″ x 80″, your backing needs to be 88″ x 88″. Make sense?

  • Why does it matter? That excess gives us space to quilt to the edge of your top without the carriage of our machine running into the clamps that we attach to the sides. It gives us a place to test our tension. It’s a form of insurance that guarantees when we get to the bottom of your quilt top, there’s still plenty of backing left over and we’re not short. Basically, this is one of the most important things about your backing.

That about covers it. Those are the most important things you should know about backing fabric when you send your quilt to a longarm quilter. I hope that helps give a better understanding for why we ask for what we ask for. It’s not meant to be intimidating or a bunch of crazy rules to scare you off. What it boils down to is that we (I feel confident speaking for all longarmers here) want to do the best we can for you. We want to return to you a quilt that will make you ecstatic- and it all starts with the backing.

*I don’t actually have a farm. 


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