Friday, March 18, 2011

Quiltmaking 101 -- Perfect faced quilts -- the tutorial

Much as I love traditional quilt bindings, I think that if you want your quilts to be regarded as art you do better to make a more “painting-like” finish for your edges. Here’s how I put facings on my quilts so the composition goes all the way to the edge.

After the piece is quilted and pressed or blocked, stretch it out flat on a cutting mat and use your ruler to establish the trim line. Since you will turn back a half-inch, you have a little wiggle room – you can trim a little bit beyond the edges of the piecing.

PS – the clamp holds the ruler in place to make it easier to cut a long straight edge. As an alternative, call a helper to hold down one end of the ruler, especially if you're working on a large quilt.

Proceed around the quilt and trim all four edges.

Cut facing strips 2 ½ or 2 ¼ inches wide on the cross-grain of the fabric (to give it a little more stretch). Place the first facing strip at one corner of your quilt, and stitch along one side of the quilt with a half-inch seam allowance. Stop about three inches from the corner and put your needle down so the quilt stays in place.

Cut off the facing strip about one inch from the end of the quilt. Hold it up out of the way and position the second facing strip at the corner. Turn back a quarter-inch hem and pin that in place.

Let the free end of the first facing strip fall back in place, and stitch through both layers to the corner.  Turn the corner and stitch along the second side of the quilt. When you approach the next corner, repeat what you just did.

When you get around to the fourth corner, pin back the hem on the first facing strip, which is waiting for you, lay the facing over it and complete the stitching to the corner.

You have completed part 1 of the facing. That was the easy part.

Part 2 presents more of a challenge, because you now have to turn the facings right side out, and what’s going to happen to the bulk at the corners?  That has always been my pet peeve with quilt facings done in the traditional manner – you can end up with four layers of batting and backing, plus eight layers of facing strip, plus four layers of quilt top, all stacked on top of one another. That makes a huge lump at the corner and I think the whole quilt looks clunky as a result.

My method eliminates the bulk at the corners. Sure, you have a double thickness where you turn back the half-inch edge, but the corners are no thicker than the rest of the edge. Here’s how that happens.

Go to one of the corners and rip out the stitching about a half-inch back in both directions.

Pull back the facing and the quilt top, separating the quilt layers into two halves.  The quilt top and the facing will become the top and bottom of the corner of your finished quilt; they're essential.  But the batting and backing do nothing but add bulk; they're a liability in the corner, and we are going to get rid of them.

Make sure you have two layers turned back -- the essential two layers -- and two layers lying flat on the table -- the liability layers.  You will probably be able to see the needle holes from your stitching line, even though you have ripped out the thread. For this picture I marked the corner in green, and I often do the same thing in real life so I can tell where the corner falls.

Here’s the scary part. Get a scissors. But before you cut, say out loud, at least once: “Don’t cut the quilt top, don’t cut the facing, they are essential.” And make sure you do what you just said. You are going to cut away the batting and the backing at a 45-degree angle, about a quarter-inch inside the corner. After you cut, check the little triangular piece and make sure you have indeed snipped off the corner (that’s why it’s a good idea to mark it in pencil or ink).

Lay your uncut top and facing back in place, and re-sew the corner.

Here’s what it looks like on the bottom.

If you’ve ever sewed garments, you are probably flashing back to the points on collars and the square corners on cuffs. You are thinking the next step is to trim off the edges of the facing, grading them practically to the sewing line at the corner. If this is the case, you need to be brainwashed. Get that image out of your head!  There's no more cutting!

You’re going to keep all that extra fabric and turn it in when you flip the facing right side out. Remember, you cut off the backing and batting from the corner, leaving a tiny triangle with no stuffing at all. If it didn’t get filled with something, it would be awfully limp and puny there after you got the quilt finished. But now the extra fabric of the top and facings will cram into the corner and fill it out.

You can get the corner turned almost all the way just by sticking your finger in firmly. If you need to urge it a little more, a small crochet hook has a rounded end that you can poke into the corner without fear that it will stab a hole.

Press the corner between thumb and finger to get it smooth and flat, using your crochet hook if needed. You may need to poke and prod and press at the corner for a couple of minutes to get everything lying neatly in place. Push and pull the top facing toward the left (as the photo above is oriented) to keep it taut away from the corner. When you feel that all the layers are lying smooth and flat, pin enthusiastically.

Flip the quilt over and make sure the facing doesn’t bulge out and show from the front.

Continue to pin the top facing along the edge of the quilt, moving away from the corner, working right to left (counterclockwise). First turn back the half-inch edge of the quilt, finger-pressing and pinning it in place (the white pins in the photo above), making sure the facing is pulled taut away from the edge. Then turn the hem allowance under and pin there (the red pins in the photo). Keep both rows of pins in place till you have finished hemming.

You may want to pin all the way around the quilt before you start hemming. Or you may want to pin one edge, sew it, and then pin the next one. It doesn’t really matter, except that you should always stitch counterclockwise. And instead of starting in a corner, start sewing three or four inches to the left of the corner. You’ll see why in a minute.

When you have made your way all around the quilt, turning, finger-pressing and pinning, you may find that by continually pulling and smoothing your facing taut toward the left you are moving a bubble of extra fabric ahead of you. Now that you’re reaching the starting point, how will you make the corner lie flat?

Well, remember that you haven’t sewed down the corner yet – this is why you started three or four inches in. You can take out a couple of pins from the corner, smooth the bubble in under the top facing, repin, and sew around to your starting point.

For this tutorial I assume that you are hemming down the facings by hand. If you want to add a line or two of machine topstitching for a more secure edge finish (click here for a post about this technique) I suggest you turn the corners, pin the outer edges of the quilt, machine stitch through the half-inch turnback, then hand-hem the facings down last.


  1. Thanks so much for writing up this tutorial. It's so helpful to have the step by step instructions before I plunge it. I have one question, you mentioned that you will turn back 1/2", so this means that you sew on the facing strips 1/2" from the edge of the trimmed quilt, right? I really like the finished look of this, I will try it out on my next project.

  2. You're right, Sharon -- seamline is a half inch in from the edge. I'll go back and clarify that in the post itself -- thank you!!

  3. Thanks! I'm bookmarking this for later. I agree that art quilts need something else finish-wise. Good idea.

  4. Thanks so much for the tutorial! I think I could actually do this now. Your pictures and written instructions are so clear. I've got a couple small quilts almost to the finishing stage. I'm going to try this on at least one of them.

  5. Thank you for such a wonderful tutorial. I have tried quite a few methods, but this looks like the best ever. I will certainly be trying this on my next art quilt. Very well explained and illustrated. Thank you thank you!

  6. Thank you so much for this excellent tutorial Kathleen. It is very timely as I want to use this finish on my Journal Quilts this year and have never tried it before. Thank you for taking the time and effort to put this tutorial together.

  7. Kathy, for several years I've used your facing instructions that involve a one-piece corner and edge-stitching. I have had wonderful results with that. I'm curious about why you have abandoned that and why you feel this works better.

  8. Hi Suzanne! that's a good question -- let me answer it at a bit more length. I'll do a post in the next couple of days.

  9. I used your tute. The first corner was tough – so worried about cutting the quilt top. And I needed to repeat this three more times!
    Methodology helped: after ripping out the corner stitches, placed quilt face side up (back side down) on the cutting mat. Folded back corner layers until only the bottom two are left. There they were - the layers to cut – the batting and back. Sliced off corner and repeat for the other corners. Whew! No mishaps.
    I'm really pleased with the results! Thanks so much!

  10. Hi Kathy,
    I taught your facing method at our guild's "Quilt University" tonight. Everyone loved the finished look. I used your method on a quilt I made that hung at "Road to California" this year. It was one of 9 quilts hung together to form an Iris and Ginger garden. We all used your method and the quilts looked great hanging together.

    1. Phyllis -- thanks for letting me know! I'm so glad you like the facing method.

  11. I'll definitely try that next time - there will soon be a next time...!

  12. Your method looks very good. A little scary (Don't cut the front! Don't cut the front!) but looks like it handles the bulk well! I had too many quilting lines in my corners to test it with the quilt I just finished, but I think it will work for the one I am curently quilting and will try it. Thank you for posting this! I directed someone who is afraid her pieced background will create too much bulk for a standard facing.

    1. Ruth -- you're right that dense quilting in the corners makes this method a little tricky. It's possible to tediously unstitch the quilting lines until you're inside the facing seamline, then bury the thread ends. Better if you can anticipate and don't put a lot of quilting into the corner.

      Good luck!

  13. Brilliant Idea, thanks so much for sharing!!