How much backing fabric do you really need?

As a longarm quilter for hire I sometimes have to work through quilting challenges, such as tops that aren’t square or borders that are too big. By now I’ve quilted quite a few tops and have a few tricks up my sleeve to be able to handle most of the issues that come my way.

But there is one issue that I find myself faced with quite often that takes me a fair amount of time to correct. This costs the customer extra money because they are paying for my time. The issue I’m talking about is backing that is not the appropriate size.

Because it is such an easy fix by the customer I thought I would share with you what I’m talking about, and why it is important to provide your longarm quilter backing fabric that is a workable size.

When a customer asks me what size backing they need, I always ask for the back to be 4-6″ inches larger than the top on all sides. So, for a top that is 60″ x 80″ the backing should be at minimum 68″ x 88″ (60″ + 4″ + 4″ = 68″ and 80″ + 4″ + 4″ = 88″) and ideally 72″ x 92″. Why so big, you ask? Let me show you.

Some time ago I received this top to quilt. The cream fabric is the backing, and it was about 3″ wider than the quilt top. This means there was 1-1/2″ of extra fabric on each side.

backing fabric with quilt top

When loading a quilt back onto a quilting frame, it is rolled onto two rollers – one at the top of the fabric and one at the bottom. This provides a nice flat surface with even tension on which to quilt. Now tension needs to be added to the sides as well. This four-way tension ensures that puckers and tucks won’t be quilted into the back. Side tension is achieved by adding clamps to each side.

backing fabric with quilt top

Now you can see how the clamps attach to the back, and how the quilt top butts up against the clamp.

backing fabric with quilt top

This is a real problem to try to quilt, because to get the machine needle to the edge of the quilt top, the machine casing will bump against that clamp. So how do I work with this? The fix I use most often is to pin fabric to the sides of the backing and then clamp onto those fabric pieces.

backing fabric with quilt top

The pieces I use are about 7″ square. This size is okay when I’m free motion quilting, or using a computerized edge-to-edge design. But if my client has asked for custom quilting then it can still be an issue. Custom quilting usually involves some or mostly ruler work. So now I have to have clearance on the sides for the ruler base that fits on my machine.

Ruler base on longarm

See how far that base extends on each side of the machine’s needle? When I’m trying to use a ruler, if that base hits the side clamps then it messes up the ruler work. This is why it’s so important to provide the extra fabric when having your quilt longarmed.

Another reason the extra fabric is needed is so that the tension can be tested before your quilt is quilted. Because I use so many different thread brands and weights, both on top and in the bobbin, I am always testing and adjusting the tension. That testing is done using the extra backing fabric and the batting that is in your quilt to best mimic the actual quilt conditions. If there is no extra backing then there is no room to test tension.

Unfortunately this scenario is something that happens quite often in my studio. I recently quilted a top for someone and the backing they provided was barely 1/2″ larger on all four sides. I had to do some backing prep to even be able to load the back. To do that, I sewed a 5″ strip of muslin to all four sides of the back. I charge $5 per seam for this service, plus the cost of the muslin. So, for a baby quilt the customer ended up paying me an extra $25 or so. It would have cost her much less to simply provide a backing that was large enough to begin with.

I wanted to share this information with you so you can understand why your longarm quilter asks for extra fabric. We are not doing it just to have you spend more money. There are legitimate reasons why we need it. And there are ways you can provide the correct size backing without spending a lot of money. Buy some inexpensive muslin, or use fabric in your stash that you aren’t in love with anymore and cut it into 5 or 6 inch strips and sew them together to make them the length and width of your backing. You can sew those strips to the top/bottom/sides of your backing fabric. They will be trimmed off after your top is quilted and you can reuse them for the next quilt. I keep muslin strips in my stash just for this purpose.

I hope this gives you some insight into the ‘why’ of the extra backing request. Now, go make more quilt tops so I can quilt them! 🙂