Last updated on September 22nd, 2020
I love the process of designing quilts. Picking out the fabric combinations, figuring out the geometry and then sewing it all together satisfies my creative soul. So, for me, the back of the quilt is as much a canvas for creativity as the front. I see it as an opportunity to think outside the box and come up with interesting design options beyond just a plain piece of fabric. Over the years, I have tried a number of different approaches to making a pieced backing for quilts and I am sharing these ideas here.
I learned the hard way that the design approach to piecing a quilt back is not the same as the front. A traditional quilt usually has a centered design with blocks and borders framing them, and this does not work on a quilt back.
One of the first quilts I finished, my “Dutchman’s Puzzle” variations, was a block of the month program which had a lot of left over fabric. I decided to take all that fabric for the back and proceeded to make a whole bunch of half square triangles which I then set into a traditional quilt design with two borders.
I was so proud of both these pieced quilts that I chose to get them longarm quilted for the first time. Not knowing anything about how the longarm quilting process worked, I naively gave the quilter both designs, thinking I would get back a beautiful and perfectly reversible quilt. The quilter was very kind and gently told me that she would do her best to try and get the back centered, but could make no promises. She did try, and came close, but not quite.
Years later, when I had more time and started piecing a lot more quilts, I asked my longarm quilter to walk me through the process she uses to set up a quilt, layout the design and then do the quilting. I now understood why trying to center a front onto a back is not practical.
Once the quilt sandwich is set up on the longarm, you can’t see the back of the quilt while it is being quilted. The front could be centered onto the back horizontally fairly well, but in the vertical dimension, it is hard to make that happen. As the quilting progresses, three is shrinkage in all three layers, and that shrinkage varies depending on the quilting design and the density of the quilting.
Once I understood all this, it became obvious that if I wanted to have a pieced quilt back, I would have to make an asymmetrical design that looked good regardless of where the quilt front lay on top of the quilt back. So, since having this ah-ha moment, I have designed all my quilt backs keeping this in mind.
I usually start thinking about my quilt back design as I am putting together the quilt top. By then I know how much fabric I will have left over and can decide on whether to use the fabric from the front or whether I need to supplement with other fabric.
I try and give my longarm quilter a quilt back that is 5 inches bigger than the front all the way around. To help me visualize both the size of the quilt back and potential design options, I use old fashioned graph paper. I draw out the quilt back to scale on the graph paper and then mark the quilt front with dashed lines. Whatever design I come up with for the back needs to fit in between the dashed lines that mark the size of the quilt front.
To make the design visually pleasing, I use the rule of thirds from photography. I divide my quilt into thirds horizontally and vertically and place the main design element near one of the intersections of those lines.
This process has worked well for me and I now have quilt backs that are as much fun to lock at as the front (at least I think so). I like to look at quilts on Pinterest for design inspiration, especially for quilt backs. I actually have a Pinterest Board where I save ideas that I think will work well on a pieced quilt back: https://www.pinterest.com/quiltripping/quilt-back-ideas/
My ideas for a pieced backing for quilts
1. Create Fabric Stripes
One of the easiest quilt back ideas to create an uncentered and asymmetric design is to use stripes of fabric. I have used variations of striped patterns frequently as it is a quick way to put together a quilt back and is a good way to use up left over fabric.
The quickest design is to sew together a long strip of the fabric scraps left over from the quilt front and set it between two large backing pieces of fabric. I used this technique for the backs of “Not Your Grandfather’s Herringbone” , “In Honor of Valor”, “Aspen Glow”, “Blooming Nine Patch” and “Bedouin Desert Blanket”.
Leftover 2.5 inch strips are also a natural fit for filling in space on the back of a quilt. For my “Prismatic Star” quilt the backing fabric was not wide enough by itself so I made up the extra inches with a set of stripes using the remaining 2.5 inch strips that I used for the front pattern.
2. Use the leftover fabric from the front of the quilt
There is always some fabric left over from piecing the main quilt pattern. Sometimes it is big chunks of fabric and sometimes it is just smaller bits and pieces.
Once I have cut out what I need for the front of the quilt and am well on my way to sewing it all together, I start thinking about how to use the fabric that is left. If I don’t think I will have a use for any of the fabric from this specific project, then I make every effort to use as much of it on the quilt back design as possible.
The process usually requires a little math to calculate how much fabric I will have left over and the dimensions of the pieces. Then I draw out a scale representation of the quilt back on graph paper and start playing around with design ideas using the left over fabric dimensions.
That was certainly the case for “Gaudi Inspiration”, my Barcelona inspired quilt. I didn’t think I would ever have a use for the brightly colored fabrics in another project, so I made sure to use it all up on the quilt back.
I let the quantity of fabric guide my design, always keeping in mind that I want it to be asymmetrical yet balanced. If I have to augment with some more fabric from my stash, that’s OK. If I have to sew smaller pieces together to get a larger piece that is fine too.
3. Use leftover quilt blocks
Sometimes I change my mind midstream on fabric placement on the quilt design and then I end up with left over blocks. When that happens, I make sure to use them in the quilt back design. Again, I use a scale drawing to come up with a layout I like.
For the Back of my “California Dreamin” quilt, I used all the half square triangles I had left over from the front of the quilt, but combined them in a different orientation. I also used up all the leftover fabric from the front to create a striped, off-centered layout.
I took a similar approach with the back to my “Brandywine Garden Walk” quilt, using up the leftover half square triangles and also the rectangles of Kaffe Fasset floral fabric that remained after cutting out the half square triangles.
4. Use your scraps from other project
When I first think about piecing a quilt back, I also look to see what fabrics I have left from other projects that would work with this quilt’s color scheme. Based on the size of the scraps, I figure out an appropriate design.
For my “Bohemian Princess” quilt I had fabric squares in various shades of pink left over from a different project that I turned into a flying geese design, which I framed with stripes of various pink fabrics which were also left over from a different quilt.
5. Use orphaned blocks from other projects
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, there is a block or two left over from a quilt design. Maybe the colors aren’t quite right, or the construction isn’t perfect enough or you just wanted to make a trial block first to make sure that it came out right.
It’s hard to know what to do with those few orphaned blocks. Consider using them in a pieced quilt back that showcases their uniqueness.
6. Make some practice blocks for your next quilt project
Alternately, you can use this opportunity to make some practice blocks for a future quilt project. Practice different color variations and potentially even different sizes. Use these blocks as your inspiration for piecing a fun quilt back.
7. Use border prints to make an interesting geometric design
I like using border print fabric to frame a quilt pattern, as I did in my “Quilter on the Orient Express” quilt. The problem is that there are usually more than four repeats per width of fabric, so I always have some border print left over. I also always have some pieces left over from the mitered corners. I like to use these in creative ways on the back of the quilt (since I most likely will not have a need for them again).
8. Go Modern
Modern quilt designs are all about asymmetry with lots of negative space which lends itself very well to using these patterns on the other side of a quilt. If your quilt front is traditional, why not make the back modern.
That is exactly what I did with my “Burano Sampler” quilt. The front is a traditional design using brightly colored blocks set off with sashing. On the back I used the remaining half square triangles and set them off in an asymmetric design with lots of white fabric in the background.
I did something similar with my “Fractured Peaks” quilt back. Again, I used the leftover large half square triangles in a zig zag pattern on the back for a very modern look.
I like to look at modern quilts on Pinterest for ideas – I have a whole board of saved pins where I can look for inspiration when I am looking for quilt back ideas. (https://www.pinterest.com/quiltripping/modern-quilt-ideas/)
I also like to look at midcentury and modern art for more inspiration, also in Pinterest and when I visit art museums.
My quilt “Ribbon Dance” started as the back for the “Not Your Grandfather’s Herringbone” quilt. I had half square triangle blocks and strips of fabric left and I just started putting them up in a random pattern on my design wall. In the end, I liked the result so much that I turned it into its own quilt instead.
On a whim I entered “Ribbon Dance” into the Pennsylvania National Quilt Extravaganza where it won a second place ribbon in the modern category. Subsequently, this quilt was also juried as a finalist into the AQS Spring Paducah Quilt show.
10. Use a Panel
I am attracted to fabric panels – it’s like buying a painting made of fabric. But I don’t always know what to do with them to make them into an interesting quilt. Using a panel on the back side of a quilt is a quick and easy way to add interest and creates a reversible design. That is exactly what I did for “My Merry Christmas” quilt.
My Africa inspired quilt used panels on both sides. One side was an African batik panel. On the flip side, I used smaller batik panels that I had purchased on my trip to Africa.
For the back of my Alaska inspired quilt, “Under the Midnight Sun”, I used some small screen printed panels that I had purchased at one of the local quilt shops on a previous cruise to Alaska.
11. Showcase a beautiful large print fabric
I love large scale print fabrics and have some beautiful ones in my fabric collection. But once you cut up the large scale print, the beauty of it can be lost. Using it on the back means you can showcase this beautiful fabric design in all its glory. And you can highlight the big print with some complimentary blocks to make the back as interesting as the front.
For the back of my “Turkish Delight” quilt, I used a beautiful large scale fabric along with some of the border print that was part of the same fabric line.
12. Do a “Jelly Roll” Chase
A “Jelly Roll Chase” is a popular and easy quilt design. You take a jelly roll of forty two 2.5 inch strips and sew them end to end which will give you one very, very, very long 1600 inch long strip. Then you take the two ends of the very long strip and sew the long edges together so you end up with an 800 inch piece that is two strips wide; then snip the folded end open. Take the two ends and sew together along the long edge again, ending up with a 400 inch long piece that is four strips wide. Repeat this process three more times until you have a piece that is about 50 inches x 64 inches (and 32 strips wide).
This is an excellent way to use up leftover 2.5 inch strips. It is also a good way to use up some of the fabrics in your stash by making your own 2.5 inch strips. If you want to end up with a bigger piece then you can start with more than 42 strips of fabric.
To control the bulk of so many seams on the back of the quilt, I iron all the seams open. Also, to make sure none of the seams open during the quilting process, I sew around all four sides 1/8″ away from the edge.
13. Do a “Cut and Flip”
This is another easy way to use up left over strips of fabric. I sewed strips in rainbow order until my back was as wide as I needed it to be. Then, 12 inches from one of the edges, I cut off a 10 inch wide piece from top to bottom. I then flipped this around and sewed it back in place, adding some additional borders to set off the design. To keep the bulk down, I pressed all the seams open. You can see an example of this in my “Chihuly’s Garden” quilt.
14. Repeat a design from the front – but bigger – or smaller
If you are making a block on the front that you really love, why not repeat it on the back in a bigger size. Or, if it is large on the front, make a few smaller versions for the back. I especially like doing this with the cute animal designs from Elizabeth Hartman and did that on two separate quilts. One side had a large Allie Owl and the other side included a smaller version.
15. Try a new technique or ruler
Before investing a lot of time and fabric trying a new technique or ruler, why not make it on a smaller scale and use it on the back of a quilt. This way you can decide if you like it and want to put the time and effort into a large quilt.
I have a few specialty rulers, like curved rulers or twister rulers, that I am eager to try and will at some point use in a quilt back.
There are also techniques and other patterns I want to try. I’ve done a simplified version of a Ricky Tims’ convergence pattern, and want to try another one. Or how about a disappearing nine-patch design, or a two fabric bargello pattern. Any pattern that can be adapted into an asymmetric design is fair game.
16. Use a table runner pattern
By definition, a table runner is a long skinny design. Add two large pieces of fabric to either side of a table runner and you have a beautiful quilt “back” that is as special as the “front”.
I love to look at Pinterest for table runner ideas and save those that catch my fancy for future reference.
17. Make a fun design to use as a label
The most common technique for signing a quilt is to add a small piece of fabric to the back of the quilt that has the vital data about the quilt. But instead of making the label an afterthought, why not design a special block to act as the background for all that important label information.
Then, don’t forget to actually sign the label – which is what I did (or rather didn’t do) when I gave my son and new daughter-in-law their first quilt, “Stairstep to the Altar”. I made a special house block on the back, and then forgot to put the label info on it. (Also forgot to take a good photo of the back before I gave it to them – it’s not easy to get a good photo of the back once the quilt is hanging in a two story landing).
18. Make another quilt top – look for patterns that can be made asymmetrically
This is the holy grail for me – to make a quilt that is reversible and looks as good on the “front” as it does on the “back”. I think I succeeded with “Rowan’s Forest Friends”, the quilt I made for my grandson’s room.
With each quilt I make, I keep trying new ideas for quilt backs, and hopefully, someday I will have that perfect double sided quilt. Whether I am making a wall hanging or a quilt to cuddle under, it’s nice to have the back be as interesting to look at as the front. And if I end up loving the design on the back more than the front, then I know I’ve done a good job.
I hope these ideas inspire you to try making pieced quilt backs for your next quilting project.
Thanks for visiting.