Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Tutorial: Tips for Perfect Quilted Pillows

If you follow me on Instagram you know I love to make quilted pillows. This obsession started about two years ago, but this year it really took off. I've made one quilt this year and pillows...I seriously have lost count. Seriously.

Every time I share pictures of my pillows, I get lots of questions. So I'm finally sitting down and writing a post with all my favorite tips. This is the best way to describe making a quilted pillow; it's just a mini quilt with an extra layer of backing! Even if you've never quilted before, a quilted pillow is a great way to get a taste of quilting without making a large quilt. If you've never tried quilting, making a quilted pillow is a great way to give it a try!

So where do you start? Easy. Pick a pillow pattern to make or make a single block of your favorite "large block" quilt pattern. Look for quilt blocks that are 16" or larger or make a few of a smaller block and sew them together.

If you want a square pillow, pillow forms come in most even sizes starting at about 14". Forms also come in rectangle sizes, but they sizing is a little more limited. Just look on Amazon or check out JoAnn or Hobby Lobby to see the sizes available. Before you begin, it's always a good idea to plan what your finished size will be.  Most of my pillows are 16" or 18' finished and I use either an 18" or 20" form respectively. (I cover forms in greater detail later.)

Tip: Sometimes, the pillow works out to be a size that form doesn't come in, like 17". Don't worry, I just go up to the next size and in this case it would be18" or 20". Or you can always make your own pillow form. Look for a blog post in the future about that!

Pillows that I plan to put on a couch or a chair I like to make in the 16" to 20" range, but you could make it large or smaller. There are no rules. I have a great free pattern right here on my blog called the Simple Patchwork Pillows or if you want a fun holiday themed one check my All Season Patchwork Cover in my Etsy shop.

Ready to start?! Here we go!

This tutorial will start at the point of having a pillow top completed, but before basting and quilting. After making your pillow top, square it up to your desired size or size stated in your pattern. This is important. If your pillow top isn't square your pillow won't be square. I know all my blocks aren't always perfectly square, but we're shooting for as square as we can. If you complete your block and feel like it's missing something, try adding a 2.5" border all the way around. This also can help square up your pillow top if necessary.

* I apologize in advance for the quality of some of my pictures. It was a stormy day when I was binding this pillow, but I was bound to write this blog post! Next time I make a pillow, I will update these pictures with some brighter, prettier pictures. *

1.  Baste the Pillow Top
You will need your pillow top, a piece of batting, and backing as appropriate for your pillow.

A couple of things about the backing.
1. You won't see this backing as it will be on the inside of the pillow.
2. I tend to use whatever I have around. I don't buy anything "cute" for this step since you don't see it. So use a fat quarter that isn't really your style anymore, a plain piece of fabric, or anything else that's handy. If you need to buy some material, get an inexpensive cotton. When I buy fabric for the pillows I sell, I purchase several yards of either white or off white.
3. Press. Press. Press. and press again. You want your pillow top and backing to be crisp and free of wrinkles.

This process is the same as preparing any project for quilting. I usually baste pillows on my kitchen island, but you can use any hard flat surface. I use basting spray, so I baste in an area I can clean and wipe down afterwards. Note: You certainly can use basting pins if you prefer. I just prefer basting spray with pillows because it's quick and makes the quilting process much quicker. 

Tape the backing down with the wrong side up, pulling it taught but not tight. Next, place your batting on top of the backing. Lastly, add your pillow top with the right side facing up.

Pull back approximately half of the pillow top and batting so you see your backing. Clear the area of any threads or lint. Spray the area with basting spray, then place the batting on top and smooth out the batting with your hands beginning in the middle, working towards the outside. Repeat with the bottom half of the pillow. With the pillow top still folded back, spray on top of the batting and place the pillow top on top of the batting, smoothing again using the same method.


Tip: You certainly can use basting pins if you prefer. I just prefer basting spray with pillows because it's quick and it makes the quilting process much quicker. 

Since my project is nice and smooth at this point,  I mark any quilting lines. Quilt your pillow top as desired. My favorite way to quilt pillows is using a cross hatch pattern. For details on this style click here, and scroll down to step 3.

2. Trim Pillow and Square Up Quilted Pillow Top
After quilting, trim away the extra batting and backing. Simply use a ruler and rotary cutter to square up your quilted pillow top to the appropriate size.
Tip: At this point sometimes I zig zag or serge around the quilted pillow top to prevent fraying.  Just keep your stitching within the 1/4" seam allowance.  I highly recommend this if you are working with a linen. Linen can fray like crazy!

3. Prepare Backing for Envelope Pieces
Typically, I add an envelope backing to my pillows. It's quick, easy and makes switching out pillows a snap! Because no, every pillow I make isn't a full-stuffed pillow. I just make the covers and store them flat in my linen closet when not in use.

To make an envelope back, you'll need backing. Now, unlike the backing for the pillow top, you will see this backing. So use something fun! Or I if you want to keep things simple, I'll show you away to use a basic fabric (solid, ticking, linen, etc) and add a little detail to dress it up a bit.

Determine the size for your envelope backing pieces. Take the size of your unfinished pillow top (for example: 20") and divide by 2 then add 4". So for our example of 20" it would be 20"/2 = 10" + 4" =14'.  Cut a strip of fabric to that width, our example would be 14", then subcut {2} 20" (the width of your unfinished pillow) x 14" pieces.

Next, you can finish off the backing in a basic or a detailed way.

On each backing piece, fold under one of the longest edges 1/4" once and press. Then fold under a 1/4" again and press. (Or if you have a serger run the long edges through your serger and just fold under once.) If you have a directional print, make sure you fold under the correct edges. Topstitch the folded under edges in place. Place aside.

In addition to the two envelope backing pieces, you'll also need a 2.5" wide strip of fabric that's the same length as your pillow. (For our example, you would need a 2.5" x 20" strip) If you have scraps from bindings, this is a perfect use for them! Fold the strip in half with the long raw edges meeting, wrong sides together, and press.

On ONE of the envelope back pieces, fold under a long edge as outlined above. For the other envelope back piece, line up the long raw edge with the long raw edge of the decorative strip, right sides together and sew with a 1/4" seam allowance. The raw edges will be exposed on the inside of the pillow, so I recommend either zig zaging or serging to enclose the raw edge.

Press the seam up and away from the decorative strip. Top stitch along the pillow backing to keep the seam in place. Trim away any excess decorative strip. This piece will now be longer than initially cut. (In our example it was originally 14". Now it will be about an 1" or so longer.) Trim the piece so it again measures the correct size, 14" in our example. The piece with the decorative will be the TOP envelope back piece.

This is what the back of your pillow will look like once it's done with the extra decorative strip. So cute!

4. Attaching the Envelope Backing 
Now you need to decide if you want your pillow to be bound or unbound. Either way is perfectly fine, it just depends on the look you want.  This will effect how you attach the envelope backing pieces and both methods will be shared below.  

Tip: Once you line up your envelope back pieces, you may notice the pieces are a little wider than the quilted pillow top. This is normal, especially after quilting. Just trim off any excess FROM THE WIDTH (in our example 20") and it will be just fine. You still want the pillow back pieces to measure the correct length, 14" in our example. Or you could simply measure the width of your quilted pillow top and cut the envelope back pieces to that same width.

Next, I'll cover the two ways to finish pillows; unbound and bound.

Unbound pillows look great and are a breeze! If you need to finish your project quickly, this is the way to go. Just attach the envelope back pieces, turn, and you are done! Here is what an unbound pillow will look like finished.

To begin, place your pillow top with the right side up.

Place the TOP envelope back piece on top of the pillow top, RIGHT sides facing, as shown below. (This is important because if you place it the other way, the pillow back will open to the top instead of the bottom.) Make sure the finished long edge is facing the middle of the pillow.

Next, place the bottom envelope back piece wrong side up as shown below. Again be sure the finished long edge is facing the middle of the pillow.

Pin all the way around the pillow.  Sew around the entire pillow using a 1/4" seam allowance. I like to go around twice to reinforce.

Tip: These edges will be raw inside of the pillow, so I recommend either zig zagging or serging to enclose the raw edge. Press the seam before turning.  Turn the pillow right side out, poke out the corners, they will be slightly round.

Bound pillows look classic and crisp! Of course, bound pillows have the added step of adding binding. It takes me about 25 minutes from cutting the binding strips to finish binding the pillows, but I make lots of pillows.  Here's what a bound pillow looks like finished.

Tip: I prefer to sew the binding to the front of the pillow then turning it to the back and machine sewing it in place. You can certainly sew it on by hand or reverse the process. I prefer machine binding my pillows simply because they are tossed and knocked off my couch and chairs CONSTANTLY due to young children. I've never had any of my hand bound pillows fall apart, but I just feel better about a machine bound pillow withstanding childhood. :)

 To begin, place your pillow top with the right side down.

Place the BOTTOM envelope back piece on top of the pillow top, WRONG sides facing as shown below.  Make sure the finished long edge is facing the middle of the pillow.

Place the TOP envelope back piece on top, WRONG sides facing as shown below. Make sure finished long edge is facing the middle of the pillow.

Pin all the way around the pillow. Using a basting stitch, baste around the entire pillow using 1/8" seam allowance.

At this point sometimes I serge or zig zag around the raw edges, especially when using linen AND ticking.  It was a fraying mess! If you do this, be sure to keep it within a 1/4" so it will be covered by your binding.

If you would like full directions on binding your pillow, scroll down section 6 on binding.

5. Pillow Forms
Like I mentioned, I don't use a form for every pillow I've made.  I have several different pillow forms and I switch out my covers as I used them. When I'm not using my covers, I store them flat in my linen closet.

The size of pillow form you use depends on the look you like. If you like a less full looking pillow use a form the same size as your form. (Example: for an 18" finished cover, use a 18" pillow form.) If you like your pillows fuller, use a larger form than the size of your pillow. (Example: for an 18" finished pillow, use a 20" or 22" pillow form.)

Below you can see a comparison. Both pillows are 18" finished.  The pillow on the left uses a 20" form and the one on the right uses an 18" form.

I prefer the look of a down pillow form, but I use both the polyester and down forms.  Down forms can be pricey, but there are a few ways to get them for less. Recently, I bought two down pillows for my living room from Home Goods. They were $19.99 each and the pillow covers have zippers. I love this, because I can switch out the covers whenever I want. Plus getting both a cover I love and a down form for $19.99 each is a great deal! Another idea is to check the clearance section at stores like Home Goods, TJ Maxx, Marshalls, Ross, etc.  Many times there are pillows there that I'd never buy because of the cover. However,  many times they have a down FORM. I simply toss the cover and use the form. If there's a zipper, just unzip the cover and there's  your form. Other times, there isn't a zipper so just carefully cut open the cover, toss it and there is your nice down pillow form.

If the above isn't an option, just shop around. Another option are polyester forms. You can find polyester forms at Walmart for a great price. Polyester forms are great for pillows that get lots of wear and tear because you can wash the form.  They also are less expensive which is always nice too!

6. Binding
Although this is my favorite binding method, you can always choose to use your preferred method. There really is no difference in binding a quilt and a pillow. You just are working in a tighter space.

* I apologize in advance for the pictures.  It was a stormy day when I photographed this so my lighting went in and out. Hopefully the next time I bind a pillow I will have better lighting and I will update the photos.*

I like to sew my binding to the front of my pillow then fold it to the back. I then sew it in place from the back of the pillow. On the front, you will have a seam right next to your binding, but it blends in nicely with the rest of the quilting.

Cut enough strips for your pillow. For up to 18" pillows {2} 2.5" x WOF strips will be sufficient.  For any pillow larger than 18" you will want {3} 2.5"x WOF strips.

Join your binding strips together using a diagonal seam. Before trimming, press the seams open, this makes it much easier to press the seams open. Trim seams to 1/4".  Roll up binding and here we go!

Beginning on the bottom of the pillow, match the raw edges of the binding and leave about 5" inches that wont be sewn down. I like to leave a lot of the binding not sewn down so I have room to join the binding. So I begin sewing about 2" from the edge.

Start sewing using 1/4" seam allowance. Stop 1/4" from the edge and back stitch.  Remove from machine. 

Fold the binding at a 90 degree angle.

Fold the binding back over itself, creating a fold and clip in place.

Continue sewing the binding on using 1/4".  Repeat the above process for the remaining corners.

After the final corner, stop sewing after about 3". Line up the binding along the edge and when you get to the starting point, fold the binding back on itself. Press to create a crease.

Move to your cutting mat. Line up the crease with a line on your cutting mat. (My finger is pointing to the crease.)  Measure out from that line 2.25" and cut. Note: Typically, you cut at the same width as your binding strip, in this case 2.5".  However, I find that I always end up with some excess, so I cut 1/4" less than the width of my binding strip.

Open up the end of the strip. (This is real life quilting people! Of course I have a seam right where I'm joining my ends.  It came together really nicely, just press that seam open!) Draw a diagonal line from your crease to the opposite corner. This will be the line where you sew.

Now open both ends of the binding. Make sure there are no twists!

Place the ends on top of each other, right sides together, lining everything up nicely. ( I couldn't line it up nicely and take a picture so that comes next!)

Lined up nicely! Pin together.

Sew on the line.

Before trimming the seam, make sure the binding isn't twisted and lays nicely.

Trim the seam to 1/4" and press. If you feel like there is a little extra binding and you'll have bunching as you sew it down, flip the pillow so the binding faces the feed dogs.  As you sew, the feed dogs will ease in any fullness and there won't be any bunching.

From the top of the pillow, press the binding away from the pillow.

Fold the binding to the back of the pillow and clip in place. Sew the binding to the pillow. I like to line up the inside edge on the left side of my presser foot with the fold of the binding.

Miter each corner before approaching and clip in place.

Now you have a perfect pillow! Quilted pillows are truly one of my favorite things to make. They make great gifts and are such a fun way to make a quick quilted project. You really can make one in an afternoon!

Here are some of my favorite pillows I've made!

Happy Pillow Making!



  1. I was unable to find your tips on cross hatching as the click here didn't seem to work. Any ideas? Thanks!

  2. Thanks for the tutorial. I made four bound pillows using some vintage 30's fabric. They turned out great. Your instructions were easy to follow. Thank you for taking the time to post.


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