Let's talk about quilt backs!
The quilt back is sometimes an afterthought to the quilt design. Something chosen in the spur of the moment. Day in and day out, a longarm quilter becomes VERY familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of quilt backs as so many different quilts are handled one directly after the other. So I will be posting a series specifically addressing quilt backs, including everything from choosing and piecing the quilt back to preparation for quilting.
Let's begin with choosing a quilt back layout. Imagine your quilt back like a photo layout in a book or magazine, will you choose a full spread of a single image, a dual spread with two images side by side, a triptych of three panels, or maybe a collage of different sized photos fit together.
The ideal quilt back is an extra wide fabric, these are typically around 108" wide and can be purchased in yardage to ensure plenty of length and width. Why are they ideal? Due to their extra width, these do not require any piecing (Side note, my least favorite part of making my own quilts is piecing the backing... Imagine, I have just finished the quilt top, I'm ready to quilt! Oh wait, I still need to sew a few long seams to piece a backing together. Ugh...). This also means that your backing will be SEAM FREE, which is lovely for a long arm quilter! You see, seams add bulk, and we already have so many seams on the front of the quilt. Stacking seams on top of seams with a layer of batting in between is harder work for the machine, dulls the needle more quickly and even changes the tension slightly! But even more, when I am quilting, I can't see the backing seams. There is no way for me to insure that the backing seams are remaining straight once quilting has begun. However, I am not an uncaring person. I understand you have yards and yards of fabric in your stash, some of which will never see the light of day on the front of a quilt.
Therefore, many of us will piece together various bits of yardage from our stash. Most quilts can be covered by two widths of ~42 inch fabric aligned vertically on the back of the quilt. While this is the easiest solution, it creates a seam down the center of the quilt. The center of the quilt is shown to be a weak spot over time due to the way we commonly fold quilts or blankets. Since we want our quilts to stand the tests of time, we don't want to add a seam into an already weak location. Instead, sew the two widths of ~42 inch fabric together on both selveges creating a long tube, then cutting down the center of one panel and opening flat. This method centers one of the 42 inch widths with two approximately 20 inch panels running vertically along each side, avoiding the center crease weak spot.
Additionally, a vertical seam is unable to be monitored by a long arm quilter, as mentioned above, so it may end up as a wavy or skewed seam due to the machine moving back and forth across the fabric. When the quilting design allows, your long arm quilter might even turn the quilt 90 degrees so that this seam is parallel to the frame and possible to monitor along the front backing bar for straight alignment during the loading process. Seams that run horizontally or can be positioned parallel to the frame are more likely to be straight after quilting.
Of course, you can always get even more creative with your quilt back! Create a collage of fabrics, utilize the remaining cuts from the front of the quilt. Create a focal block, or add interesting piecing. Quilt backs can be as beautiful as the front of the quilt, adding another layer of beauty and enjoyment. But remember what I've said about seam bulk, and alignment issues, each of these is compounded the more pieces you add. Try to avoid elements that would need to be perfectly centered or aligned to a specific location of the quilt, as this becomes additional time and effort for the quilter and could result in a special charge.
The moral of this story is, when choosing to piece your quilt back consider whether you are using directional fabric or desire a directional quilting design that will impact the way the quilt is loaded on the frame. Also, imagine how the quilt will be folded or used over time and consider what areas of the quilt may incur frequent creasing due to folding and develop weak spots, avoid seams in that location when possible.