Search the Internet for “how to make piping,” and you’re likely to find yourself smack dab in the middle of a cake decorating class. It seems learning to pipe frosting into something decorative is a highly sought-after skill. Well, so is making and attaching piping to sewn projects! Watch out, cake decorators; next time you search, you’ll find yourself smack dab in the middle of a Sew4Home tutorial.
What are the most popular projects for piping: garment sewing, home décor, accessories, heirloom, crafting? You can check the “all of the above” box, because piping is one of the most popular trims in every category. You can even find piping (usually known as welting in these examples) on your living room sofa and your car’s upholstery.
Okay… so piping is Ms. Popularity, but do you have to add it to your projects to be part of the in-crowd? Of course, the answer is no. But all peer pressure aside, maybe you’re asking yourself the wrong question. You should be asking, “Why do I want to add piping to my project?” The answer is because it’s a professional-looking finish that can add texture, a hint of contrasting color, and/or define the shape of the object being sewn. It’s also used as a way to strengthen a seam (think: kids jumping on a couch).
We love piping at Sew4Home, and have included it in numerous projects.
We added some flare to an Outdoor Piped Pillow Trio by mixing-and-matching contrasting piping around each.
Conversely, we chose to define the circular shape of our Color Block Queen Bolster Pillow with matching piping.
Traditionally, piping (or welting) is used as the finished edge or between the seams on upholstered items, which is why we added it to our Chic Ottoman Slipcover.
When it comes to defining the shape of something, bold piping is perfect. We used this approach for our Kitchen Confections Toaster Cozy, our Cheater Quilt With Piping Detail, and our Romantic Retreat Toss Pillows with their dramatic black velvet piping. And remember, piping does not have to be used only around the edge of something. It can also be inserted into a seam. For example, in the Turquoise Floral Duvet with Schoolgirl Plaid Piping, we added visual interest with contrasting piping along the inner border seam.
Coordinated piping is a good repeating theme to use to tie together diverse elements within one room. In our Michael Miller Citron-Gray nursery, we added piping to a number of items, including the Fabric Storage Basket and Crib Bumpers with Jumbo Piping. We used a larger cording inside our custom piping to create a pronounced, “chubby baby” look.
As mentioned above, piping doesn’t only hang out in home décor. It’s a fine finish for garments, accessories, and crafting items too. We used piping along the top edge of our Romantic Cottage Style Hostess Apron and around this Satin Lined Sleep Mask. In both these examples, the piping does a beautiful job of defining the curvy shape of the project.
As we explained in our tutorials: Terrific Trims and Terrific Trims Take #2, piping lives in the “trim” category. This means you can find plenty of pre-made piping in the trim section of your local fabric store on online resource. However, often times, pre-made options just don’t fit the bill. In fact, at S4H, nine times out of ten, we make our own piping. After today’s tutorial, you’ll be piping up a storm as well!
Cording types and sizes
We need to start our conversation with the type and size of cord you will cover with fabric. The cord inside piping is referred to as filler cord, welting, twist cord, or simply piping cord. (We’ll be referring to it as cording for our purposes because it’s fast to type; just don’t confuse that with the many decorative cords available.)
There is a wide array of cording made specifically for the purpose of creating custom piping. This type of cording is sold both in packages and by the yard. Depending on its size, the “by the yard” variety may be on a small reel or in a box. If you’re having trouble locating the options, check the home décor section. Below is a picture from one of our local fabric stores to give you an idea of what this area might look like.
You can find cording that is 100% cotton, cotton covered polyester, 100% polyester, or even paper, plastic or foam (more of an upholstery grade item). It’s pretty simple to decide which type to use. The key is to decide how stiff or strong you need the piping to be when finished. In certain projects, like garments, you want the piping to be soft in order to go smoothly around the shape of the body and be comfortable for the wearer. Piping around a pillow requires more body. In upholstery, durability is key, so you’ll go with the strongest options. There is even such a thing as double cording (again, mostly used in upholstery).
NOTE: Some cording is pre-washed, but shrinkage can still be an issue. Check the label and make a note of the washing instructions – especially if the piping will end up as part of an item that will be regularly laundered.
Once you’ve determined the type of cording, it’s time to consider size. Get ready to remember how to simplify fractions; cording comes in a range of sizes that can make your head hurt! You’ll see common sizes, such as ⅜” and 1″, but don’t be surprised to also see sizes like 3/16″ and 16/32″. After you “simplify” – those are basically ¼” and ½”. When you’re working with a pattern, it will provide the exact size (and sometimes type) of cording required. If you don’t want to bother with figuring out the size, carry a little pocket tape measurer to determine the general size. Even though it is often referred to as “width,” you actually want to measure the circumference of the cord (as shown in the photo below) to use our formulas.
This may seem like a lot of upfront work, but type and size of cording is a very important aspect of making piping. You need the appropriate piping for your project. For example, you wouldn’t use jumbo piping on the bottom of a little girl’s heirloom dress. And, tiny piping isn’t likely to fly on that outdoor seat cushion.
Because making and attaching your own piping is a 100% custom finish, the fabric you use is 100% your decision. Most of the time, you’ll select from a similar fabric type, if not the exact fabric, you’re using for the project being piped. But not always; as evidenced by our Romantic Retreat Toss Pillows listed above, which use velvet for the piping on pillows made of standard cotton. Piping can also be a good way to use up leftover fabrics from other projects.
The most important part to the fabric portion of custom piping is how you cut it. Regardless of the shape of your sewn project, the first choice is always to cut the fabric on the bias (that means on an angle, usually 45°). This angled cut allows the fabric to stretch, making the fabric covering as pliable as the cording inside it. Now, this is not to say you can’t ever use straight grain fabric strips. In fact, we have a number projects here on S4H where we’ve done just that. If your project is all straight edges, and you are trying to be conservative in the use of your fabric, you can get away with using straight strips. It also helps if you have some piping practice under your belt. But, if you can afford to use more fabric and always cut on the bias, you will get a consistently smoother finish.
To show you the difference, we’ve covered some piping with a straight strip of fabric (cut across from selvage to selvage) and a bias cut strip of fabric. See how the fabric is twisting and kinking on the straight example (the one on the right)? This is why professionals recommend cutting the fabric on the bias. We’ll go into more detail on actually cutting the fabric in the steps below.
Determining length and yardage
Once you’ve made your selection of type and size, you’ll need to tell the folks at the cutting table not only how much cording you want, but also how much fabric. You’ll be happy to know there are easy formulas for determining both! But, first things first, you have to actually measure where you plan to attach the piping.
Before you head out the fabric store, you need to measure the length of the area where you will be attaching the piping. For example, if you plan to sew piping around an 18” square pillow, you can take a tape measure and guide it around the square to see the total measurement. Or, in this case, we can simply multiply 18” x 4 = 72”. This tells us we need 72” of finished piping. Not so quick! You have to consider turning the corners, and finishing off the ends. Therefore, it’s recommended to add 4” to your measurement. The total length of piping we need is 72” + 4” = 76”.
Now that we know the total length we need, we also automatically know how much cording we need for the inside of the piping. It’s safe to assume you will be purchasing the cording by the yard. To determine the yardage, simple divide 76 by 36 (total inches in a yard). 76 ÷ 36 = 2.11. Round up the number to the next ¼ or ½ yard. We need a total of 2¼ yards of cording for our example.
See, not bad so far… A+ for math. On to fabric!
As we mentioned above, you should cut your fabric on the bias whenever possible. Unless your project is very short, you’ll likely need a number of bias strips, which will be sewn end to end, to cover the cord. There’s no better group to help us with a formula for determining bias strip fabric yardage than quilters. Quilters use bias strips to make the bindings that finish the edges of their quilts. The bias strips we use for making custom piping are the same! Thankfully, the quilting community has made it easy for us to figure this out, using a handy formula.
We already know the total inches we need because we figured out how much cording we need (the inches, not the yardage). But, before you start cutting random strips of fabric, you have to figure out how wide they need to be. Of course, we have a formula for this too!
You’ll have to go back into your fourth grade brain cells and remember how to add fractions. The formula is: double the size of your cord plus double the width of your seam allowance. Remember, measure around the cord to determine the size. Say we have ½” cord and we’re using a standard ½” seam allowance. Our example formula would be (½” x 2) + (½” x 2) or 1″ + 1″ which equals 2″. Our strips need to be 2” wide.
We default again to our quilter friends. Now, obviously our little pillow example does not begin to compare to the length of bias strips needed for binding an entire quilt, but we think this will help you to determine exactly how much fabric you will need for any project to which you want to attach piping.
Quilters refer to this as the “Magical Math Formula!” Here we go…
Multiply the total inches of bias binding you need by the determined cut width. For us, that means 76” x 2” = 524”.
Use a calculator to determine the square root (there are also square root tables online). The square root of 144 is 12.328. Round up to 13.
This tells us we need to start with an 13″ x 13″ square in order to cut enough bias strips to go around our 18” x 18” pillow.
Add an additional 2” to 3” for seaming the strips. 13″ + 3″ = 16″. We should start with a 16″ x 16″ square of fabric.
NOTE: You can use a rectangle to make bias binding, but we like to use a square because it keeps things nice and simple, and we know Sew4Home visitors like it simple!
Divide 16″ by 36″ (the inches in a yard) to figure out the total yards needed. 16 ÷ 36 = 0.4444 yards, just under ½ yard, so round up to the next common cut measurement; ½ yard is 18″.
If calculating yardage on your own seems overwhelming, there are charts available online (search “calculate bias binding“), in books, and as laminated cards. These helpful cheat-sheets quickly tell you how much yardage you need to make bias binding of various widths and lengths. Since our quilt example is on the small side, we do not need more than 1 yard of fabric. Most likely, the majority of projects you make will require ½ to 1 yard of fabric for the bias strips. Of course, if you’re following a pattern, you should be provided with the size, type, and length required.
Before we go onto the next section, we want to mention that before you actually cut your square, you may want to preshrink or prewash your piece of fabric.
NOTE: A half yard may sound like a lot for a simple square pillow, but this is assuming you will only need to sew two strips together to give you enough length to cover the cording. And, it assumes you are cutting the strips at a full 45° angle, which is the only bias angle quilters like to use. For economy, you can certainly use a smaller piece of fabric. You will simply end up with more seams in your strip. You can also cut at a smaller angle; but the piping will not be as pliable as that cut on a true 45° bias.
Making the bias tape
Enough with the math already! It’s time to start making our bias tape. The first step is to cut the bias strips. In our example above, we need to cut two 2″ bias strips.
- Lay your fabric flat on your work surface, right side up and with the selvedge running along one side.
- Fold the fabric back diagonally so a cut edge is parallel to the selvage. We used a stripe fabric in the picture below so you can clearly see how the fabric should be folded.
NOTE: This will automatically start you with a 45° angle for making the bias tape. You can also use the angle markings on your quilt ruler.
- Press the diagonal fold to set a crease line. This crease will be your starting guide from which to cut (or mark) the subsequent parallel lines. (Yep… we’re back to our plain fabric now to better show the rest of the steps.)
- Cut the bias strips at the width your determined. As you remember, our width is 2″. You can use a quilt ruler and rotary cutter, or draw some nice straight parallel lines to cut on and use a sharp pair of scissors.
NOTE: Going forward, we used a bright colored thread so you could see each step clearly. You should select a thread that coordinates with your fabric.
- The idea behind joining bias strips is to make the seams in the strip as “invisible” as possible. To do this, it’s best to seam the strips at a 45° angle. Yep, another 45° angle!
- Place one strip on a flat surface, right side up. Place a second strip on top of the first one at a right angle. The ends of each strip will extend beyond one another.
- Draw a diagonal line, from corner to corner, with a ruler and fabric marking pen or pencil. Pin in place.
- Using a straight stitch, sew along the drawn line.
- Trim the seam allowance back to ¼”.
- Trim off the tiny overlapping edges as well. These are the little points; trim them away so your fabric line is straight in both directions.
- Continue joining any remaining strips in the same manner until you have the full length needed to cover your cording.
- Press the seams open.
NOTE: If you have a point at the ends of your strips from the bias cut, you can trim those straight too.
- You just made your own bias tape! And you did a whole bunch of math. Have a cookie.
Insert the cording
- Place the cord in the center of the strip.
- Firmly wrap the fabric around the cord. Match the raw edges of the fabric to create a lip or flange. Pin in place.
NOTE: You can line up the cording flush with the end of your fabric strip, or leave excess cord hanging out the end of the fabric. Regardless of how you will finish the ends later, you will eventually trim this excess.
- Attach a Zipper foot.
- Place the piping under the foot with the cording portion to the left of the needle.
- Sew with the cording pressed against the edge of the Zipper foot. This is why you use a Zipper foot, so you can sew close to the cord, but not so close that the needle goes through the cord.
NOTE: For accuracy, we always recommend sewing slowly. Depending on your machine, it’s best to select a left-needle-position straight stitch, or to move the needle as far left as you can so the needle is as close to the cord as possible. You can also consider a Narrow Base Zipper foot, which many manufacturers offer as an optional foot. Also, be sure to remove the pins as you sew.
- As you sew the bias strip in place around the cording, keep an eye on the cording behind the machine. It may begin to twist. If it does, simply roll it between your fingers to straighten it out again.
You now have your own beautiful handmade piping. Better attach it to something! Let’s go back to our pillow example.
- Leaving about 2″ free at the head, pin the piping on the right side of what will be the pillow front. The raw edges of the piping flange/lip should be flush with the raw edge of the pillow fabric.
- Use just a few pins to hold the piping in place. Don’t try to pin the piping all the way around the square (or trim the ends). This never works! You need to work with the piping as you baste it in place to get a perfect fit.
NOTE: You always start attaching any piping, trims, binding, etc. on one side of an object, never at the corner. It’s much easier and more professional to join the ends on the side.
- Using a basting stitch on your sewing machine, baste the piping in place about ¼ – ½” from the raw edge. This basting should be just to the outside of the original seam line that created the piping flange/lip.
- This basting step insures that when you sew the pillow front and the pillow back right sides together, the piping will already be secured; it won’t be shifting around between the layers.
NOTE: To learn more about how to use your sewing machine to baste, check out Machine Basting 101.
- Continue to sew around the pillow, guiding the piping in place, lightly pinning as need be, but – of course, removing the pins as you go.
NOTE: Be sure to review the next sections on corners, curves, and joining the ends before heading over to your sewing machine, there’s more to know!
- Place the two sides of the pillow right sides together.
- Sew around the edges of your pillow cover again.
- Remember to leave an opening for filling or an insert. We just completed a great tutorial with professional pillow stuffing tips.
NOTE: In this example we used a Zipper foot for making and attaching the piping. Depending on the brand/model sewing machine you own, there’s most likely a Piping Foot available. Take caution, not all Piping feet are meant to sew piping larger than ¼”. To learn more read our tutorial on Specialty Feet And Tools For Working With Trims.
- Turn the pillow cover right side out. The piping around the pillow edge should “pop out” from the seam and look look similar to the picture below.
- Be accurate with your stitching! Otherwise you will see the stitching from the piping peeking out beyond the seam where it was inserted (see our picture below). This is another reason we recommend basting the piping in place first.
NOTE: If you like to use zippers for your closure, you can still do so with piping in the seam. Just remember to baste the piping first!
Going around corners and curves
Learning how to properly sew piping around corners and curves is no different then if you were sewing them without the piping. To learn more review our tutorials: Sewing Successful Curves and Are You Stitching & Clipping Corners Correctly?
- When sewing the piping in place, as you approach the corner, stop, with the needle in the down position, at the point where you would normally turn the corner (approximately ½” from the corner, depending on your seam allowance).
- Raise the presser foot and clip into the flange/lip of the piping. Do not cut through your original stitching which secured the fabric around the cording!
- Rotate the fabric slightly to turn the corner. Depending on the size of the piping, you most likely will have to do what’s called “angle sew” across the corner a stitch or two (again, our Corner tutorial addresses this trick).
- Rotate the fabric again to completely turn the corner and continue to guide the piping in place as you sew toward the next corner.
- Repeat these same steps at each corner.
NOTE: If you are hesitant about cutting while you sew, you can also clip the piping at the stage where you are lightly pinning it in place. The technique we show above is the most professional way to handle piping, and is the best way to account for any “fabric creep” encountered as you sew. In other words, if you clip first, while pinning, there is a chance your clipped corner will no longer be exactly at the corner when you sew because the fabric can shift as you sew. The main thing to remember is that you will need to clip the corner at some point in order to get it to curve.
- The main goal when sewing along a curve is to maintain the shape of the curve. In order to do this, the piping needs to have what’s referred to as “give.” You can achieve “give” by clipping away portions of the seam allowance (on both the piping and the item you’re sewing).
- Follow the same steps as above for corners: starting with 2″ at the head, using a few pins to hold in place, and using a basting stitch to attach the piping to one side of the project first.
- The difference is, after you sew, most likely the fabric along the edge will look wavy. This waviness is telling you the curve needs to be clipped
- Since our example is an outer curve, we have to remove some of the bulk by clipping small “Vs” into the seam allowance. Again, you want to clip up to the line of stitching, but not through it.
NOTE: In our photo is looks like we clipped into our original seam line, but we didn’t – that’s just the basting stitch line. No worries there as the piping will be fully secured within your final seam.
- When we turn the curve right side out again, you can see how smooth the edge is now!
Joining the ends
- Once you’ve sewn around the edge of the pillow (or whatever item you’re sewing), you have to address how to join the ends. There are two options: 1) overlap the ends into the seam, or 2) create what’s called “continuous” piping. We recommend the continuous approach, as this is the one preferred by professionals.
NOTE: Depending on the shape of your final project, you may not have to be concerned with joining the beginning and end because you will be sewing across the ends with another seam, such as down the seam of a pant leg.
- To overlap the ends, simply cross one end over the other. Secure in place during the basting stage referenced above, and trim the tails even with the seam allowance.
- For continuous piping, stop sewing approximately 2″ before you come back around to your starting point.
NOTE: If needed, you can remove the project from the machine completely to do the following steps. You can also sew a few hand stitches where the cording meets so the two ends don’t shift out of place.
- With a seam ripper, open up the piping fabric on the tail end. Pull back the fabric to expose the cording inside.
- Cut the cording only, not the fabric, so the tail of the cording is even with the head of the cording.
- Pull the fabric portion of the tail back into place and fold under the raw edge ½” to create a clean edge.
- Wrap the folded fabric of the tail around the head, enclosing the matched ends of the cording. Pin in place.
- Finish sewing the piping in place, matching this final portion of the seam with the already sewn seam.
Other Helpful Tips
You can use Stitch Witchery or a similar temporary fusible tape to help hold the cord inside fabric strip. This eliminates the need to stitch the fabric around the cording. Plus, it eliminates ending up with any stitching peeking out of the seam (as we showed you above).
Striped fabric cut on the bias makes a fun finished piping!
For a shortcut, use store bought bias tape instead of cutting your own.
Use leftover scraps to make shorter pieces of binding to put on a pocket edge. Or, mix and match scraps, piecing them together for another interesting look.
Think about adding piping to areas of a project that you would otherwise leave bare.
One last tip! There is such a thing as flat (or faux) piping – where no cording is inside the fabric strip. Sometimes this is also called a “flange.” It’s basically the bias strip folded in half and inserted into a seam in the same manner as you would insert piping. However, it’s easier to work with because you don’t have to sew around the bulk of the cording. We used this idea in the seam between the top and bottom fabric in our Tab-Top Panel Curtains with Button Accents.
Sample Creation and Instructional Outline: Jodi Kelly