One of the easiest things you can do to spruce up your living environment is re-covering a throw pillow or three. It's a great use for an eye-catching fabric-and-piping combination, because pillows are small and a busy print won't overwhelm a room. It takes no complicated sewing know-how — just a machine and an ability to measure, cut, and sew straight lines — and ditching the generic, mass-produced pillow cover for something more individual is a way to make a big difference in a very small amount of time. And once you've mastered making pillow covers, more complicated upholstery projects (like recovering couch cushions or armchairs) won't seem so daunting. Here's how to do it.
You will need, clockwise from top left: 1) Upholstery fabric or heavy fashion fabric in sufficient yardage to cover your pillow(s). Consider the area of your cushions, front and back. Consider the width of your fabric. Consider the area needed, and purchase the required length in yards/metres. It never hurts to buy extra — and if you're going to be making your own piping (this guide will show you how) you'll need to roughly double your yardage. 2) A cutting mat, ruler, and rotary cutter. You can use scissors, but with so much measuring and so many long, straight cuts to make, your wrists will thank you. 3) Assorted thread. 4) Pins and needles. You will also need, not pictured: A sewing machine, an iron and an ironing board, enough yards of ready-made piping or piping cord to go around your pillow(s), and pillow(s) to cover.
Three years ago when I became a person with a couch, and therefore a person with couch throw pillows, I thought it would be really cute to use some leftover fabric I used to make a screen (IKEA is a surprising source for yard goods, by the way) to make pillows. Then I'd have pillows that matched my screen, and everyone loves things that match! Don't you love things that match? Well, it was a terrible idea.
The fabric was thin and started tearing at the seams almost immediately. It didn't help that I hadn't bothered to put piping around the edges, for support. Pulled threads made the print look like shit. And the pillow cases were too delicate to wash, so these quickly became the dirtiest pillows I think I've ever owned. Eventually I became so embarrassed by them that I decided I'd have to make new pillow covers. Nice ones. Properly. No short-cuts.
First, we're going to cut out our pillow cover front(s). Remove your old pillow covers, if any, and measure your inner pillow. Unfold your fabric on a flat surface and put the pillow on top of it. Measure it. Most pillows are square, but some are slightly rectangular. Note that if you're dealing with a printed fabric, as I am, you want to center major elements of the print on the pillow front. Move the pillow around until it's centered and take a note of its measurements with your ruler. Then chuck the pillow to one side and get ready to cut.
Cut out a square (or a slight rectangle, or whatever) just larger than your pillow. Don't forget to take seam allowances into account.
Here are two pillow fronts. Notice how my print is nicely centered? This fabric alternates squares that are mostly black and squares that are mostly white; I know this is centered because each corner of the pillow front ends in a "black" square. See? Next, cut out a long strip as tall as your pillow cover plus seam allowances. Cut it from selvedge to selvedge. Out of that strip, we're going to cut the two pieces that will together form our pillow back.
I'm showing you how to do a lapped back, because I find it to be the simplest way of making a pillow cover. And also I hate setting zippers. A dress needs a zipper — a pillow doesn't. (If you like setting zippers? Be my guest and adjust this pattern accordingly. I'll admit that method does save a little fabric.) Cut out two parts for each pillow back, making sure they overlap by at least 3". This is what you should end up with, from left: pillow front, pillow back 1, and pillow back 2.
If you've bought piping from a fabric store, good for you. But if you'd like to try making your own, know that it's not difficult. All you need is to find the true bias in your remaining fabric, and to cut some long bias strips. Finding the bias is not difficult, given that we've been making only long, straight, on-grain cuts: just fold your last widthwise cut to meet the selvedge. Fold it like a huge dinner napkin. That will result in a 45-degree angle. Use your scissors to snip through the very ridge of this fold. Then use your ruler, rotary cutter, and cutting mat to make a second cut through both layers of fabric two inches in from the scissor-cut edge. Presto! You have 2" wide bias strips. That's the hard part; the rest is easy.
Heat up your iron and press your bias strips in half, as shown.
In fact, now is a good time to press all of your pattern pieces. With a little steam, assuming your fabric can handle it; it'll help settle any distortions in the grain that might have arisen while the fabric was still on the bolt.
On pillow back 1 and pillow back 2, fold over and press the inner hem first once, and then a second time, as shown.
Sew the hems you just pressed on pillow back 1 and 2.
On pillow back 1 — the piece whose hem will actually be visible — you might want to use a blind hem stitch. For pillow back 2 — the hem of which will be hidden underneath the overlapping pillow back 1 — a regular straight stitch is fine.
This is the right side of the finished edge of pillow back 1. My machine hem stitch was actually pretty much invisible. For once.
Overlap the hemmed edges of pillow back 1 and 2 as necessary and pin them together. For the remainder of this project, they are functionally one piece. Think of your pattern pieces simply as pillow back and pillow front.
Next, let's finish that piping. Sew right down your bias tape, about 1/2" from the pressed fold.
There are many times in home-sewing when you experience a need to insert a long, not-very-stiff thing into a fabric channel. Think of threading elastic through waistbands, or running a drawstring through a hood. At this juncture, we are going to run a length of piping cord through our sewn-up bias tape. This can be a confounding challenge, but there are a number of shortcuts. I'm going to take you through my favorite method. First, take a big, blunt tapestry needle. The blunter the better. Then take a piece of thick yarn or string, and thread it through the needle. Tie a knot. Push the tapestry needle through the thick piping cord a couple times at the very end. (Reinforce the end of the piping cord by wrapping it with tape first, if necessary.)
When the needle is securely joined by thread to the piping cord, start pushing the blunt tip of the needle through the channel in the bias tape. The bias tape will slide right past the needle, which is too blunt to snag the fabric. And when you get to the other end of the channel, just pull the needle through. The piping cord will follow. You have now turned your bias tape into piping.
Next, pin the piping to your pillow front as shown. (This is where you rejoin this tutorial if you bought ready-made piping, oh wise one.) Pin the piping all the way around the perimeter on the right side of the fabric. Baste the piping to the pillow front. Try to get your basting stitches as close as possible to the line of stitches on the piping itself.
There are a lot of ways you can deal with the join in the piping; the simplest way is just to overlap the ends of the piping, as shown.
Next, pin your pillow front to your pillow back, right sides together. Working with the pillow front "up," stitch all around the edge of the pillow cover, following the line of basting that you just made.
Clip your corners.
And turn your work right-side-out. Voilà! Your pillow has a fancy new removable, washable, durable cover. Your final step is to place your pillow on your couch and enjoy. Next to the pillow cover I just made, you can see the "Iowa" pillow I recovered from a t-shirt. It's a great use for old shirts. That project is available here.
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