Sashing and the Golden Ratio

Last week we began a discussion on sashing – the strips of fabric between the blocks and rows of a quilt.  This week we’re going to take it a bit further and talk about how wide to make the sashing, how sashing affects the overall look of a quilt, and how to pull off some really impressive sashing tricks.

If you’re using a quilt pattern that has sashing, the pattern will tell you how wide and long to cut your strips.  At this point, I always stop and think that on one hand, the quilt designer has put a lot of time and effort on the quilt and there are probably good reasons why the designer has come up with those particular sashing dimensions.  But on the other hand, because there is generally always the other hand I may want to change the look of the quilt to suit my tastes a little better.  So, what happens when you play around with sashing?

The first thing to consider is that the quilt’s border(s) will change.  They will either need to be larger or smaller than the pattern calls for.  And as intimidating as that factor can seem, it really is not that difficult to deal with, and we will do just that in a later blog.  Set that issue aside and let’s just zero in on the sashing.

Let’s say the pattern calls for 2 1/2-inch sashing strips, unfinished, meaning that when the strips are set into the quilt, they will measure 2-inches.  That is a decently wide sashing that can deal with pieced or non-pieced cornerstones.  It’s also wide enough that some serious quilting can go on in those sashing strips to enhance your quilt block.  Except what if you’re like me, and you’re not a fan of wide sashing?  To be honest, as I mentioned last week, my favorite way to set quilt blocks is on point with setting triangles.  But if I must sash, I tend to lean towards narrow sashing, one-inch wide, unfinished, so it sets at ½-inch.  When is narrow sashing more effective than the wider kind?

If the blocks are similar – either the same pattern or similar patterns – and your color palette is limited (my rule of thimble is three or less), a narrow sashing works well to unify the quilt.  The blocks are closer together and that narrow sashing adds a real punch to the quilt top.  Take a look at this quilt top:

My Favorite Shoo Fly

This is a pattern I came up with using Electric Quilt 8.  It’s a sweet quilt top that uses two or three colors well and the narrow sashing shows this off very effectively.   But what would happen if we used a wider sashing?  For the sake of this illustration, let’s push the sashing width to three inches.

My 2nd favorite shoo fly

In my opinion, the blocks lose their effectiveness with a wider width of sashing.  The limited color palate is no longer as appealing as it was with the narrower sashing.  If I did decide to use a wider sashing with this quilt to show off my long arming chops, I would use cornerstones to keep the quilt top pulled together.

shoo fly with cornerstones

Next question:  What are cornerstones?  They are squares the same size as the width of the vertical sashing.

row with cornerstones

They are pieced into the horizontal sashing to meet up with the corners of the blocks.  The cornerstones can be solid pieces of fabric, or they can be pieced, like tiny quilt blocks.  My personal favorite cornerstone pattern is a  nine-patch block.

quilt with 9 patch cornerstones

Pieced cornerstones are not only a great way to pull the colors together in the quilt, but they are also a great way to use up left-over scraps.

However, I do realize that that not everyone likes narrow sashing and not all quilts look good with skinny sashing.  Scrap quilts or quilts made from orphan blocks (blocks left-over from other quilts, blocks “gifted” to you from friends that decided they didn’t like them or didn’t want to finish a quilt, or other random quilt blocks) often look best with wider sashing. The wider sashing gives these blocks room to “breathe” –  there’s enough space between the blocks that even if the colors don’t exactly coordinate, the wider sashing along with some colorful border fabric will work to pull the quilt top together.  The wider sashing also gives the illusion that the blocks are kind of floating.  Sometime paired with second, darker colored fabric, the blocks will even appear to have a shadow.

My favorite excuse for using wide sashing is this:  The sashing strips can become blocks themselves.  And this opens up all kinds of possibilities for your quilt.  Remember this little quilt that we talked about earlier this year?

Quilt with pieced sashing

In my opinion, this little quilt is just wonderful.  Not only is it set on-point, it uses sashing as well as setting triangles.  And the sashing is pieced!  Three strips of fabric form the vertical sashing and some of the cornerstones are tiny nine-patches that work with the pieced sashing to form a secondary pattern on the quilt.  It’s simply wonderful planning and works so well with the quilt.

Now take a look at this quilt:

pieced cornerstones 2


The sashing is pieced so that it makes a secondary small star as the cornerstone.  These are small pieces, and the piecing must be very accurate in order for the sashing to look right.

And this quilt:

quilt with secondary blocks in sashing

When we pull out the sashing and look closely at it, the sashing actually is a quilt block.

quilt with secondary block in sashing

It forms the top part of the next row of blocks.  This is very clever and shows some advanced quilting techniques.  The piecing has to be very precise in order for the rows to look correct.  However, this is also something that couldn’t be easily done with narrow sashing – the sashing had to be wider to pull this off well.


So…where do you start when you have a stack of blocks you’re not sure what to do with?  The longer you quilt, the more your personal preferences will come into play.  I like quilts set on-point, with or without sashing.  If I am making a quilt with rows, I like skinny sashing better than wider sashing most of the time.  But I didn’t start out with those likes and dislikes.  Over a 30-year quilting span, those have become my favorites as my blocks have become smaller and smaller (I rarely make anything larger than a finished 8-inch block any longer).  However, if you’re just starting out, there’s this little equation called The Golden Ratio you may want to brush up on.

In mathematics two quantities are in the golden ratio if their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum  to the larger of the two quantities.  It is also called the golden mean.  In geometry, it’s a bit different as the Greek letter pi represents the golden ratio.  I could go through the entire formula (and the physics teacher in me is just raring to do that), but I don’t want to lose anyone at this point.  Let’s just say Euclid and a lot of other mathematicians and scientists have spent copious amounts of time on it and the golden ratio boils down to this figure:   1.6180339887….  The number is irrational as it goes on forever, never ending.  For the sake of ease, we cut it down to 1.618.

Now I know what you’re asking.  I can see your eye roll from here…You’re asking yourself, “What in the world does this have to do with quilt blocks and sashing?”  In a nutshell, folks like architects, artists (da Vinci was a big fan of the Golden Ratio), musicians (yup, it’s used there, too) and designers have used the formula to develop pleasing designs.  Quilters have been no different.  And before you start sweating bullets over the math of this part of quilting, allow me to let you in on a little secret:  Most of the time this comes naturally to people that deal with design work and quilters fall into this category.  Let me also say here that numbers don’t lie, and you should do the math if there are any doubts.


Let’s set this scenario:  You have purchased a stack of 8 ½  blocks from an estate sale.  You know the blocks will finish to 8-inches once the sashing is sewed on.  The first thing you do is multiply 8 x 1.618 and get 13.  This does not mean your sashing is 13-inches wide.   Take 13 and divide it by 4 (for all four sides of the block) and you get 3 ¼-inches for each strip of sashing finished.  Add ½-inch to that for seam allowances you could cut your sashing strips up to 3 ¾ -inches wide.  That is the largest size sashing that would still look good with your blocks. That seems large, especially to folks like me who prefer skinny sashing.  But if you piece your sashing and have cornerstones, that’s really a great size to work with.


However, what if you just don’t want to go through all that trouble?  If you’ve purchased the blocks with the goal of setting them in a top for a charity cause or a child’s play quilt, you may not want to go through all the trouble of piecing the sashing and cornerstones.  You may just want to set the blocks in rows with sashing and move on.  In this case, you would take the finished size of the block (8-inches) and multiply it by it by roughly half the golden ratio – 8 x .618 = 5 inches.  Then 5 divided by 4 = 1 ¼ inches.  Now add ½-inch for a seam allowance and the width of the sashing should be cut is 1 ¾ – inches.


Between the two extremes – the widest sashing  being 3 ¼-inches wide and the narrowest at 1 ¼-inches wide (finished) sets the stage for all the options of the sashing width.  Your sashing can fall anywhere within these two measurements and it will look wonderful.  However, if it’s wider than 3 ¼-inches or narrower that 1 ¼-inches, it will look out of proportion.


The math isn’t hard, and the golden ratio is also used to figure border width, as well as the best width and length of the quilt center.  But if math is just not your thing, Jinny Beyer sells a wonderful tool called the Golden Gauge Calipers that takes all the math-ing out of the design work.  She has them on her website, as well as detailed instructions on how to use them.



I hope that the two blogs on sashing has helped you look at all the options out there for sashing.  I also hope you decide to “spice” your next quilt top’s sashing up a little with some pieced sashing and cornerstones.  It’s the little extra steps like these that really make a quilt top not only sing but sing in harmony!


Until next week, Quilt with Excellence!


Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam






To Sash or Not To Sash…

We’re taking a look at sashing this week.  What exactly is sashing?  Sashing is strips of vertical and horizontal fabric that sets the blocks apart from each other.  These are strips of fabric usually on the right-hand of each block to form vertical rows and long horizontal rows at the bottom of each row of blocks.   So where does sashing come into play in a quilt top?

Let’s go back to your quilt construction.  You’ve completed all your blocks and you are ready to put together that quilt center.  Now what?  Well, there are three possibilities at this point.  The first possibility is to simply sew all the blocks together in rows and then sew the rows together to make the quilt center.  The second possibility is to use sashing between the blocks; and the third possibility is to set the blocks on point and use setting triangles.

Let’s look at the first option:  Sewing all your blocks together in rows with no sashing or setting triangles.  Several quilt patterns adhere to this possibility.  The first that comes to mind is the Irish Chain.

Irish Chain

There are no interruptions between blocks, as the squares lead the eyes on several diagonal lines across the top of the quilt.  If there were sashing or if the blocks were set on point, there would be an obvious interruption in the “chain” and the quilt wouldn’t look right.  Then there are the quilt patterns that have “hidden” secondary blocks.  Look at quilts made from the pattern Jacob’s Ladder.

Jacob's Ladder

In some of Jacob Ladder quilts, there appears almost circular designs, but there isn’t one curved piece in any of the blocks.  It’s all an optical illusion, but if there were sashing or if the blocks were set on point, this “mirage” would not be apparent at all.  So sometimes the omission of sashing is necessary in order for the quilt to have the appearance that is needed.

Probably my favorite quilt pattern without sashing is Winding Ways.  I really want to make this quilt soon.  I love the way that color plays with the visual process in this quilt.

Winding Ways

However, there are times that sashing is needed for the quilt to have a cohesive look.  If the quilt is really scrappy, the sashing can work to pull everything together and make the top harmonize.  If the quilt is a sampler (lots of different blocks), sashing or setting triangles are necessary to make the eye to travel across the quit at a leisurely pace and the top not look confusing.  Remember this sampler quilt?

1718 Coverlet

While it is truly a thing of beauty and a joy forever, there is nowhere for the eye to rest.  Sashing or setting triangles could have really worked wonders with this quilt (in my opinion, anyway).

To be honest, setting triangles are my favorite way of working with different quilt blocks or scrappy quilts.  I love the way an on-point quilt looks, and we will look at this option in another blog.  If you have a situation where there are either multiple types of quilt blocks (both with size and construction) or the quilt is scrappy, and the blocks cannot be turned on point (because they wouldn’t look right – such as the block is either directional or horizontal-designated applique), vertical and horizontal sashing may be your only option to use when you construct the quilt center.  So, let’s look at a few ways to make this sashing as effective as it can be for your purpose.

One of the most useful purposes the vertical sashing can be used for is to help you make sure your block is square.  Let’s say for instance you make this block.

Random Quilt Block 2

It’s a nice block.  Now let’s say you need twelve 8 ½-inch unfinished blocks for your quilt and these blocks will be sashed on the right-hand side as well as at the bottom of each row.  When I’m constructing a quilt such as this, I use my sashing as part of the squaring-up process.  As I’m cutting out the quilt top, I go ahead and cut the appropriate number of 8 ½-inch strips to sew to the right-hand side of the block.  As I construct each block and square it up, I then sew the sashing to the right-hand side of the block.  If the 8 ½-inch strips line up nicely with my 8 ½-inch block, then I know I’ve done a decent job in squaring up and my blocks should go together just fine.  That’s how the vertical part works.


Now let’s look at the horizontal row.  Let’s say this quilt is a wall hanging and we’re looking at four rows with three blocks in each row.  For this purpose, let’s say the finished size of the sashing is 1 ½-inches.  The first block will have a strip of sashing sewn on the right side and so will the second.  The third normally does not because the border will be next to the right side of the last block and the left side of the first block.  Let’s do the math at this point, and remember you do quilt-math with the finished  size of the blocks, sashing, and borders.

We have three 8-inch blocks.  3 x 8  = 24 inches

We have two 1 ½ vertical strips of sashing sewn onto the right side of block one and block two.  2 x 1 ½ = 3

Then add the remaining seam allowances.  There needs to be ¼-inch on the left-hand side of the row and ¼-inch on the right-hand side to attach the border.  ¼ + ¼ = ½ .


Add all three totals:  24 + 3 + ½ = 27 ½ inches.  The horizontal row of sashing should be cut exactly 27 ½ inches.  Now if you sew that horizontal sashing onto the bottom of the row and it all comes out even, you know your row is square.

Quilt with Sashing

While all of this sounds kind of picky, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is.  If the quilt center is square, and the borders go on square, those go a long way in your quilt’s appearance.  A quilt that is squared-up will lie nicely on a bed, hang straight, and be so much easier to quilt.  And if you take the time to square up the blocks on your cutting mat, and then with vertical sashing, and then finally with horizontal sashing, that center is squared up fifty ways from Sunday and you’ll be so pleased with its appearance.

Next week we’re going to look at some ways to make your sashing just a bit “fancier,” as well as the effect that skinny vs. wide sashing makes on your quilt.  And if you’re making this quilt top up as you go, how do you know if the sashing is “balanced?”  So much sashing and so many, many options!  Just remember the basic rule:  Always square it up and you’ll be happy with the results.

For those of you who are still wondering about my daughter, Meagan, and her life post-radical hysterectomy, I’d like to catch you up.  She had a post-operative exam earlier this summer and they found a “bump.”  It was biopsied and found to be scar tissue.  Her blood work was fine, and she was healing nicely.  Fast forward a few more weeks and she came down with a UTI.  Because she’s allergic to sulpha drugs and the fact that she was hit hard with antibiotics when she developed the post-surgical abscess, the choices of what to treat the UTI with was very limited.  A week worth of Cipro later, she’s good.  She also had her first of many follow-up Pap smears and that came back blessedly normal.

I know that sounds like a lot, but after what we faced from February until May, it’s not.  Her blood work was good, even while fighting the UTI.  Her body responded to the antibiotics.  She is experiencing lingering pain in the area either from scar tissue or nerve damage.  Meg will undergo a scan for the doctors to find out.  If it’s scar tissue, a laparoscopic procedure to remove it will be performed later in the year.  If it’s nerve damage from the surgery she will see a neurologist for pain management and hopefully see about nerve regeneration.

She hasn’t missed a day of work since she went back.

We are so very grateful for the continuing prayers and thoughts from everyone.  This is a five-year marathon, not a sprint.  God has blessed us, and we do not take that for granted.


Love and Stitches

Sherri and Sam




The Window to the Mind

Why do you quilt?

I think I’ve been asked that at least one hundred times in my life. I’ve never been sure exactly why people have this desire to know why I do anything, much less quilt.  My husband asks me that from time to time, but that’s only when he see yet another  box from Shabby Fabrics, Keepsake Quilting, Pineapple Fabrics or some other fabric supplier land on our doorstep.


For me, it would be easier if folks just asked why I breathe – it’s a natural phenomenon that feeds my body and soul through creativity and logic.  While on the surface nothing may seem logical about quilting, let me assure you, there is logic there.  There are formulas and math involved that are necessary in order to make that quilt come out just right.  That’s the reason quilting, as well as other art forms, have been proven to help stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s – it works both sides of the brain at the same time, keeping those neuron-pathways alive and sparking.

I am younger than the average quilter – so if the fact that I’m not a white-haired, plump, grandma-type that is the stereotypical quilter prompts the inquiry – so be it.  But honestly, no quilter that I know fits that stereotype.

I attended a quilt retreat at the end of June.  The question of Master Craftsmanship and its cost was raised, and from that interrogative, the question “Why do you quilt?” came up.  Besides creativity and logic, quilting also makes me feel connected to the past – I’m a fifth-generation quilter – and the future – I’m teaching my granddaughters how to quilt.  But the cost of quilting as a form of Master Craftsmanship is another area.


We all know the financial cost of quilting.  Like any other art form, there are costs involved.  There are the consumables – fabric, thread, needles, paper, marking tools – all have to be replenished.  Then there’s the “small equipment” that must be replaced fairly frequently – irons, ironing boards, lights.  Finally, there are the investment purchases that are upgraded after several years – machines and computers.  To put this in perspective, the average quilter has $5,000 invested in his or her stash and has $13,000 invested in machines.  That’s the black and white end of the monetary investment.

But not everything is about money.  Any artist will tell you there is an emotional investment in their craft.  Quilting is no different.  I can have the worst day ever, come home, spend a half-hour in my studio and come out a different woman.  The feel of fabric between my fingers soothes me like nothing else.  A day without needle and thread feels infinitely incomplete.  Handwork goes with me to the doctor’s office and on vacation.  Does fabric produce pheromones only noticeable to those that stitch?  Maybe.

However, that emotional investment comes with a price.  The time I spend in my studio is time not spent with family, as none of my family quilts but me.  It’s time not spent tending to other areas that may need my attention.  I find I’m horribly behind on current television programs and that I go entire days without listening to the news which given the current state of both is not necessarily a bad thing.  You learn the Zen of balance when you quilt.

The cost is also dissatisfaction with less than your best.  I want each stitch to be better than the last one.  I want to learn from each quilt.  I want lessons from each top and each session at Lorretta to make my next quilt better.  This pursuit of excellence feeds the passion.  And the passion feeds the next project.

Comfort zone explosion is another reason I quilt.  We all get very comfortable with our normal schedule, performing tasks we’re good at.  We shop at certain stores because we know the price range and the layout.  We take one route to work over another not just because of the traffic flow, but because we can just about time the stop lights and we can stop at a drive-through to get coffee.  I prefer paper-piecing over traditional piecing because it’s more precise.  And then an opportunity arises… there’s a new pattern or a new technique or a new fabric line … Suddenly we’re learning new techniques and sewing in ways we’ve never thought about before.  New fabric shows up in our stash with color palates we either haven’t used yet or haven’t been comfortable with.   To quote Martha Stewart, “This is a good thing.”  These new colors, new techniques, and new patterns push us to learn new things; which in turn keeps our minds working and young.  Anytime we stop learning, a part of us dies long before our physical bodies give out. Immanuel Kant once said, “The hand is the window on to the mind.”  In other words, it is only through making things – by trying and failing and repeating – that we gain true understanding of our craft and of ourselves.    Abandoning our comfort zone – pushing beyond those self-imposed barriers – costs us the peace of the familiar but rewards us with the challenge of learning something that’s intimidating.

Let me throw in a personal example here.  Over a year ago, I purchased Loretta, my long arm.  I had lobbied and longed for her for years.  And then suddenly, with the help of a couple of friends, a large pizza and a couple bottles of wine, she was assembled in my quilt studio.  She was sparkling white.  She was huge.


She was intimidating as hell. 

Forget the fact that she’s just a big sewing machine that produces only a straight stitch.  This was a long-arm.  And suddenly all the 30+ years of sewing confidence I had flew out the window.  I loaded up a practice piece, stood back…

And left the room.  For three weeks I tip-toed around her, afraid to turn her on.  Afraid to touch her.  Afraid … simply afraid and imitated that that I would break her or that I couldn’t learn how to do this.

However, since she’s positioned directly across from Big Red, I can see her every time I sew.  I forced myself to get up from piecing and do one row a day.  I was lousy.  My stitches weren’t even, my curves were jerky.  But each time I practiced, I got better.  I’m still not terrific and if I’m entering a quilt in a show, I still don’t quilt my tops myself.  However, I am better at long arming now than I was at day one.  And next year this time, I’ll be even better.  The bonus to learning all of this new and intimidating stuff about long arming is that my piecing got even better.  Suddenly I know from a first-hand perspective what will truly “Quilt Out” and what won’t.  I understand even more now about how much correct pressing means to a smooth quilting process.  I realized that tops that are on-grain and squared-up quilt far more easily and far more beautifully than ones that aren’t.  This long-arm intimidation that pushed me out of my comfort zone not only taught me how to quilt my tops but also how to make my tops better.

So, is there a cost involved in quilting?  Certainly.  Financially there is no question to it.  But there are subtle costs involved as well.  However, those can be balanced.  The payoff?  A healthier brain, losing the fear of the unknown, experiencing new things are just some of the many.  The next time someone asks you “Why do you quilt?” pause a moment and think.

Even you may be surprised at your answer.

We’re over the half-way point in our year of “Quilt with Excellence.”


During the next several months I want to discuss sashing and borders, color saturation, and touch on some quilt history as well as share what I’m working on with you folks.  If there is anything you’d particularly like me to talk about, please let me know.  I do take requests.


Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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