Heading to the Border…

When you’re reading through a quilt pattern, one of the last items on the list is the borders.  You may be directed to cut them out with the rest of the fabric but attaching them is generally one of the last things you’re going to cross off the quilt-to-do-list.  I say generally, because that is one quilt rule that can be broken, and we will do just that later on in this series of blogs.


Loosely defined, borders are strips of fabric that surround the outside of blocks and sashing/setting triangles (if either or both of those are used).  A single border can be used, or multiple borders can be made, depending on how large you want your quilt, the look you desire, or what the pattern calls for if you’re sticking to the directions.  I’ve always thought of borders as “frames,” so mine tend to always be dark.  However, this is not a hard, fast rule – borders can be any color and nearly any width.


But borders work not only as a frame, they also work as your final squaring-up tool.  Much like sashing works in this area, borders work in just about the same way.  Here’s how that works…


Let’s say you construct a quilt top that is 54-inches wide by 75-inches long. For this purpose, we’re going to only use one border around the quilt top.  The directions will tell you, unless you’re mitering the borders, that the border should be cut 75-inches long and 5-inches wide for the left and right sides of the quilt top (the left and right sides are normally sewn on first) and 64-inches long and 5-inches wide for the top and bottom borders.  So, you cut them out…

And they don’t fit.

Now what can you do and more importantly, what should you have done to begin with?

Let’s pause a moment and remember two important things at this point.  First, always important to square your quilt up after every step:  After every unit is made, after every block is completed, and after each strip of sashing (both horizontal and vertical).  If this is done, then the odds of your completed quilt top being truly squared up are in your favor.  But what if the measurements of that top come out 55-inches wide and 76-inches long?  It can happen.  You could have sewn a scant ¼-inch seam when you should have sewn a full one.  Your needle could have been in the wrong position.  However,  if you’ve already cut your border fabric, then either a) you pray you have enough scraps to piece your border b) you hope there still is some of that fabric at the LQS or on-line store c) you ask your quilting buddies if they have some of this fabric in their stash or d) hop on eBay  and hope for the best.  My general advice for all borders is cut them out when you’re cutting everything else out, but make then longer than directed.  It’s always easier to make something smaller than bigger.  It’s always better to cut something down to size than to stretch it to make it fit.


For all borders, no matter what kind or what size, there is a process to determining exactly how long to make them.  The first thing to do is press your quilt top.  Then lay it on a flat surface – floor or table works best.  A soft surface, such as a bed, may have too much “give” to get an accurate measurement.  Take a tape measure (the retractable metal ones work best) and measure the length of the quilt top in three places – a few inches in from the right and left side and then straight down the middle.  Add those three measurements together and divide by three to get the average – and that’s how long the left and right borders should be.


So, let’s say we take that quilt top that’s supposed to measure 75-inches long.  The measurement on the left is 75 1/2 – inches, the middle measurement is 75-inches, and the measurement on the right is 75 1/2 -inches.  Add those three together (226) and now divide by 3 – and you get 75 1/3-inches.  The left and right border should be cut to 75 1/3-inches.  If you had already cut those borders to 75 inches as directed, you could certainly ease the top into that, but it’s aggravating, and this can sometimes cause a “ripple” effect in the seam.  In other words, the border seam will look slightly puckered even though there are no puckers in the seam.  It’s just much easer to take those left and right border strips that were cut slightly longer and trim those down to 75 1/3-inches.

Measure length wise

I also pin my borders.  I know some quilters don’t – the simply line up the edges and let ‘er rip, but I’m more cautious.  I find the middle of the quilt top’s left or right side (in this case it would be at the 37 2/3-inch  mark) and place a pin in it.  Then I find the middle of the border strip and match that at the pinned location on the quilt top and pin from the middle out.  To me, this makes the border lie flatter.  Do this on both sides of the quilt and sew the left and right borders on.  Press the seam to the side (usually it’s pressed to the border side) and once again lay the quilt top out on a flat surface.  Take the tape measurer and repeat the same process to find the average length to cut the top and bottom border.  Then go through the identical process to sew them onto the quilt top.

Measure crosswise

That’s the easy part – it’s pretty simple to find the correct length of the border.  Patterns will tell you how wide to make the border.  But what if you’re designing your own quilt?  How wide is too wide and how narrow is too narrow?

Let’s go back and re-visit the Golden Ration that we discussed a couple of blogs ago.  The border should be the Golden Ration of the size of the block most commonly used in your quilt.  If your quilt is made primarily of 8-inch finished blocks with 2-inch sashes, that would make the finished size of the entire block 10 inches (8 + 2 = 10).  Multiply 10 by 1.618 and you come up with 16.18.  Now divide that by 4 (for the four sides of the quilt) and you get 4 inches.  The border should be 4-inches, finished, which means you cut it at 4 ½ – inches to include the seam allowances.  Now in that four inch ratio, you could do one 1-inch border and one 3-inch border.  Or two 2-inch borders.  You can make multiple borders as long as the sum of the widths equal four.

Quilt with sashing and borders

If wide borders aren’t your thing, you can take the size of the block (10-inches) and multiply it by half of the Golden Ratio  (.618) and you come up with 6.18.  Divide that by 4 and you have 1 ½ – inches.  That is the narrowest border that the Golden Ratio suggests.  And like sashing, your border width can fall anywhere between 1 ½-inches and 4-inches and it will look balanced.


However…what if you need your quilt to be wider and longer than the pattern allows for?


No problem.  Go for it.  There are a couple of things to keep in mind at this point.  The math is still important.  The border can be 1/3 to ½ the width of the finished block.  So, if your finished block is 10-inches, then the border can be between 3 1/3 and 5-inches wide.  That’s fairly close to the Golden Ratio, but it is a tad bigger.


If that doesn’t work, try the Fibonacci Numbers.  This is a mathematical sequence of numbers where each number is the sum of the preceding two ones.  A chain of Fibonacci Numbers would be 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8.  Two is the sum of 1 + 1, 3 is the sum of 1 + 2, etc.  You can make multiple borders to finally arrive to the size quilt top you need, and as long as they follow the Fibonacci Number series, the top’s borders would look balanced.  And a Fibonacci Number sequence doesn’t have to begin with one.  It could start with 2 and be 2, 2, 4, 6, 10, 16, etc.


Let me throw this in here – remember what I told you about the Golden Ratio?  That folks like quilters and designers kind of have this ingrained in us and know when something is too big or too small?  At some point, if you’re adding multiple borders to make the top bigger, you will know just by looking at your quilt, when the borders are overwhelming the quilt top.  Then it’s just better to add more blocks to the top to make it larger and add the borders later.


In the upcoming blogs we’re going to take a look at mitered borders, pieced borders, applique borders, and adding borders as the rows are made.  I’m also planning to discuss altering the borders that the pattern calls for…because who wants to stick by the directions all the time?


Meanwhile, crunch the numbers and Quilt with Excellence!


Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


4 replies on “Heading to the Border…”

I want to make 3 borders on my quilt. The 1st border is 1 1/2 inches finished. How do I figure out the 2nd and 3rd border measurements? I’m lost.

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