Destination — the Borders

Let’s talk borders.

Borders are (usually) the last pieces added to a quilt top.  Loosely defined, they are strip(s) of fabric used to frame the quilt top.  I also want to set the parameters of this blog.  Since this year’s theme is “Level Up Your Quilting,” I am assuming all of the basics do not need to be explained in great detail – in other words, I’m working with the idea that you have several quilts under your belt.  So, with this column, I’m presuming:

  1.  You know what a border is and realize a quilt can have more than one.
  2. You know the proper way to sew on a border – it’s more than just cutting some super long strips of fabric the desired width and then cutting off the excess that hangs off your quilt top.
  3. You realize there are multiple ways of making a border.
  4. You see the potential in borders and avoid making them out of long, plain fabric strips.

The issue I have with a lot of quilt borders – whether the idea comes from the quilt designer or the quilt maker – is they’re just strips of fabric.   So often at quilt shows, you come across a gorgeous quilt.  The applique is divine, or the piecing is so perfect.  The colors sing in harmony like the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir.  The quilting is appropriate, and the stitches have perfect tension.

Annnnndddd then you take a look at the borders.  They’re long strips of plain fabric.  Of course, they harmonize with the quilt center, but they’re just…plain.  To me, it looks the quilter spent a ton of time on the quilt center, paying attention to  all those little details and then just ran out of steam when they got to the borders.  They surveyed their left-over scraps, decided what yardage they had the most of, cut some strips, sewed them on, and moved onto the quilting.

It’s really tragic.  Really.  All that time spent on a gorgeous quilt top and then frame it with plain strips of fabric.  If I was a quilt center, I’d be offended.

So this blog assumes you know what a mitered border is and how to correctly put on a quilt border. I am taking for granted you’re aware there are multiple border treatments which can be used to spice up those strips of fabric and complement the quilt center.   This is what we’re discussing today.  I want to show you some options for those borders.  You’ll see lots of illustrations that I hope give you lots of ideas.  The very first thing I want you to understand and embrace is the quilt pattern is only a map.  There are lots of ways to get to your destination. In other words, if the pattern calls for strips of plain fabric for the borders, you have the perfect right to change it up.  Borders are a blank canvas…paint your dreams on them.  This means, of course, that these borders will take additional time.  But they’re worth it.  Keep an open, creative mind and remember it’s alllllllll about the finished product – not the clock or calendar on the wall.

The easiest way to add some life to your borders is to put some applique on them.

Flowers for my Wedding by Judy Neimyer

With this method, the borders are literally still long strips of fabric; however instead of remaining plain, the quilter can applique vines, leaves, buds, birds…well, the choices are endless.  My favorite type of applique borders has the applique pieces infringing on the quilt top instead of remaining just on the borders.  This is a good way to pull the colors of the quilt together – use the scraps left over from the piecing (or other applique blocks) for the applique pieces.  If you’re unsure about how to space things out or if your worried the layout may look off-balance, then off-set your applique.  Put it in two opposite corners.  This is actually my preferred way to applique borders.  It just seems to add a different rhythm to the quilt. 

However, as much as I love applique, I’ll do know that it’s not everyone’s favorite technique. 

Let’s posit this scenario, because this is exactly where I’m at in a quilt that’s currently under my needle.  Remember a blog or so back when showed you this pile of fishy blocks?  I’m making a quilt for my DH and I really hope to have it ready for him by Christmas.  Through some internet searches, I found a panel with trout and bass on it and I knew he would love it.  He’s a big fly fisherman. It was perfect. 

After the panel arrived, I had to determine a layout, and I wanted something that would complement the panel.  I didn’t want the quilt to look like I just threw the panel in the middle of the quilt and then added borders until I made it as big as was needed.   I didn’t want applique on it since this quilt will live in his den and may need to be washed semi-often.  I played with graph paper and EQ for a while until I found this layout already uploaded into my EQ software. 

I liked most of it but knew I would substitute some of the blocks for other designs.  I want to walk you through the process to show you how you can change and design your own borders to complement your quilt.

The above quilt layout is a Medallion Quilt.  A Medallion Quilt has a center block and everything else revolves around that center block.  Literally.  See this quilt?

Medallion Quilt by Lori Smith

It’s a Medallion.  The center square is the main event and it has borders which complement – but do not overpower – the center square.  The center square in a Medallion Quilt can be pieced or appliqued, but it’s the star of the show and everything else has a supporting role.  Keep this definition in mind, because as we get to the end of 2020, the Medallion Quilt idea will get some serious play time. 

This is not the type of fabric panel that could lend itself as the entire center block.  Some fabric panels such as this one:

May have an idea or two for this for the granddarlings. I purchased two panels.

Can do that.  But not this one.  I knew it would have to be cut apart, and the largest fishy square would serve as the center block.  I followed the layout directions and added three plain fabric borders around it – two narrow light green strips and a wider dark green strip.  Since the panel is so “busy” (it has lots of movement and color), the solid colors helped calm it down just a bit.  I also loved this panel for that reason – it has tons of color and I was able to pull every fabric I needed from my stash. 

This brought my center medallion up to 21-inches square.  I set it aside and began to work on the next round of squares – the star borders.  I made each of them and then laid them out. 

The center of this square in the pattern is 30-inches (each of the star borders is 30-inches long).  When the 21-inch center medallion is placed in the middle of the star borders, there’s a definite space issue the original quilt directions won’t help me with at all.  It’s up to me to figure out what to do next.  There are a couple of ways I could approach this.  The first way is to find the middle of the star borders (which is at 15-inches) and put a pin in it.  Then find the middle of the center block (10 ½-inches) and put a pin in it.  I can match the pins and measure the excess on the end of the star border – which is about 4 ½ -inches.  Or I could math it out and find the difference and work with that:  (30-inches – 21-inches) / 2.

30-21= 9

9/2 = 4 ½

Either way works, but it’s always nice when you know your stitching and the math works out to the same answer.  Then you know you’re really on the money.

I have 4 ½-inches to play with.  I could add more fabric strips, but I just did that around the fishy center.  Since the 30-inch borders are stars made out of HSTs, I could echo that and A) make a wide 4 ½-inch border of HSTs or B) I could divide the 4 ½-inches in half and make two 2 ¼-inch borders.  I could run one row of 2 ¼-inch HSTs next to the narrow green border and then have a 2 ¼-inch solid fabric border between that and the star border.  And while I’ll be the first to admit if I’m dealing with HSTs, I like them larger (I wouldn’t mind making 4 1/2-inch HSTS), to have two busily pieced borders right up against each other kind of sets my teeth on edge.  It just looks too busy. So maybe option B would work?

Nope.  See, remember my center is 21-inches square. My hoped-for HSTs of 2 ¼ -inches will not divide evenly into 21.  The product comes out to 9 1/3-inches. 


Thus, came my option C.  While 21 isn’t divisible by 2 ¼, it is divisible by three – 21/3=7.  I will have one border of 3-inch HSTs and then a border of 1 ½-inches of solid fabric.  Let me insert here that I could really play with the 4 ½-inches in a lot of ways.  As long as the sum total of my borders add up to 4 ½-inches, I’m golden.   

After, I’ve added the HST border and the strip of solid fabric, the center now looks like this and is exactly 30-inches square.  The left and right border strip go on perfectly.  Now I must deal with the top and bottom border.  Let me also say at this point, you can put the top and bottom on first and then deal with the left and right sides.  Most of the time it really doesn’t matter which way you proceed.  I’ve just always done the left and right and then the top and bottom.  While that 30-inch star border measures the same as the center, there is now added width because of the side borders, which means I need cornerstones.  Each star border is 10 ½ -inches wide, so that means I’ve added an additional 21 inches to the center square.  When you add that width and subtract the seam allowances (30 + 21 – ¼ – ¼ ), that makes the center now 50 ½-inches wide. Since the top and bottom borders are 30-inches long, I’m going to have to four cornerstones  that are 10 1/2-inches square unfinished

To further complicate matters, I’m using part of the panel as cornerstones and these fishy squares only measure 8 3/4-inches square.  Never let anyone tell you I pick the easy way around things.  Again, we could lay that 8 3/4-inch fishy square against that 30-inch star border and eyeball it, or simply cut super-wide strips and then begin to cut them down until everything matches.  But why go to all that trouble when you could simply math it out?  It’s easy – take the final unfinished size needed and subtract the unfinished size of what you have.  So, 10 ½ -inches minus 8 3/4-inches is 1 ¼-inches.  Divide 1 ¼-inches by 2 (for two sides), and that is 7/8-inch.  Add ½-inch for seam allowances and the total is 1 3/8-inches.  I will need to cut my strips 1 3/8-inches.  I will cut those strips out of the background fabric so they will appear to “float” and the star strips won’t look chopped up. 

Once the fishy cornerstones are added to the star borders, and the star borders are sewed onto the quilt center, it looks like this:

Before the math….
After the math…

Not too bad, if I do say so myself.  And I mathed correctly – everything fit beautifully. 

At this point, the quilt top measures 49-inches x 49-inches.  Forty-nine is only divisible by two numbers, seven and itself.  This makes my future layouts a little tricky.  However, I can add a 1-inch narrow border (narrow borders are sometimes called floaters) and bring the center’s total to 50, which is divisible by a lot of other numbers.  I’ll make this floater out of a solid strip of fabric for two reasons:  First, it’s really difficult to make a pieced 1-inch anything, and second, that solid piece of fabric will complement the piecing. 

After I added the 1-inch floater, the pattern design called for a 2-inch border.  Continuing to echo the center square, I opted for the dark green for the 1-inch floater and the 2-inch adjacent border to be out of the light green.  After this, the center was a nice 56-inches square.  Since 56 can be divided by two, four, seven, and eight, there’s a lot of options for the next pieced border.  However, the design calls for one more 1-inch floater on the other side of the 2-inch border.  This additional floater will bring the center to 57-inches square.  The tricky part with this measurement is 57 is divisible by itself, three, and 19.  The last pieced border on this quilt top is a square-in-a-square border (this is also called the economy block).  I would have to make 76 three-inch square-in-a-square blocks in order to make things come out evenly at this point. 

And while I love my husband, I ain’t making 76 three-inch squares for a fish quilt that’s going to spend all of its life on the couch in his den.  Nope.  There’s gotta be a better way.  So, let’s play with adding another 2-inch border.  This will bring the center to 58-inches square.  Fifty-eight is divisible by 2 (29), and 29 (2).  That won’t work either, because that still would mean making a ton of 2-inch squares.   Adding a 3-inch border means the center would be 59, and 59 is a prime number, meaning you can only divide it by itself and 1.  But if I add a 4-inch border, that would bring the center to 60 and I can make ten 6-inch square-in-a-square blocks for each side and it would be wonderful. 

Or I could leave off that last 1-inch floater and make the square-in-a-square border butt up against the 2-inch border. 

This is a design decision and the primary reason I’m dragging you through my process with this quilt is to hopefully help you realize that a pattern is merely a starting point.  Once you are confident with your quilting math, the sky is really the limit.  You can take a design and tweak and alter it to fit what you want it to do.  If I were making this quilt for myself, I would add that square-in-a-square border to the 2-inch light green border and call it a day.  But this quilt isn’t for me, it’s for Bill.  This is not a show quilt.  This is a quilt he’s going to pull off the back of his couch to nap with on Sunday afternoons.  It’s a quilt he’s going to reach for if the power goes out.  It needs to be bigger for him (because he’s taller than I am), so the 4-inch border wins out, because with this quilt, use supersedes the design. 

This is how it looks with the 4-inch border.  I chose the brown fabric to pull the inner star borders and the outer strip borders together.

Next up, according to the layout, is that square-in-a-square border.  Since the quilt is now 60-inches square, and I’m making 6-inch blocks, I’ll have to make forty squares (10 squares per side, and I’ll use solid blocks from the background fabric for four cornerstone blocks). 

I found this fabric in my stash for the square-in-a-square block:

It works perfectly for that block and pulls all the colors in the panels and borders together.  A word about the batik background fabric. 

This fabric is actually quilt backing.  I purchased it for another quilt, and it just didn’t work right with that particular top.  But it works wonderfully with this one – just not as a backing!

After all the square-in-a-square piecing, I added another solid border to calm the quilt down.  I opted for a narrow, 2-inch border, pulling the brown fabric out again.  This would be the last time I used this fabric.  It’s used three other times in the quilt and that’s enough. 

The next border would be the last, wide border.  It would need to be at least 4-inches finished to balance out the 2-inch border it’s beside.  The pattern called for a solid fabric border, but I had to decide if I wanted to do that or go with a final pieced border to continue to pull the viewers’ eyes out to the edges of the quilt.

I opted for the pieced border.  I know it’s hard to see really well in this picture, but I pieced the border, using large, rectangle pieces of several of the fabrics used in the quilt.  This border is a great way to use up scraps and it serves to pull all the colors together.  As soon as it comes off LeAnne the Long Arm, I will bind it in the same material I used in the middle of the square-in-a-square block.  I already have the binding and the label made.  Go me!

My It’s Always a Great Day to Fish quilt finished at 108-inches square.  I’m pretty sure Bill will love it.  Still, there are a couple of thoughts I want you to come away with from my show-and-tell blog.  First, borders are a blank canvas for your quilt.  If you aren’t comfortable changing up the blocks in the center of your quilt, let your talent showcase itself in the borders.  Applique them.  Piece them.  If you have better quilting skills than I do, make them solid pieces of fabric and then quilt the life out of them.  Just don’t allow them to look like they’re an afterthought — a period to the exclamation point of your quilt’s center.  Second, if you know how to “math” your quilt, the sky really is the limit.  Panels will not be predestined to be framed with round after round of plain borders.  Orphan quilt blocks of different sizes can be set into a quilt that is lovely and wonderful.  Don’t fear the math.  It’s not hard … and unlike abstract disciplines like algebra and calculus, this math makes sense.  If it seems a little overwhelming, take it a little at a time.  And always, always remember the pattern is just the starting point.  In the end, you control how your quilt looks.

Until Next Week, Level Up Your Quilting,

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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