It’s still pretty early in 2021. If my publishing schedule goes as planned, this blog will go live sometime in March. So we’re not quite halfway into the first quarter….which still gives you plenty of time to fall prey to…a block of the month
trap quilt. When I started earnestly quilting around 1995, my favorite go-to big quilt of the year was a BOM (Block of the Month). Remember where I was at this point in my life: two young kids, a husband who worked out of town 90 percent of the time, grad school, and work. I was lucky if I had enough time to make dinner four nights a week. Shopping for fabric took time I didn’t have and couldn’t spare. Those lovely little blocks would either arrive in the mail or were available for pick up at my local fabric/quilt store. I didn’t have to choose fabric, only a color way, take it home, cut it out, and sew one block a month in order to receive the next block.
My quilting life was much simpler then.
There are soooo many different blocks of the month now. There are the ones still available from quilt shops, and there are literally hundreds online. I have a written a blog on how to survive BOMs (https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2021/02/17/how-to-survive-a-block-of-the-month-or-mystery-quilt/. ) And if you’re like me and follow certain quilt blogs, a lot of them have their own BOMs. Some years those are so beautiful I find myself downloading quite a few. Then other years (like this year) I don’t see any that really spark any interest. As a matter of fact, 2021 is the first year in
forever a long time I don’t have any BOM subscriptions.
But I digress. This blog isn’t so much about BOM as it is what comes after your quilt top is complete. All the blocks are made. They’re sewn in straight rows or in a diagonal on-point setting. Now all that’s left are the borders. And the borders are what I really want to concentrate on today. Many BOMs – most of them, I think – simply have plain borders to frame the center. There may be only one, or several, but generally it seems these are almost an afterthought. You’ve done all this work on the center of the quilt and then slap on some plain borders and call it done.
No. Your quilt is better than that. You’re a better quilter than that.
Borders are important. Allow me a few minutes of time in the quilty pulpit and I’ll preach you a message on borders. Borders not only frame your quilt, they’re the last statement you make about your quilt. They can be exclamation points or periods.
Don’t let your borders be periods. And they’re probably the last visual image the viewer will take away from your quilt. Typically, the quilty observer’s first line of sight is the middle of the quilt. From there, the visual intake expands outward, taking in the rest of the quilt center. Finally, the last bit of visual impact is the borders. The quilt center can be outstanding – perfect piecing, perfect quilting, perfect applique – and the borders can be total let downs. Plain borders leave me thinking, “Seriously…all that work, and the borders got no effort. What a shame. It’s like the quilter got to the end of the project and just gave up.”
Plain borders are the bane of my quilting experience. Granted, there are times when a plain border may be called for – such as if it’s a string quilt, a kaleidoscope quilt, or any other type of quilt which has a super busy center with no sashing. Sometimes a plain border is needed to calm the center down. However, the least one could do is miter the corners. If I have a busy center, my usually use at least two borders on it – a narrow, plain one to quiet it down, and then a wider, busier border.
All of this leads me to our topic – how do you change up a border to make it sing instead of snore? Most BOMs have a border and most of the time the borders are plain strips of fabric. How do you know what to do to change things up? It’s not hard, but there is a bit of math and a lot of imagination involved. So, if you’ve signed up for a few BOMs this year, you may want to read this entire blog. If you want to design your borders in a way to make you happy, you’ll learn how to do that with this blog, too.
The first step I caution any BOM participant to do is this: Save your scraps. And if you have some pieces which still have their selvage on it with the fabric manufacturer and the other additional information, hang on to those, too. The scraps can be used when you alter the border
or make mistakes in the blocks. If you need additional fabric, you can use the information on the selvage to hunt what you need down on the internet (see my blog about ordering fabric online https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2021/02/10/so-much-fabric-on-line/). And if the BOM gives you an opportunity to purchase extra fabric (what I lovingly call the “Oops” fabric), you may want to buy a bit of it for use in the borders.
Okay, let’s start with a quilt which is currently under my needle:
This is my guild’s 2020 BOM. Despite the pandemic and not being able to meet as a group, we persevered, picked up our blocks in a contactless way, and continued to sew. When we were finished, there were no setting instructions. We had to put our quilt together in a way which worked for us. I’m a sucker for on-point settings. I needed thirteen blocks, and since the BOM only had twelve, I chose my favorite block and made a duplicate, re-arranging the colors so it didn’t mirror its counterpoint. If I had not saved scraps, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. I took what few pieces I had left over and matched them with some of the blue batiks I had in my stash. It worked pretty well. I know I could have put some setting squares in the quilt but opted not to. This will be a lap quilt which will undergo a lot of use and a lot of washings. I don’t want to spend hours on the quilting, and those plain-ish setting squares would have required more time than I want to give this project. I used the Quilters Cake formula (https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2018/09/20/on-point-options/) to figure out the setting and corner triangle measurements.
Once assembled, I had to design my borders. This is where the real fun starts. There are several steps I have to run through before I make my final border pattern.
First: What is the quilt center all about? Is the center all pieced? Is it pieced and appliqued? Is it only applique? While the composition of the quilt center isn’t the final determination of the borders, it does come into some consideration. Some quilters feel the borders should echo the design – in other words, if the center is all pieced, then the borders should be pieced. If it’s appliqued, then applique the borders. If the quilt is a mix of both, then either or both can be used in the borders. I don’t feel this way. I think as long as the colors in the borders harmonize with what’s in the center, and you don’t go off topic, you’re good to go. In other words, if your center is primarily blues and greens like my quilt is, don’t use orange in the border if you haven’t used it in the center. And if you’ve appliqued birds and butterflies in your blocks, don’t put cellos and trumpets in the border. The borders should be a continuation of a theme, but you can certainly mix techniques all you want (in my personal opinion).
Second: What is the purpose of the quilt? If this is a show quilt, more time, detail, precision and effort should go in the borders. If it’s a charity quilt, a child’s quilt, or some other quilt which will probably see the inside of a washing machine quite a bit, the border needs to be pretty secure – machine pieced or appliqued. Will it live on the back of a couch, pulled down at night to cuddle in as you read or watch TV? The purpose of the quilt quite often gives you some direction about how you want to design the borders.
Third: Time. How much time do you have to make this quilt – are you up against a deadline? Is there no deadline and you can spend as much time as you want on the borders? Do you have time to personalize the borders? The time factor can be a big component in how you design the borders.
Fourth: Available materials. This factor can be especially true with BOM quilts. If the quilt is one you are making from a pattern and you’re purchasing your own fabric, chances are you can probably buy additional fabric if you need it for the border. This is not always possible with BOMs and you have to make do with what you’ve been given and what leftover scraps you have.
Okay, let’s go back and work with my quilt again. The center is fairly busy, so despite the fact I have some nice, solid color setting triangles, I still want to calm the center down just a bit, so my first border will be a plain one. Using the Golden Ratio (1.618), I can begin to math out how large and how wide the entire border unit could be. The blocks finish at 12-inches. To find out how wide I can make the border, I multiply 12 x 1.618 and divide by 4 (because the quilt top has four sides):
12 x 1.618 = 19.416
19.416 / 4 = 4 7/8-inches.
The widest I could make the border and have it still appear balanced is 4 7/8-inches. Now let’s see how narrow I can make it. This time we need to divide by the Golden Ratio:
12 / 1.618 = 7.416564
7.416564 / 4 = 1 7/8
I could make the borders as narrow as 1 7/8. So, technically, the combined two borders’ width could be as slim as 1 7/8 or as wide as 4 7/8. And I’ll let you in on one of my pet peeves at this point: I hate dealing with 1/8-inch increments. I will round both of those up to a narrow 2-inches and a wide 5-inches. This just makes the math so much easier. My finished quilt center measures 60-inches x 60-inches. If I make the first border 2-inches finished, this now makes the center 64-inches x 64-inches.
At this point, I have to decide what kind of final border I want – and you know I don’t want just plain strips of fabric. My ideal situation is to have the final border make the entire border total 5-inches. When we subtract the 2-inch border I just put on from the final 5-inches, that leaves us with 3-inches to play with. Now, the question I have to ask is will 3 divide evenly into 64?
The answer is 21.333 or 21 1/3. While I could finagle around and actually make my final pieced border work, it’s just so much easier if the numbers come out as a whole number. Even if I add ½-inch seam allowance to 21 1/3, it comes out to 21 7/8 (and we all know how I feel about 1/8-inch increments). It won’t work. Since the borders must fit accurately, I have to be precise. So, let’s drop back and punt and still play with a 5-inch border, but let’s narrow the first border to 1 inch. This means our final border will have to be 4-inches wide. Is 62 (60-inch center + two 1-inch borders) divisible by 4? No. But it is divisible by 2. That’s a small number, smaller than I like to work with on the last border, but I can play with my options – which brings me back to the question — what kind of border do I want?
This quilt isn’t for me. It’s for a friend, and I’ll get into the particulars of that later. This quilt will probably either live on the back of her couch or accompany her to chemo treatments. It will probably be washed quite a bit, so I plan on making a pieced border. This type of border will hold up much better to frequent washing than even a machine appliqued quilt. But thirty-one 2-inch finished squares for each side of the final border?
Nope. Not gonna happen.
This is where I really had to tap into my creative side. While I certainly had no appetite to make so many 2-inch HSTs (or any other type of 2-inch block for the border), I decided I did want to keep the theme of the quilt center. If you notice each and every block of the center is comprised of HSTs. So….if I didn’t want to make the entire border out of HSTs, why not make part of the border out of HSTs?
Sounds like a winner.
I made a total of fifty-eight 3 ½-inch (unfinished) HSTs. The HSTs in the center blocks are all this size, hence my decision to keep the ones in the borders this size. I decided to use part of them in the top left-hand corner and the others in the bottom right-hand corner. This asymmetrical arrangement is pleasing to look at, and the rest of the border space can be filled with my neutrals.
I find this kind of arrangement works exceptionally well when the math gets really wonky. It is great to look at, doesn’t take a lot of time to construct, and your brain doesn’t fry trying to discover even multiples. Those HSTs will be fun to quilt and I can really add some great design work to the neutral parts. I’ll make the binding in the same blue which is in the first narrow border.
All that’s left is to quilt it, bind it, and send it out to the recipient.
Why do I fuss so much with my borders? Well, like I said at the beginning of this blog, they’re really the last statement you make about the quilt. Granted, if you have some serious quilting chops (either with hand quilting or machine quilting), you can make those plain border sing with your stitches. And there are times like with the quilt below:
When plain borders are just what the quilt calls for. But with this case, the border fabric is the same neutral used in the blocks, and the entire effect makes the center blocks look as if they’re floating.
The last statement you make with your quilt should always be an exclamation point and not a period. Don’t just throw some plain borders on the center (which you’ve devoted time and money on) and call it a quilt. Think about those borders. Don’t be afraid of the math.
You won’t be sorry you took the extra time. Trust me.
Now for a personal note. Some of you know my brother has had smoldering myeloma for about three years. After some lingering hip pain and blood work, his oncologist scheduled a PET scan. The scan told us he has moved from smoldering (meaning myeloma may or may not be the outcome) to active — he now has myeloma. He is being treated at Duke Hospital Systems in Durham, North Carolina — one of the best. He also is in contact with the myeloma specialist at the Mayo Clinic, UNC-Chapel Hill and more data bases than I can remember. He will undergo some radiation, chemo, and then a stem cell transplant. If something occurs and he cannot provide his own stem cells, I’ve told him I would be tested to see if I was a match.
He is my only sibling.
Please keep Eric in your thoughts and prayers in the upcoming weeks. The outlook is good. His doctors are very, very optimistic because this was caught early. But getting from where we’re at right now to remission will be a rough ride. He has his wonderfully supportive wife, Deanne, and two sons by his side, as well as me and Mom and a host of other friends and relatives.
I’ll keep you folks updated.
Until next week, Quilt On!
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam