Borders = doing them right


There is probably a scientific principle stating how wide the border SHOULD be based on the size of the quilt blocks. But really, borders are a matter of personal preference. If you want to make a quilt larger than the pattern, you add a wider border. If your quilt needs a frame, add a border. In the case of a round robin quilt, almost the entire quilt is composed of borders!

The trend for the past year or so has been to exclude borders, not only with ‘modern’ quilts, but traditional patterns as well. Again, it’s a matter of personal preference, and your needs. I have always believed that a border makes a nice frame – a great stopping point for the eye.

Regardless of the size of border you choose, or the number of borders, or whether they are mitered or applied straight, there are some important tips you need to know to ensure your quilt doesn’t end up a mess.

Let me give you some honest background here: I have made this mistake over and over and over again, and have learned these tricks through a few combined methods. As a quilter, I have seen the product of women who’ve finished their umpteenth Judy Niemeyer class with extensive points and paper piecing to women who brought me their first patchwork quilt, that they learned to make as I did (from a friend, who learned from her mom, no training or classes, and very little actual measuring or precision).

Fortunately that was a long time ago, and I have come a long way. Regardless of your background or the extent of your quilting expertise, EVERYONE is subject to messing up the borders. I’m just fortunate enough to quilt my own messes :), but I promise I won’t share anyone elses! The photos below are from a family project.


Have you ever put your quilt together and had the border look ruffly? Or maybe it came back from the quilter (or if you tied it and bound it) only to find that there is a tuck or two along the outer edge?

These are all symptoms of the same underlying problem: the border is larger than the quilt.

Some ladies at the quilt shop say to measure your quilt in three places (center and along both ends) and to CUT the border to the average length before applying them. I tried that and ended up with a short border. oops.

Some say to pin your border. While I agree that this will help, I believe there is an additional step you can add in to ASSURE your borders do not end up longer than your quilt side.


  1. Measure your quilt length on the ends and center, average them. Mark this length on the fabric wrong side of your borders (use chalk or pencil, NOT pen), but leave yourself a bit of extra length JUST IN CASE, before cutting.
  2. Pin your borders onto your quilt top, ensuring the quilt top is on the bottom (very important) and the pins are on the border side on the top. That way you can also double check that your quilt top matches up with the markings from measuring the quilt top that you put on your border.
  3. Sew the border onto the quilt WITH THE BORDER ON TOP. Why is this step so critical? The feed dogs (the little ridgy things under the walking foot) pull the bottom fabric to the back as the needle goes up and down. There is no offsetting part on top of the fabric that pulls it back, so based on the way a sewing machine is constructed, the bottom fabric will inevitably be moved along at a greater rate than the top fabric.

This same last concept applies when constructing t-shirt quilts – if you are sewing sashing between the t-shirt panels, put the t-shirt side DOWN so that it is pulled through. That way, if it stretches (as it can, even with stabilizer), it won’t be as devastating to your efforts to make a squared quilt.


A note on mitering your corners… If the outer corner is sewed in too tightly, you get this:

mitered corner, sewn in at improper angle

mitered corner, sewn in at improper angle

The quilt above had the selvage edge left on the outside of the border, which made it tighter than the fabric sewn into the quilt side of the border, creating A LOT of puff in the border.

What this meant was that I had A LOT of extra fabric to try to tuck into this quilt. But back to mitering… if you ARE going to do it, ensure you SEW it properly, because ironing it so that it LOOKS correct is not the same thing:

mitered corner that was ironed to look correct rather than being sewn correctly

mitered corner that was ironed to look correct rather than being sewn correctly

See how far my finger fits into this seam? There’s that much extra fabric I now need to tack down.

mitered corner excess fabric

mitered corner excess fabric

How do you prevent this? Again, I learned to sew with very little guidance, and don’t learn well from reading how-to books, so my method is, well, self-taught and not really technical. But it works for me: I sew the two border pieces on up to the 1/4″ seam allowance of the corner. I lay the quilt out top side up and then I fold one border corner under at a 90 degree angle and iron it. I carefully turn it over and pin it so the piece without the crease doesn’t shift from where it lines up with the ironed side. Then I take it back to my machine and sew along the crease. Then I lay it out and see if I got it right. If so, I trim the excess fabric inside the seam, if not I rip it out and fix it in the direction I was off.

Yes, my method is pretty… homegrown, I guess. There are zillions of resources out there if you want to find something more technical or specific on the process. My point in being this honest about my ways is that you don’t have to have a pHd in art, hundreds of dollars of classes and books or years of teaching experience to figure out a way to make it work. Just find a method that works for you.


When your border is larger than the quilt top center, there is then excess fabric to get worked into the quilting so that the top still squares up without wrinkles or tucks. The photo below shows the large amount of fabric that needs to be incorporated into the border. This can cause the quilter to have less options on how to quilt the border, or if following the request of the quilt maker, it can cause wrinkles (no bueno).

too much fabric!

too much fabric!

In this case it would have cost extra because I had to stitch in the ditch to hold the border down and keep it straight. Then I chose to do a close in meander because that helps to work in extra border without it being so obvious (feathers don’t work it in so well, in my experience).


Round Robin quilts can result in some amazingly beautiful quilts. But becase they are almost ALL borders, they can also be a quilters’ nightmare. I honestly hate saying that because I do love to quilt them. But it would appear that some people in the groups I’ve quilted the results of are not aware of this issue.

I have literally had to take out 4″ of fabric from one border that STILL ended up too long for the quilt top, but I was able to work the rest in.

The really tricky part of these quilts is that there can be loose ‘borders’ contained by smaller ones, which results in puffy areas within the top. How does that happen? Well, if you sew the border on without pinning and allow too much of the quilt top to pull through on the bottom while sewing the border to it, you CAN end up with a tight border.

My advice to you would be that if you like to be part of a round robin group, talk up front with your group about how they measure and sew their pieces on. That might help avoid uncomfortable or hurt feelings later.

I sure hope you found this helpful. 🙂 Happy quilting!

Making a Tshirt Quilt – some good things to know

So, now that I’ve been doing this for a while… I thought I should add a few important items to the list of ‘what one should consider’ when making, or buying, a t-shirt quilt.

A. Let’s talk about stabilizers. Some people say they don’t want to use it, maybe because it adds too much weight to the quilt, or because they don’t think they need it. ***The quality/thickness of the tshirt has NOTHING to do with the use of stabilizer. Yes it should DEFINITELY be used on thinner shrits, but thicker tshirts still stretch, because they are still double jersey knit. Some people swear by stabilizer, insisting that you must use a certain type – maybe the $4/yd stuff that is basically fabric that irons on to the backside of the shirts. Sometimes I use heavy weight, sometimes I use medium/light weight. But I ALWAYS use something.

Use what you want to use, but please PLEASE PLEASE use SOMETHING! You may be able to get the squares together somehow without using any stabilizer, but even if you do, you are setting up the quilter for a disaster. Which means you are setting yourself up for a disastrous result.

The hopping foot on the longarm quilting machine essentially pushes the fabric in front of it. With regular cotton fabric, this ensures a nice, smooth stitch. With double jersey knit without a stabilizer, the fabric is free to stretch, and will get pushed and stretched in front of that hopping foot. This WILL create puckers and folds. The stabilizer prevents that by holding the fabric in place. Even the stuff that’s only $1/yd.

B. Use sashing. Sashing provides a great boundary between blocks, and creates a very clean look. It also helps ensure the seams between shirts don’t end up acting like big curbs for the quilter to get through.

There are as many ways to make a tshirt quilt as there are colors under the sun; maybe instead of sashing you use 2″ blocks. Or a different frame/border for each panel. If you use good quality fabric between the shirts, you will have a MUCH better looking quilt than if you sew a bunch of tshirt panels together.

C. VERY IMPORTANT! Use an experienced quilter. Very often, once a tshirt has been quilted through, it cannot be unquilted. I.e., if the stitches are pulled out for any reason, the holes in the shirt panel will remain, and will not close up with washing. There are two types of needles, and most of us don’t even keep the blunt point in stock, so if there is a hole in your quilt made by that longarm needle that doesn’t have thread through it, then it is a new hole punched in your quilt, and it could open up with washing.

If mistakes are made during quilting, an experienced quilter will know how to locate the stitches (they really sink into the jersey knit and are hard to remove once quilted) and pick them out without tearing the shirt fibers, as well as retracing steps to ensure there aren’t holes poked through the panels left open to see.

I will also say that quilt makers will charge based off different things – some charge based on size, some on panels (number of shirts). If you want to have a tshirt quilt made for you, ASK FOR PHOTOS, REFERENCES, or other information that will give you a warm, fuzzy feeling that this person is understanding the level of quality you want to end up with. Ensure you KNOW that they are experienced enough to complete the project.

I have seen horrible projects come out of good intentions. If you are unsure of the process, the price determination, how the outcome will look, ASK. Please!!! SHOP AROUND! There are MANY talented tshirt quilt makers out there, just ensure you are enlisting one that will provide the results YOU want. It’s YOUR money, YOUR shirts, YOUR project – ensure you are going to get what YOU want. If not, say thank you and call someone else.

Understand as well, the cost is usually equitable to the quality. If you are paying $75-150, you are probably getting something that isn’t going to last too long, or look very clean. And I can tell you, there are a lot of amazing tshirt quilts out there, but they won’t all look like this:

kids clothes

memory quilt

tshirt quilt

memory quilt


Bringing Out The Best in Your Quilt – A Longarmers Perspective

The basis for the title comes from my leadership training. Once upon a long, long time ago I was told to read a book we fondly refered to as “The Book of BOB”, BOB standing in as an acronym for Bringing Out (the) Best, but referring to people.

I was asked to lecture for a guild (coming soon!), and subsequently had to come up with a title for my speaking engagement about being a longarm quilter. This is what came to mind.

If you think about the title sentence, it does really make sense. It reveals that as a longarm quilter, I will give my perspective on how WE can bring out the best in your quilt. Yes, WE, meaning you and me, or you and whomever your quilter happens to be.

I know there are others out there that offer this same ‘speech’, but what I am truly offering is an interactive session with your group, and it doesn’t just address MY personal requirements and preferences. The good news is that this can apply to any two people that work together.

The bottom line is that this entire situation comes down to communication. If the quilt maker wants heirloom and goes to someone she used to have quilt for her that way a year or more back, how can she be sure that quilter hasn’t changed her style (this happened to someone I know). How are you SURE that your longarm quilter isn’t going to GO WITH IT when that’s what you tell him to do? Maybe “go with it” in his opinion means show quality detail, but that’s NOT how much you wanted to spend!?!

This post is a bit of a teaser, because I will be delivering this interactive seminar to the Land Of Lakes Quilt Guild in Lewisville on January 14, 2013 at 7pm. I will address:

what happens when you don’t carefully measure the blocks before piecing them

blocks of different sizes

what happens when you iron seams that are NOT flat…

ironing crease in seam

and a variety of things that can happen when you piece the back, when you don’t measure the borders and more. And of course, I will address how the longarm quilter can make these ‘issues’ disappear, like magic.

I will also provide guidelines and questions to ask each other so that interaction can go smoothly. That really should not be uncomfortable for anyone. And if you have questions, feel free to comment here!

ps. to ALL my customers, don’t worry – your quilts will NEVER end up in this type of discussion!!! the one pictured above was an old family treasure, and some other examples are charity or my own work, made in a way so I had some great examples to share!

Quilter’s Block

A new block, you ask? Not really. This is more the type of block that stops progress and less the type that builds a quilt. Kinda like writer’s block.

So I put together this top, which is a variation of Jacob’s Ladder, and I was SO pleased with how it turned out. Corners came together correctly, color placement was nice and the overall appearance was just how I had envisioned it would turn out. It measures just at 100″ square.

hanging over the balcony from upstairs, I just love the way this quilt looks when you take a step back. I also love the border, which was the inspiration for the quilt in the first place.

I had it hanging over the banister upstairs for a month or so, which really gave view to anyone who could see in our ginormous back window (the spot where it hung can be seen from the main street that runs along our backyard). I finally decided to quilt it, and thought I should make my first try at entering a show.

I chose poly cotton batting because I didn’t want it to be too warm or flat, since it will ultimately end up on my bed. I cut the wide back and strung it up on my machine. I tacked down the top edge of the quilt and then paused, for about an hour. This is when my Quilter’s Block began.

I knew I wanted to customize the quilting, and my first thought was to make a curly feather in the large border. Before I did so, I stitched in the ditch along the bottom of the border to ensure it stayed straight. Then I sewed the line that would have been the feather backbone, and starting at the upper right corner, began to swirl my feathers out. It got ugly. I stopped for the day.

Next day: back at it. I pulled out the ugly stitches and tried to get back on track. Then my thread kept breaking, like immediately after I began to sew. I changed from variegated thread on top to straight red, but the problem persisted. I had just changed my needle, so that wasn’t it. There she sat for 2 more days.

I woke up feeling guilty and realizing I had to make another attempt. I thought maybe my thread was serger and too thick, so I changed it. But by this time I was just not convinced feathers were the way to go. I mean, the border is all FLOWERS! The entire color arrangement for this quilt was based on the border fabric – it was my inspiration. I turned around to get a bobbin or something and saw a book I have in a cubby that showed a whole cloth quilt on the front cover. It was quilted in such a way as to create flowers where there was nothing but solid fabric. BING!!!

Light bulb finally having gone off, I began to pull out all those stitches. Now if you have ever sewed anything, and had to rip out stitches, you will understand how much fun this isn’t. And I had a long way to go. Another day and a half wasted. But at least now I felt as if I might be moving in the right direction.

SIDE NOTE: I can tell you with no exception, that this is why I get nervous with every customer quilt and do a lot of prep before beginning. I think on it, draw it out, think some more, and when I am positively sure, THEN I begin. I guess because this quilt is mine, I just figured I’d be happy with my results regardless, so I invested less advance work.

I got through outlining three red flowers when I realized that I wasn’t getting the look I wanted. I figured I needed to pull out the stitches and insert another layer of batting. So I pulled out the stitches around one of the flowers and realized, yes, I could take out all those stitches I could barely see (the thread matched the red flowers really well), and try to get batting between the top line and the ditched line at the bottom of the border, but then I would also be adding to the weight of this quilt that I ultimately wanted to use! sigh. I took the rest of the night off.

So the next day I restitched this flower, and did the rest of the red flowers. The next day I stitched the blue flowers. I decided to keep it at that because I favor those colors in this quilt, so I wanted them to stand out more than the browns, yellows or green leaves. Now… what to do in the background of the flowers? I decided to let that marinate for a few days.

When I forced myself back to it, I thought if I stitched something small it would make the flowers stand out more. But I really didn’t want to echo or do a stipple. So I flipped through the pages of the aforementioned book and decided on a densely leafed vine. OK, what thread color. I had been thinking about this already, wavering between green, cream maybe brown, maybe variegated green… Walk away for an hour, come back. Repeat. Repeat. Choose creamy white thread, and on we go.

As I started to stitch, I thought I was pretty pleased with it. That’s when I stitched OVER one of the red flowers. sigh. Pull out stitches, turn machine off. You can see how this is going so far.

Now, I’m almost across the top border, and I think it’s ok. I don’t think it’s show-worthy, but it will definitely be cherished on my bed, unless I come to hate it before I get it done. For all the mental anguish this quilt has cost me, I’m really worried about getting it done and off my machine within the next century. I haven’t even decided what to do within the center yet. Which is why I am writing instead of quilting right now. 🙂 

Here are some photos:

I like it, I just think it looks, fuddled. Is that a real word? I don’t know, and I don’t care.

Can you see my stitch in the ditch?

it’s pretty deep in the ditch…

But it does look REALLY COOL from the backside!

the flowers really stand out!

the light above causes all the colors to show through. once I take the quilt off the machine that won’t be the case

So the moral of the story is that prep work makes the job MUCH easier, and yes, even quilters get artistically blocked. So I guess it’s not just for writer’s anymore.

I hope y’all have better luck than me this month (so far). Happy quilting!


Importance of Quilt Backing Size

I have touched on this before, but I thought I would show more clearly how/why this can be an issue if the backing for your quilt is not larger than the top. Most quilters will request anywhere from 3-6 inches on EACH side of extra fabric. Here is why:

The extra fabric on the top and bottom of the backing are used to pin the material to the canvas rolled at each end of the longarm machine, ‘right’ side facing downward. After both ends are pinned to the canvas, the quilter rolls the fabric under so the top edge of the backing is within the quilting space. Then the quilter lays the batting on top of the backing, and lays the quilt top over the batting. There’s your quilt sandwich.

If the top of the quilt is the same size as the backing, your quilt will end up short, because the backing is pinned to the canvas, the backing is now about an inch shorter than the top.

The sides need extra material so we can ensure all the wrinkles (not everyone irons their backing material…) are pulled out and that when the quilter moves from one side to the other, that they don’t push or pull the fabric and create folds on the back. This is most likely to happen at the edges.

The way a quilter can get around that issue is to drive the longarm quilting machine with one hand and hold the edge of the material taught with the other, but this can affect the quilting quality.

So please, my quilt making friends, please leave extra material on the sides and ends of your quilt for the quilter of your choice. You will make her (or him) happy and you will end up with better results. Happy quilting!

Preparing quilt backing for your longarm quilter

This step sounds super easy, and it is, but there are a few things you can do with your backing to ensure the quilt turns out spectacular! As with the quilt top preparation, consult your longarm quilter to ensure their specific requirements are met.

1. Just as with your quilt top, using 100% cotton will ensure your quilt doesn’t end up mis-shapen or torn after washing and use. Quilting cotton is best, but minky and fleece are also acceptable. Using a sheet or denim can result in issues.

2. Using wide backing will result in no seams for your back. If you use regular width material (generally 43″-44″ wide), you often need to sew two lengths together to create a backing wide and long enough for the quilt. DO EVERYTHING IN YOUR POWER TO CREATE SEAMS IN ONLY ONE DIRECTION ALONG THE BACK. If you have them in both directions (perpendicular seams), the back can stretch and cause your quilt to become unsquare later on.

3. Ensure your backing material (and batting) are larger than the top. This is very important for your longarm quilter, and each quilter will have a different requirement for you. But I can tell you most of them will ask for allowance of at least 4″ on every side of the quilt. I’d be happy to explain why if anyone asks.

4. When you sew those two lengths together, ensure your seam allowance is large enough to cut through the selvage strip, or cut it off altogether. Not doing this will result in the backing stretching in an hourglass shape on the longarm machine, and again, your quilt can become mis-shaped after washing.

5. Pressing that seam will ensure it lays flat to one side or the other, or open. Click on the pictures below for greater detail.

6. If your backing has a top and a bottom, ensure you mark it appropriately for your quilter. If you want the seam on the back centered, ensure you let your longarm quilter know. Most quilters will not center the backing because quilts are generally folded in half and half again, so that seam line along the quilt could breakdown more quickly from more wear and tear than other areas of the quilt. Putting the backing seam there is asking for problems down the road.

Some quilters will seam the back for you, for a small fee.

Happy sewing my friends!

Preparing a quilt for longarm quilting

This is a question I field often, which as a quilter, I really appreciate. There are certain steps a quilt maker can take to ensure the quilt turns out beautifully, with minimal frustration on everyone’s part. You may feel like your longarm quilter performs magic, but the better the quilt top you provide, the better the result they can give back to you!

1. Iron your seams flat. PLEASE!! When seams are not ironed, they can turn the wrong way and cause an uneven surface on the top. The batting absorbes some of this, but if the material used is thick (like denim) or fleece/minky backing and no batting, unruly seams can be a challenge.

2. TRIM YOUR THREADS, especially if you have light and dark fabrics sewn together. I cannot tell you how many beautiful quilts I have quilted that have ‘varicose veins’  because the threads underneath were not trimmed, and show through the fabric. Once it’s been quilted, you have to live with that.

major puffy area


3. If you have PUFFINESS, resew the seams, tightening that in. This is an example of major puffiness:

The wrinkles when a quilt is laid flat are the first indication there is a problem. Fortunately I was able to flatten this area. It was a charity quilt, and these were practice stitches, but you can see that puffiness can be dealt with.

puffiness fixed

Play it safe! Don’t leave it to chance that your longarm quilter can fix your puffy areas.

4. Ensure your borders are not wavy. Much like the issue with puffiness, the borders being wavy means the amount of material in the border is more than the length of the quilt top inside the border. I have heard various methods to fix this, but those advisors themselves had border issues. So my advice to you: find a mehtod that works for you and stick to it. I do not measure my border length against the quilt length (many quilters will tell you to do this, and it is a good method). I simply lay my border on the table face up, place the quilt on top of it, right side down, and pin it, ensuring the sides of both are smooth and not stretched.

5. Ensure all of your seams are closed. A longarm quilter wants to do just that – quilt for you, not repair your quilt top before s/he starts. 

6. If you stitch around a pieced top (not necessary with a single piece border), 1/4 inch in from the edge, this will ensure no additional stretching occurs. We do appreciate this, although most quilts come to us without.

7. PLEASE PLEASE remove any embellishments (actually just wait to add them until AFTER the top is quilted). There is a good chance something will be missing when your quilt comes back, or your quilter may have to leave space around an area because the machine can only get in so close.

8. No need to baste or pin! Don’t put the time and effort into it unless your longarmer requires it. Many quilters free-float the quilt as we go, qhich means if you baste or pin it, we have to remove all the pins or stitches to get started.

9. MOST IMPORTANT!!! Consult your longarm quilter for specifics. Each longarm quilter has specifications they can work within. Most often they will tell you guidelines similar to these, but you never know.

Tomorrow I’ll post some notes on preparing the backing for your longarm quilter. Happy sewing my friends!!