Quilt Design Decisions: Borders

Quilt Design

Quilt Design Decisions Borders

Because the Rainbow Improv Scrap quilt was a filler project for me, I shared a lot of my design process, thoughts, and asked lots of questions along the way via my blog and Instagram. I received a question from a blog reader that I thought would make for a good discussion about quilt design decisions:

[I w]ondered if some time you might discuss how you decide whether a quilt needs a border and what steps you go through when you are adding a border. -Rochelle

The question came after I sent an email saying that “pretty much everything about quilt making ends up being subjective” meaning that, for the most part, it often comes down to personal preferences. However, there are definitely considerations that I take into account when I am working on a quilt design or improv top like the Rainbow scrap quilt.

1. How big does the quilt need to be?

In the case of the Rainbow Improv Scrap quilt, I literally just started with my scrap bin and made it up as I went along. At first I thought I could possibly squeeze a small baby quilt out of all the scraps, but once the body of the improv piecing was put together, I was in love with the quilt top and wanted to keep it for myself (so selfish, I know). So then the question became, what can I add to the quilt that will continue to give the quilt structure, definition, meaning, framing, etc., and allow the quilt to grow into a comfortable lap / cuddle quilt for my sofa? That sounds like a lot to balance, but those were the general ideas I had in mind. I auditioned various fabrics around the quilt top. I thought that white or a low volume might frame it nicely. The low volume actually really competed with the improv blocks, and the white just wasn’t quite right. When I placed a thin strip of black from my scrap bin next to the colors and it really helped them pop, I knew that black would be a nice frame for the quilt for me. I then really liked the idea of extending the rainbow theme out into the border and raided my solids bin to see if I had enough different colors to make that idea work. With a quick shipment of one extra green from Renee @Quilts of a Feather, the border just fell into place. And gave the quilt more depth and meaning.

Another time you might want to think about upsizing a quilt top with a border is when you take into consideration how much a quilt will shrink from quilting and washing. I personally do not tend to pre-wash my fabric, so the combination of quilting and washing leads to a pretty consistent 7-9% shrinkage for me. If I know that I want a quilt to have a certain drape over a bed but am working with large quilt blocks (and adding another row or column would be too large), then I start to consider adding a border.

2. Does the quilt feel finished?

Again, the Rainbow Improv Scrap quilt is a great example of this. I was not done playing when the improv scrap blocks were pieced together. I just knew that the quilt was asking for something else. Because I was out of scraps, I figured it was time to continue the “improv” portion of the quilt and play with block / border ideas.

Sometimes a quilt top comes together, but there is one fabric that can really pull all the blocks into a cohesive whole. Recently, Jan @The Colorful Fabriholicย has been working with some Block of the Month blocks and forming them into cohesive quilt tops. She found some really perfect border prints to pull the blocks together.

3. Preserving Points

I will add borders to intricately pieced quilt tops to help preserve crisp block points. There are also techniques that can be used when trimming a quilt square after quilting and prior to binding (leaving an extra 1/4-inch around the edge of the quilt top) to preserve points when adding binding, but I will also often choose a border for this very purpose.

4. Negative space

My 3 most recent quilt patterns have all had borders that extend the background / negative space of the quilt. This in effect actually works to make the quilt a size I desire, preserve points, and add an additional “floating” feel to the quilt design.

5. What type of quilt style are you trying to design?

Borders do make a quilt lean a lot heavier on the “traditional” quilt triad (traditional vs. art vs. modern). If you are striving to maintain a specific aesthetic with a quilt, learning more about that aesthetic will also help inform you if a border would be right for your design or not. Again, borders do not have to be used in a traditional sense: they can be added to add in negative space or create an asymmetric design which are very modern concepts.

6. Have you considered your binding? backing?

Occasionally I will have the *perfect* binding in mind for a quilt that coordinates beautifully in my mind with the quilt top and backing… only to place the binding fabric near the quilt top and realize it is not so perfect. One solution would be to find a different binding fabric. Another might be to add a transition border. Also I do not tend to think about the backing for a quilt until after the quilt top is finished. Sometimes the process of creating the backing is a strong enough influence to make me go back and rethink design decisions about the quilt top (removing or adding borders have both happened for me as a result).

7. Medallion and Round Robin Quilts

There are certain quilts that basically demand construction with borders. While not always the case (there are exceptions to every rule and I am not the quilt police!), medallion quilts and round robin quilts are typically constructed by adding borders to a central block. Again, this does not have to be the case, but if you want border inspiration, looking at image searches for Medallion quilts or Round Robin quilts can provide a lot of great ideas.

OK, that’s a lot of reasons to add or not add a border. Let’s take a look at some images of how different a design can look with and without a border.

I chose to add a border to the Triangle Transparency design to extend negative space, preserve points, and make the quilt a desired size. In fact, it really isn’t so much a border as integral to the block design itself, but you’ll have to buy the pattern for full details. ๐Ÿ˜‰

I added a border to the Rainbow Improv Scrap quilt to make the quilt larger and because it did not feel finished.

I also went and pulled a handful of Quilt Design A Day (QDAD) designs where I used borders in the design. Mostly I used the borders to extend negative space and place the design focus off-center in each of the designs, creating an asymmetric design by adding a border.

I am sure there are many other good reasons to both add or *not* add a border to a quilt top. I’d love to hear from you in the comments your thoughts!


  • Great explanations on the hows and whys. I will raise my hand and announce Im not a border gal nor a sashing chic hahahhah Will do anything and everything to not do them, its just a personal choice and what we each like ๐Ÿ™‚ Having said that I had to do a border the other day, and it required two hahahaha talk about palpitations hahahahahah

  • the border debate is one that can only be decided by the maker. the same pattern done with different colour schemes or solid vs patterned fabrics and scale of the prints have huge impact on the look of the top. borders help to define design elements often forcing the eye to focus on an area. pieced borders can help draw attention away from a particularly busy central block. I use borders in most quilts and I don’t apologize for those choices. I quilt for the pleasure of the experience, not to fit my quilt into someone else’s classification scheme

  • Great post, Yvonne! Your Rainbow Improv quilt is a terrific example of listening to the quilt and where it wants to go. Beautiful!

  • Thank you for sharing your process for ‘to border or not to border’! If I feel a quilt needs to be bigger, I’ll figure out what works best with the design, or maybe add sashing to achieve the size needed. Since I rarely use patterns, and love to switch them up when I do, I usually have a lot of creative ‘play’. I’m still in love with this quilt Yvonne and totally understand why you would be so selfish…and keep it for yourself!

  • Thank you Yvonne. I appreciated the time you took to write this well thought out explanation to my question. The rainbow improv quilt looked so great at the point before borders but stunning afterwards. It made me think about all the times I’ve stopped without a border and wonder if I ought to have extended myself.

  • Hi Yvonne: These are great discussion points. I’ve always thought of borders as being traditional and no borders as being modern, although I wasn’t counting the borders that extend the negative space as being borders. I would not have thought about putting a border on the rainbow scrap quilt but I do agree that it is more interesting with the border. I didn’t notice until today that the border is irregular, as are some of the others in your design a day. Once again thanks for the things to think about.

  • Great topic, Yvonne! I am not a fan of doing borders, but sometimes they add so much. I always love how a pieced border looks but I haven’t done many. Mostly because once the top is pieced, I feel like I am done, I don’t want to piece more ๐Ÿ™‚ I have definitely used borders to add negative space and to bring a quilt up to the size I want. I also have used sashing to bring up a quilt size. As you said, the quilt usually ‘speaks’ and lets me know the right choice.

  • As I was reading this post I kept thinking, “exactly.” I add borders for a lot of the same reasons you do: to make a quilt bigger, preserve points, and frame a design. But I also love quilts without borders. Personal preference is right, and this post covers a lot things to consider. Thanks for sharing.

  • Another really interesting post. I never think this stuff through coherently, just kind of do it, so I really admire your ability to talk through your design choices and you always spark good trains of thought for me.

  • Like everyone else commenting, I too think your post was excellent, Yvonne. I am relatively new to purposeful quilting and where in the past, I simply followed the pattern, now that I’m using patterns far less frequently, I can relate to everything that you’ve mentioned in the post. I will definitely reread this post. Thank you.

  • I love how the black makes your improv quilt pop! I agree, omitting borders makes a quilt design more modern. Recently I started with a modern no-border design in EQ and played with extending parts of the block motifs into the border. Wow, what a difference it made. My Fabri-Quilt PlusBalls Summer Fun design has borders for the same reason, to extend and complete the edges of the motifs. I also like a narrow border to preserve points and kind of hold the whole quilt top together.
    PS – thanks for the shout-out!

  • Awesome post, I love reading about your process. Me I’m pretty basic, do I need a border to make it bigger or not…hehehe. I do love what you did with the rainbow quilt, it really frames it perfectly.

  • I love the border you added – makes the whole quilt so much more interesting visually and really does pop the colours and add contrast! Really enjoyed reading this!

  • I think that was an incredibly comprehensive run down of reasons for and against! They’re not something I often use, but I think maybe they’re something I should at least consider more, particularly after seeing how effectively you used them combined with the improv piecing.

I really appreciate the time and thought you take to comment, and I look forward to conversing with you. :)