Design Process — Border Size Problems and Solutions

Welcome to one more post in the ever-growing sequence for the Medallion Sew-Along! To join in and receive updates, just follow this blog. But whether or not you sew along with us, if you ever add borders to your quilts, this post can help you out.

Medallion quilts are defined by their borders, unlike block format quilts. And we all know that fitting borders isn’t always easy. When designing and applying borders, a lot of issues relate to size. Your border may be pieced or unpieced. Pieced borders, especially, can cause size problems.

Here are some questions you might have:

  • How can I figure out the right unit size, if all units are the same length?
  • How can I figure out the right unit size, if all units are not the same length?
  • How can I fix the size of my center, so the next border will fit how I want?

NOTE that center refers to the quilt top prior to your next border. It includes the center block and any attached borders. Width is the distance from the quilt center outward. Length is the distance along the center’s edge. A unit is a pieced or unpieced portion of a border. An unpieced strip border has only one unit.


All units are the same length and square
Divide the finished length of the next border by its width to determine number of units. Example: border is 40″ long and 4″ wide. 40/4 = 10. You would need 10 units 4″ wide.

All units are the same length but not necessarily square
If you don’t need square units, or if you haven’t decided the width of the border yet, find the divisors for the length. Example: border is 40″ long. Easy divisors are 1, 2, 2.5, 4, 5, 8, 16, 20, 40. Your units could be any of those lengths. If you want 16 units, use 40/16 = 2.5. Your 16 units will be 2.5″ long. They can be 2.5″ wide, also, and be square. Or you can have non-square units.

All units are NOT the same length
This gives all kinds of opportunities for creativity. For example, your work finishes at 36″, and you want a border 6″ wide. You could use 6 square units on each side, plus one in each corner.

But if you want to make a busy block as your primary unit, they might show better if they are not in every unit space. Here are some options, and then examples of the math.

1) Square units all around.

2) Alternating units with 2 corners fancy, 2 plain.

3) Narrow spacers split up the star units.

4) Wide spacers split up the star units.

The first illustration shows 6 stars per side plus one more for each corner. This works, but depending on what it surrounds, it may be way too busy.

The second layout alternates pieced blocks with plain. This works well when there are an odd number of units. When there are an even number as shown, it can look awkward.

The third and fourth illustrations use spacer units. Obviously, these are not the same length as the star blocks. In the third picture, they are narrower, and in the fourth they are wider.

How to calculate the length of spacer units
All sizes are finished. Add seam allowances before cutting.
A = length of border (not including corners)
B = length of primary units
C = number of primary units
D = BxC = total length of primary units
E = A – D = border length minus primary units = total length of spacer units
F = number of spacer units
G = E/F = length per spacer unit

Using illustration 4 above:
A = 36″
B = 6″
C = 2
D = 12″
E = 24″
F = 3
G = 8″
Your spacer units are each 8″ long. Your unfinished cut is 6.5″ x 8.5″.


Yeah, I can hear you muttering out there. Sure, great, those solutions above might work great if you have a “normal” border length. But I don’t! Now what?

Possible solutions include:

  • adding spacers between units, as discussed above
  • trimming the prior border so the next will fit easily
  • adding a spacer border.

Adding spacers between units
The examples above use a 36″ border length. What if your border is 41″? Nothing divides into 41 very easily, for uniformly-sized blocks. I’ll use the same procedure I did above, with 3 primary blocks instead of 2.
A = 41″ = length of border (not including corners)
B = 6″ = length of primary units
C = 3 = number of primary units
D = BxC = 18 = total length of primary units
E = A – D = 23 = border length minus primary units = total length of spacer units
F = 4 = number of spacer units
G = E/F = 5.75 = length per spacer unit
Your spacer units are each 5.75″ long.

Trimming the prior border
I have a top for which the “finished” measure actually is 41″. The last border applied is unpieced strips, so my easiest option is to trim the top to 40″.

For this example it’s easy. I’ll cut a half inch off each side. Sometimes it’s not as clear. Here is the math:

X = length of actual border
Y = length you want the border
Z = Y – X = total adjustment

Example: I have a 41″ actual length and want 40″. 40 – 41 = -1. Note the negative sign, which indicates I need to cut, not add. I need to trim a total of 1″. Usually I would do this by cutting a half inch from each side.

Another example: I have 67.75″ actual length and want 66″. 66 – 67.75 = -1.75. To trim off both edges, I’ll divide this by 2. -1.75/2 = -0.875. I’ll cut 7/8″ from each edge.

Adding a spacer border
An alternative to either of those above is adding a spacer border. Perhaps my actual size is 41″ and I’d like to increase it to 45″, because I have a specific idea of a border that will work well after that. The math works the same as you saw above.

X = length of actual border
Y = length you want the border
Z = Y – X = total adjustment

Example: 45 – 41 = 4. Note this is positive. I will ADD 4″ in total. Normally I would split this, so I’ll add a 2″ spacer to each side.


While this post addressed size problems, others have provided ideas for design. If you need ideas for pieced borders, you can find them here and here. And here and here.

And if you need more ideas, just ask! I have a bunch of them!


5 thoughts on “Design Process — Border Size Problems and Solutions

  1. Pingback: Northern Star update | OccasionalPiece--Quilt!

  2. Joyce Stephens

    Can you add a border to the sides (to add width to the quilt) and then add two two more borders to sides and top and bottom. Is this crazy. My quilt top is only going to be 84 inches wide and 105 long with the two borders I need a little more width can I add an inter border in the sides and not ruin the look of the quilt

  3. Linda Woloshyn

    Hi Melanie,
    I am truly enjoying making these two medallion quilts. I used your centre block for one of them, and then I had made a large paper pieced star block because I was going to take part in a travelling medallion quilt, where you put a different border on someone else’s quilt (although the borders were pre-designed). I wasn’t able to do it at the time, and then, of course, I moved and it would have been impossible to do it. At any rate, I put a different first border on each of them, and then I wanted to put them on point. So, the next step was to design the cornerstone blocks (I had to make cornerstone blocks because I wanted to do these completely from stash, and I didn’t have enough fabric to make full setting triangles). So, I designed cornerstone blocks. I used the same background fabric for the setting triangles as for the cornerstone blocks, and that allowed the blocks star patterns to float. Unfortunately, my math for the blocks wasn’t the best, and I had to put little 3/4 inch borders around the blocks of background fabric. I don’t think they look bad. However, I wish that my math had been more correct and that hadn’t had to happen. Once I put the fabric borders to bring them to 36 inches, I want to design a wide pieced border for each one (all borders are different for each). I also want to make the quilt rectangular, and that will require a pieced border top and bottom as well.
    I’m having such a good time doing these. I hope to get photos when I am done to put on the group. Thank you so much for doing this!

    Linda in Oro-Medonte, ON

    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      Oh, Linda! I am so glad you’re having a good time! And creative, fixing problems with good solutions. I’m trying to work from stash, too, though I can’t, completely. And I keep running out, too. I showed my granddaughter a border I made where I’d pieced in 1) a block, 2) a spacer, and 3) a spacer, all because I’d run out of the strip of fabric I planned to use. Obviously, that wouldn’t work everywhere, but it does on this one.

      Can’t wait to see your photos. You’re welcome to link to them, or let me know that you want to email them to me and I’ll post them directly.

      Thanks for taking part. I’m having a good time, too.

      1. Linda Woloshyn

        My local quilt shop had a 50% sale back in August, and I bought a couple of single metre complimentary fabrics that matched the fabrics that I had used from stash for the block that I made from your pattern. Otherwise, both quilts are totally from stash. I’m on a fixed income with a massive stash from my professional income days. So, the plan is to use as much as possible from that.
        I was just so annoyed that I miscalculated the size that the cornerstone blocks had to be. I made one of the quilts cornerstone blocks the Sarah’s Star, and the other one is Dutchman’s Puzzle. I like the look of floating stars and I have done that in quilts by using background sashing strips. The effect is fabulous, but in this case of miscalculation, it hid a mistake fairly well…LOL
        I was really impressed when I saw the use of the spacers in the star borders. I think that was a fabulous idea, and it looks much better than the pieced blocks set side by side.
        I most likely will need to e-mail the photos to you as I haven’t mastered posting photos on the groups yet. I am still in a learning process with my digital photography. I can barely download from my camera to my computer…LOL I have a wonderful little grandson who is 20 months old, and lots of photos. It’s a challenge each and every time I download. No hope here for this electronically challenged granny!!!
        Can you please e-mail me your e-mail address to, and I will then be able to e-mail you directly. Because I am having such a really good time with this, I am very sure that I will make more of this kind of quilt. I am becoming very enamoured of the super-sized blocks that are being posted, and think they would be great as the centre block of medallion quilts. As you enjoy this so much, I will be great to be able to share my creations with you.



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