Lessons: Unpieced Borders (aka “Strip” or “Slab” Borders)

One of the biggest stumbling blocks making medallion quilts is getting borders to fit. Pieced borders provide their own special challenges. But plenty of quilters, of any kind of quilt, have trouble with unpieced borders.

When I started quilting, almost every block quilt or strip quilt had an unpieced border, or perhaps two. Books on quilting gave recommendations to make the width proportionally pleasing to the center of the top. Too wide and it would look like you’re trying to make the quilt bigger. Too narrow and it wouldn’t have enough visual impact.

Quilt police chimed in with edicts to join lengths together at an angle, or with a perpendicular seam, depending on their own preferences.

Patterns continually called for cutting border strips across the width of fabric.

Most sources recommended measuring the quilt center in three places (the same direction) and averaging those three. Somehow, that would magically make your border fit.

And occasionally I saw instructions to mark the center of the border strip, the center of the top, and perhaps at the quarters, and pin those marks. Usually it was recommended to pin every few inches in between.

Whatever these instructions did, they did not, generally, make borders fit better. I’m in a longarm quilting group in Facebook, and badly fitting borders might be the number one complaint quilters have about their customers’ work. They share photos of the worst cases. Once a top is loaded on the frame, it’s easy to see the ripples and waves of excess border fabric. That will not quilt out!

How does this happen? A lot of ways. The most common, I expect, is that people cut a long strip of fabric, probably across the grain, lay it on without measuring or pinning, and sew. As they sew, they smooth the border out, continuing to stretch it farther and farther as compared to the quilt piece below it. The feed dogs pull slightly more against that bottom layer, making the problem even worse. It’s almost like gathering a skirt by having more fabric on one layer than on another, and easing it in. Do you do this? I have!! What a mess!

Medallion quilts often use unpieced strips in the interior, as well as outer borders. Rippling inner borders make it nearly impossible to correctly fit the next borders to them. You can sew it on, but the distortions will make a flat, squared top impossible. The flatter the top, the more easily it can be quilted and the better it will look finished.

There are easy ways to make borders fit better. Here are a few tips.

  • Square the center’s corners before attaching a border. Splayed corners will multiply if they aren’t fixed. (The “center” is everything that is already assembled into something that will be bordered. If you are adding multiple borders, each new border becomes part of the center once it is attached.) Use your largest square ruler to check the center’s corners. If the center’s edges don’t align to the square, you can either trim them to square, or adjust seam allowances perpendicular to the edge to improve the shape. OR if the problem is minor, attach the strip border and then trim it to square.
  • Cut border lengths along the selvage if possible. The grain is more stable than on width-of-fabric, meaning you’ll get less stretch and distortion.
  • If you need to join lengths, use a perpendicular seam. It is easier to align the pieces correctly this way. You won’t have a bias seam to stretch. And the seam is shorter than if joined on the diagonal, so any mismatch in the print extends for a smaller length.
  • Determine the correct length of the strip border and cut it to size. (More on that below.)
  • Pin. A lot. A lot of pins. Smooth the center its full length and find the middle of its edge. Mark that point with a pin. Find the middle of the border strip and mark that point with a pin. Match the middle-point pins. Remove the pins (each through only one layer) and pin the two layers, center and border, together at that point. Smooth the border strip along the center’s edge until it reaches each corner. Pin the corners. I pin near each corner twice, about a half inch apart. It keeps the layers from shifting at the start and end of sewing. If you’ve measured and cut your border correctly, and if your center isn’t too out of square, the two pieces should fit well together. Pin about every 2″, easing with more pins where needed. (Why pin so much? The pins allow you to ease the layers together where they don’t fit exactly. And they help support the weight of the layers so they don’t shift, which makes sure your seam allowance maintains its width. The bigger the center is, the more weight and the more closely you need to pin.)
  • If you have corner blocks, they will be on the third and fourth strips of the border set. Begin your pinning by matching the seams of the corner blocks to the first and second strips of the border set. Continue to pin as above.
  • Secure your long seams by backstitching at both ends.
  • Use your walking foot (even-feed foot) if it helps keep the layers from shifting, giving a smoother seam.

How to determine the correct length of the strip border
When I began quilting, I relied heavily on a few online sources of information (and back then, there were only a few!) One of them was Bonnie Hunter of Quiltville.com. (She still has great stuff on her site. Take a look around, especially at her Tips & Techniques.) Bonnie has a whole page just on border hints, and this is where I learned to cut and attach border strips.

According to Bonnie, the best way to assure your border will fit and your quilt top will lie flat is to use one measure (for each direction) across the center of the quilt top. She says:

Some people take several measurements across the quilt and average that measurement for borders. (hear me gasping in fright here!) I *NEVER* “average” when measuring for borders because they can still flare, and where they are going to flare the worst is at the center of the quilt sides…That’s why the CENTER measurement is the one to go for. If the ‘averaged’ measurement is longer than the quilt CENTER measurement, you are GOING to have a flared border. If the ‘averaged’ measurement is smaller than quilt  center measurement, you are going to have borders that are too tight for your quilt center, and the center of your quilt is going to balloon out. Just use the center measurement and your quilt will lie flat!

How to get that centerline measurement? Should you hold the quilt top in your lap and move the measuring tape across it a few inches at a time? (Can you see my eyes rolling?!?) No.

  1. Lay the quilt top out flat, preferably on the floor. If you don’t have enough room to spread it out, you can bunch up or fold in the sides. But the center must be spread out flat in a straight line, without twisting. Smooth it out without stretching, just to flatten it to the floor.
  2. Cut two border strips for that direction and stack them on top of each other. Cut one end perpendicular to the length.
  3. Lay them across the center. Start with the cut end flush with the edge of the quilt top. Smooth the strips out so they are flat against the center. Don’t stretch them!
  4. Mark the other end of the top strip using a straight edge and pen or pencil.
  5. Cut the strips on the marked line.
  6. If you will have corner blocks, repeat with the other two strips in the other direction prior to sewing the first two strips on. If you won’t have corner blocks, sew the first two strips on, and then repeat.

Click on any photo below to open the gallery.

I’ve applied hundreds, maybe thousands of borders using this method. My quilt tops are almost always square and flat. Thanks to Bonnie Hunter for the lesson!

11 thoughts on “Lessons: Unpieced Borders (aka “Strip” or “Slab” Borders)

  1. snarkyquilter

    Thank you, thank you for reminding quilters about the boring but necessary steps of squaring off before adding borders and measuring borders across the middle of the quilt. Why do so many quilting instructions give the wrong information? (and get away with it) Bonnie Hunter may be the scraps queen but she is strict about technical aspects of quilting. I have been known to square off several times when construction is tricky. I love my walking foot and use it often during quilt top construction. I got tired of having a quarter to half inch extra fabric on top at the end of a long seam. BTW, you’ve tantalized me with glimpses of your Christmas quilt. When will you reveal all?

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      YES, I was lucky to learn so much from her. As you say, her technical skills are top-notch.

      Christmas quilt — thank you for asking! The top is done and a post is very soon. 🙂

  2. Cindy Anderson

    Oh my goodness……As a long arm quilter I want to give you a standing ovation! 👏 I am tired of being expected to fix all the problems quilters leave behind. Whatever happened to careful piecing, neat pressing and back stitched seams, not to mention a quilt top and backing that are square and borders that don’t flop in the wind? I absolutely agree with your mini tutorial. Now if only Piecers would read thus and take it seriously. Better yet, maybe a class needs to be taught! There, I think I feel much better! 🙃♥️👍👍

  3. tierneycreates

    I love your technical instruction posts, I have them for future reference. Your blog is part technical library 🙂
    I have been guilty of some major wonky borders in the past!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I think the last time I did it was the LAST TIME for me to do it, just lay that ol’ piece of border down and sew! And it was a mess, so I had to take it all off. Learned my lesson, I guess. 🙂

  4. jeanswenson

    I enjoyed your post, and while I use many of the tips and tricks you noted, there are definitely a few new ones I plan to add to my repertoire! I also agree 100% with you and Kate on the importance of pins – my quilts can be downright dangerous at times with the amount of pins I use! 😮

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      No kidding! At this point (no pun intended,) I should probably buy a new box. I use them so much, surely they are getting dull by now. Thanks for taking a look. Let me know if you think the tips make any difference for you.

  5. katechiconi

    I can’t understand the prejudice against pins I hear from a lot of quilters. Yes, pinning adds a *little* time to the process, but how much better to add time and get it right than to race along and then end up with something that doesn’t line up, is wavy or bulgy.
    Thank you for this tutorial. I’m getting it right more and more these days, but you’ve given tips here that I’ll use to improve the frequency 🙂

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks, Kate. There are OF COURSE! other ways to do things that will work out well. But these are things I do as a matter of course and find they work well for me. I have hundreds of quilts made this way, so I take that as evidence that a *little* more time makes the difference I want. Thanks for taking a look.


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