Sunday, April 24, 2016

Party in the Borders: A Precut-Friendly Half-Modern Quilt Tutorial

Hot off the sewing machine! A quilt that, in the center, is disciplined, measured, pretty ordinary - pretty print, ordinary layout.
So I threw a party in the borders...
Yes, thanks to borders, you too can be modern and traditional in the same quilt! Calm and explosive! 90 degrees and 37! You get the idea!

This hybrid can be achieved with 2-3 sets of precuts:
1. A stack of print squares - I used 6", but any size works
2. A roll of  colorful strips, at least 2" wide
3. Plenty of white fabric (precut strips or yardage)

My squares were from Terrie Mangat's Bee's Knees line, (Terrie is a fiber artist whose work I have long admired.)
  One of  my favorite squares, closeup: 
(Swoon. Disregard thread bits.) They're so great that, of course, I couldn't cut them up. With this strategy, I didn't have to.

Purchase a set of strips, or cut your own. For an earlier blog post, I showed off my economical home-made "jelly roll" consisting of 2" strips. (The roll-your-own tutorial is here.)
If you buy a roll, they'll be 2 1/2" strips (and they'll have pinked edges, so they won't shed threads like mine.)

I  cut those strips down to 6” (i.e. same length as the squares). I needed 58 strip segments for 24 print squares. Those strips become the sashing. I cut 35 white squares to 2" x 2" (2 1/2" for purchased strips). These are the sashing corners. 

I arranged the print squares, the sashing strips, and the white squares on my design wall. Once satisfied with the color placement, I started sewing things together. 
Next, I tested well-behaved grey-and-white borders, over on the left.
Meh. I needed to cut loose. Here are some of the improvisational blocks I wound up creating. 
And there they are in the quilt.

For the corners, I made the same  blocks, but with a reversed color scheme: 

The Border Tutorial Starts Here, Plus a Rant

Would you like to make these fun and explosive border blocks? The easiest way by far - the method that saves the most time and fabric - would be to start with a white square, then fuse and stitch down the colorful triangles and squares. If you're a normal person and/or are experiencing a fabric shortage, I strongly suggest you go that route. 

But if you're a quilt geek with a plump stash, why would you ever take the easy way out, when you can work so much harder and use up so much more fabric? 

Here's the rant: Improvisational piecing sounds like you’re going to throw a party in your sewing room, ignore rulers, slosh cocktails perilously close to the feed dogs, and deliberately cut off-kilter shapes with scissors in your non-dominant hand, while dancing to Lady Gaga.

Indeed, cutting and sewing unusual angles starts out liberating. But as the quilt grows, the task becomes exponentially more difficult. You've been warned! (End rant.)

Begin with a bunch of more-or-less 2” strips from white fabrics. (If' using precuts, 2 1/2" works in all these directions.)

Then hand-cut colorful squares from precut solid color strips, making them a little wonky.

Surround the uneven central square with white strips, then cut at an angle. It should have four sides but doesn't have to be a perfect square (like this one). 
Set this aside.

Next, freehand cut more colorful squares from the precut strips, and cut those squares in half on the diagonal, to create triangles like the pink ones below.

Surround the triangles with the white strips, which will eat up a phenomenal amount of the white fabric. Start by sewing one edge of the triangles to a white strip. Leave enough space between them so that when you trim them, you can cut all the way to the edge. 

Add a strip to the next side, log cabin style. 
Press open, then trim the excess: 
Add the third side and stitch. 
Open and trim. 
Make two of those triangles for each border block. Set them aside.

Now back to the center of the border blocks. Fetch that wonky-cut square that you surrounded with white strips. Add another piece (I used yellow for clarity) to one side. 
Add one of the triangles cut from the colorful strips to one edge.  That's the lavender triangle below. 
Flip the triangle open. Stitch a strip to the next side. Below, I'm lining it up to make sure it's long enough. Stitch the new strip face down to the purple triangle and yellow strip underneath.
Once sewn, flip open and trim as shown. 
Straighten the side edge even with the edge of the central square. 
Add a strip to the right side: 
Stitch and flip open: 
Trim off that top edge and the side. 
Now it looks like this: 
Repeat the procedure on the opposite side, until you have something like this: 
Add the triangular assemblies to both sides: 
Stitch the three units together: 
Trim each of the four edges straight, but resist that urge to square them up!
If it's lopsided, you did it right! Keep it that way! I know, it's so hard!

For the grey barriers between border blocks, piece a long 6"wide  strip with white strips on top and bottom, then cut them down to about 2" wide:
Slightly trim along one edge so that one end is narrower than the other. 
Stitch it to one side of a border block, placing it so that its wider end is next to the narrowest end of the block: 
(See how the wider end of the grey strip lines up with the narrower south end of the block?)

You could now sew that block to the grey strip. But by eyeballing my border sizes - and then, yes, measuring carefully - I discovered I needed to insert a plain white strip to both sides of each grey strip. 

Make the corner blocks the same way, except reverse the colors.
Make a row, flipping the grey strips consecutively, to create a more or less straight row of blocks for each border. Next comes the moment of truth, and you may have to do some cruel chopping, or insertion of white strips, to make it fit. You will find yourself measuring as diligently as you would for traditional piecing.
Once you've joined a bunch of squares that are long enough for a side, you must cut at least one edge straight - the edge that will meet the central design. It's up to you whether you also want the outer edge straight or wonky. I finally cut the outer edges straight.
To make the binding, I threw some more of my colored 2" strips up on the design wall, and interspersed them with white strips of randomly varied widths.
Stitched, then cut across to create the binding strips:  
The more you know what you are doing, the harder it is to be wonky. When I was first making these blocks I managed to surround a square with FIVE triangles instead of four. I can’t even remember how I did this. 
But as I made more of them, I stopped making mistakes like this. My blocks became less entertaining and more regular. Creating random variations on the spot requires constant vigilance! If you work at it hard enough, with meticulous attention to detail, you will succeed in appearing careless! Or not. Or maybe just in the borders.


  1. Stunning and exuberant. Thank you SO much for sharing the method to your madness!

  2. Thanks for your nice comment, Eleanor, hag sameach!

  3. I thought for sure that you had fused those little triangles on until I read your tutorial. It looks terrific and all the quilting that you did on it really brings it to life.
    Great job!

    1. Thank you, Norma. If I'd fused it, I would have saved time and fabric! I took the long way home....

  4. Aha! It is my meticulous nature that is holding me back from wonkiness. I see!
    I can slosh red wine perilously close to feed dogs. Does that help?

    1. No, GMG, it is your meticulous nature that makes you a FINE improviser! If you were by nature sloppy instead of meticulous, everything would come out evenly! It's like a zen koan. Drink more wine to comprehend. Red wine, for all we know, may be ambrosia to feed dogs....

  5. This is wonderful! I'm in an improv quilt group on Facebook, and rulers are NOT allowed in a true improv, at least according to them. Most of their work comes out pretty wonky, but I like to see the results, no matter how awful. I have such a hard time being random, my brain automatically wants to create symmetry.

    Time to join a modern quilt guild, you'll be a superstar!

    1. Being random is sooooo hard!
      I am a member of the national Modern Quilt Guild...wish there were one closer to home!

    2. I love randomness--and I really like your approach to these blocks. Thanks for the tutorial. I'm another MQG-er based in Sarasota FL.

    3. Carole, thanks for stopping by and for your nice comment! I'm in Southern California, which is sunny 99.9% of the time, except yesterday and today, so I'm a little disoriented! Warm regards!