Borders for Your Crazy Quilts: Piano Key Border

Cindy Thury Smith © 2009

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In this second installment of Borders for Your Crazy Quilts, we will learn about the piano key border. A PK Border is just like it sounds: a border made of equal width, high contrast strips that resemble the keys on a piano. An example of a PK border is below. Please note in the illustration that an inner border has been added to the quilt top to separate the PK border from the quilt top.

An example of a PK border on a crazy quilt can be seen at the following URL:; you will need to scroll down to the bottom of the page. This quilter inserted pieced fan blocks in the corners of her borders.

If we adhered strictly to the above description of a PK border (equal width strips, high contrast) it would not look well next to crazy pieced blocks; too much regimentation next to the randomness of crazy piecing. We will have to adapt this border slightly to make it less rigid. For instance, you could vary the widths of the strips and you wouldn’t have to strictly adhere to a light/dark alternating contrast. We would still want to keep the strips parallel to the length of the border; this will give us two options for turning the border around the corners of the quilt:

(1) insert a pieced block in the corners, or
(2) miter the border corners

Planning a Piano Key Border

After you have squared up your crazy pieced quilt top and added an inner border (and checked that your top is still square), you can start planning your PK border.

First, you need to decide how deep you want the border. I usually do not use any strips narrower than Ύ" nor wider than 3”. Your PK border should be deeper than the widest cut strip so that the strips will look rectangular. I usually make the PK border at least 5” deep, but you can try out different depths by laying them next to your quilt top and seeing what looks good to you.

Next you need to decide if you want to sew in a block in the corners of your border, or do you want to miter the corners. This will affect how long the foundation for your border needs to be cut.

If you were to sew many strips together without a foundation, the resulting border would have some stretch in it, and it could ripple. By stitching your strips onto a foundation you really stabilize the border, and then when you sew it onto your quilt top you have stabilized the edges of the quilt.

I like to piece my borders on featherweight sew-in interfacing. It is lightweight and inexpensive and will not ravel if you trim it. I usually cut the (desired depth + 3”) by the (desired length + 6”)(3” on each end). This 3” is to allow a little shrinkage when you sew all the strips to the foundation. The extra depth is so you can trim a clean edge on the inner and outer edge of the border before you sew it to the quilt top.

So if I wanted a 5” deep PK border and the side of my quilt is 45” and I am going to insert a block in the corners of the borders, I would cut the foundation piece 8” x 51”.

If I wanted to miter the corner on the PK border, then I would have to add in the finished width of the border to both ends of the length of the foundation:

5” border + 45” side of + 5” border + 6” shrinkage = 61” x 8” cut size of width the quilt width the foundation strip.

Dividing Your Fabrics

When I am doing borders using leftover fabrics from my quilt top, I start by dividing the fabrics into four piles….a pile for each side of the quilt top. The reason you do this is so the fabrics/colors are distributed evenly over your borders. Otherwise you may end up using all your blue fabrics in one border and that will be glaringly obvious when you step back and view it from a distance.

If I have a chunk of fabric left over I try to cut at least four strips from it so it will appear at least once on each side of the quilt’s borders. If I have a large chunk of fabric to work with I will cut several different widths from it, for instance Ύ” wide, 1” wide, 1 ½” wide, 1 Ύ” wide, 2” wide, etc.

Once you have your fabrics cut into varying width strips you will divide them up into four piles. I usually use a Post It note to identify each border, and indicate the position and length, for instance, Left Vertical 61”. This is especially helpful if your quilt is not square, in which case two of your borders will be shorter and will therefore need fewer strips. So if you had six strips of a particular print, you would put one strip in each pile, and then put the extra strips into the piles for the two longer borders.

I have always found it much easier to cut all the strips (including more than you think you will need) at one time, sort them, and then sew them, rather than to run out of fabric strips and have to stop and cut more.

What do you do if you have “orphan” fabric strips? These are fabrics that you only have one or two strips of. After I have sorted out all the other strips of repeating fabrics I will scatter the orphans amongst the four border piles. You are now ready to begin sewing the fabric strips onto your long foundation strips.

Sewing the Fabric Strips Onto the Foundation Pieces

I usually start by finding the middle of the border and, using an acrylic ruler, I lightly draw a guideline so the first strip applied is straight across the width of the border. I also draw other guidelines every 10” or so to keep the strips straight as I work down the length of the border.

Start with a wider piece in the center of the border. This allows you to sew a strip on each side of the first piece so every time you go over to the sewing machine you will be sewing two strips onto the foundation, and then pressing two strips on the ironing board, laying down another two strips to sew, etc.

Sew the strips on using the sew and flip method, making sure to press each piece flat using an iron (finger pressing is not enough). To get a really nice flat border you should use an iron to press each seam.

As you get within 3-4” from the corners of your border, give the entire border a good pressing so it lies really flat. Measure from your center guideline and make a mark on each end of the foundation strip so you know where to piece up to. You will probably notice the foundation strip has shrunk up a little due to all the seams sewn on it.

If you are planning on adding a square at the end of the border in the corner, you can continue sewing strips on, preferably ending with a slightly wider strip to which you will sew the corner block.

If you planning on mitering the corners of the border you will continue piecing on strips, but at the inner miter corner you should sew on a wide strip, at least 2” wide. This is because when you are trying to miter that inner corner and you are manipulating the fabrics you don’t want to be contending with the added bulk of a seam allowance. You want that inner miter point to fall in the middle of a wide strip so it will turn and press very flat. As you can see in the photo below, I inserted a wide beige strip at that inner miter point.

After you have sewn all the fabric strips to your foundation, carefully cut a clean (inner) top edge to your border. Use this cleanly cut new edge to measure out and cut a clean outer edge parallel to the inner edge. If you are using blocks in the corner again measure from the center guideline, and cut your two short edges. If you are mitering the border corners you would cut your miter angles now. Tip: I usually cut a ½” seam allowance for the miter seam; this is so I can press that mitered seam allowance open and flat.

Don't Make This Mistake!

You should sew your borders in the order they will be sewn onto the quilt. Why?

Take a look at the two pieces of a mitered PK border shown below. Do you see the mistake?

I used several of the same fabrics in the same sequence on both pieces of the miter angle. Our eyes look at this repeated sequence and think these fabric strips should line up, should turn and change direction at the same points in the mitered seam. So it looks like a glaring mistake whether viewed up close or from a distance. You can avoid this by using the mitered angle of one border strip to plan the fabrics as they will appear in the adjoining border strip. You will still start sewing on fabric strips in the middle of the border, but you can have the fabric strips laid out for the end of the border.

Edge of the Piano Key Border

Obviously, you can have a straight edge to your PK border. Or, by making your PK border deeper, you can use a curving acrylic ruler to cut a curved edge that will be bound using bias edging as shown in the illustration below. If I had it to do over again I would have used more gentle curves on this border.

Embellishing Your Piano Key Border

I like using lots of prints, so my PK borders are pretty busy. If I were a wonderful hand embroiderer (like many of you are) I would use more solid strips in my PK border and then I could do SRE or other embellishing in the border.

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