Borders for your Crazy Quilt: Tumbler Border

Cindy Thury Smith © 2008

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If you ask most quilters why they add decorative borders to their quilts they will tell you they “frame” the quilt, they help square up the quilt or they are an easy way to extend the quilt size. All these are valid reasons to add borders to a quilt, but there is an extra reason why borders are a good idea on a crazy quilt: they help protect the heavily embellished crazy pieced blocks.

Studies have shown the binding and edges of quilts usually show wear first. Think of the “whisker guards” that used to be sewn on quilts; this extra flap of fabric would protect the quilt as it lay at night close to our faces. You can protect your valuable embellished crazy pieced blocks by framing them with an inner border, and then adding a deep outer patchwork border to enhance your crazy piecing while repeating some of your fabrics.

Many crazy quilters would not make a large crazy quilt for their own bed. Why not? Because it would take many blocks (at least 49 blocks for a queen size), and with embellishing each block it could take years to complete. While the heavy embellished blocks laying on top of the mattress would be supported, the blocks that roll over the mattress edge and hang down the sides of the bed would be stressed and vulnerable to wear. Adding borders can solve both these problems while making a bed-sized crazy quilt a feasible project. Just sew enough crazy pieced/embellished blocks to cover just the top of your mattress, and then add borders to roll over the edge and hang down the sides.

This article will describe an easy to sew border you can add to your crazy quilt. It can be done in a mixture of fabrics including tie remnants and slippery fabrics; it can be easily adjusted in size and length; it turns the corner of the quilt readily, plus it can be embellished.

Using an Inner Border:

A crazy pieced top has many pieces and is visually very active. If you were to put a border with many pieces directly next to a crazy pieced top your eyes would not be able to tell where one ends and the other begins. Neither the border nor the top would be highlighted. Inserting a narrow inner border before a wide pieced outer border helps to visually separate the two, and if you made it a plain solid colored fabric, it would highlight both. See the two photos below showing the impact a plain white border makes.

An inner border is also an opportunity to visually square up your quilt. You should square up the quilt top before you add the border, and then check that it is still square after you have sewn on the border.

I would suggest a 1” finished size to be the minimum size for an inner separating border; a wider separating border would make more visual impact. You should decide what width to make the inner border after deciding what border pattern you want for the outer border. You can adjust the size of your inner border to make piecing/attaching the outer border easier.

Tumbler Border:

The Tumbler border is an easy to cut, easy to sew border. A template for the shape is given below; you can adjust the size of this shape easily. The size I like to use is a 5” tall Tumbler unit and in the "Figuring the Border Length" section below this is the size I will be referring to.

When you sew two Tumbler units together you need to offset the edges a seam allowance width as shown in the photo below.

Offsetting the pieces will result in a straight edge at the top and bottom of the border, making it easy to attach to your quilt top and easy to bind.

Fabric Placement:

There are several options for fabric placement in a Tumbler border:

  1. Random fabric placement using leftover fabrics from the quilt top.
  2. Planned fabric/color placement using leftover fabrics from the quilt top.
  3. Alternating plain/fancy fabric placement such as black cotton Tumblers alternating with tie remnant fabrics. You can embellish the plain black Tumblers if you wish, or leave them plain to draw attention to the tie fabrics.

Figuring the Border Lengths or How Many Tumbler Units will I Need?:

To determine the number of tumbler units you will need you need to start by squaring up your quilt top, and then accurately measuring it.

Let’s say you sewed and embellished twenty 12” square crazy pieced blocks, and you sewed them together in a four blocks by five blocks setting. The finished size of this lap quilt would be 48” x 60”. You want to add on a plain inner border, and then a Tumbler outer border.

You want your borders to lie very flat, not to ripple in any way. Chances are very slim that your quilt top will have a whole number of Tumblers fitting along both the length and the width measurement, but by adjusting the width of your inner borders you should be able to get two sides that have a whole number of Tumbler units along the edge.

It would seem logical that you would figure how many Tumbler units would fit easily along the long 60” sides, but that may not always be correct. Bear in mind that if you are going to make several sewing adjustments they will be much less noticeable in a longer border than in a short border. To be sure, I suggest that you draw out the borders on paper (you can draw out the longer border first, and then use this to make measurements for the shorter border).

Be sure when you are drawing out these borders that you are using a finished sized template of the Tumbler, not the cutting size template.

Draw out the long border, tracing around your Tumbler shape making a row to find a length that allows you to start and end with the narrow neck of the Tumbler attaching to the inner border. You want the narrow neck beginning and ending each border because this will make it easier to make the border turn the corners around the quilt. This means that each side of the border will have an odd number of Tumblers in the border.

When you find the odd number of Tumblers that fit closest along the long length, measure this length (which will be longer than 60”). Using my 5” tall finished sized Tumbler I would need twenty-one Tumblers along each of the long sides to get a 63” long border. Take the quilt top measurement from the length of the border (63” minus 60” = 3”), divide this number by two to get the finished width of your inner border (3” divided by two = 1 ½” finished width of the inner borders).

When you add the 1 ½” wide inner borders to all sides of the quilt top the 48” side now becomes 3” longer or 51” long. Using your drawn out long paper border again find how many neck-to-neck Tumbler units fit along 51”. You will find seventeen Tumblers will fit into 50.75”, so you only have to sew just a few seam allowances a hair more shallow to make up that ¼” You can make up very small adjustments by either sewing a few seams a hair shallower or a hair wider.

This is unusual; usually you will have to adjust for more than ¼” difference. What would you do if you had to work in, say, 2” in different lengths?

Count how many seam lines you have in the border. Divide the 2” by the number of seams (let’s say thirteen seams) then divide that fraction by two; the resulting fraction is how much you need to sew in each seam to get the border to work out exactly. Well, if you did the math, you’d find you need to sew each seam 1/13”. That is ridiculous, we can’t even see 1/13”! Let’s divide the 2” by a number that we get a viewable fraction resulting. Take 2”, divide by eight and you get 1/4” divide by two you get 1/8”. So on eight seams in that border you will have to sew them in 1/8” deeper to get your border to come out right.

Now you could sew these eight seams all at one end of the border, and then you’d be sure to see them. Or you could scatter them along the length of the border and they will be much less noticeable. Remember when I said bear in mind that if you are going to make many sewing adjustments they will be much less noticeable on a longer border? If you find yourself having to work in a larger amount you might want to choose the length of the shorter border first, and then work many adjustments into the longer border because you can scatter the sewing adjustments over many more pieces.

Have you been counting up how many Tumblers you need for all four borders? In the example above you would need 76 total Tumblers. If you are alternating black cotton Tumblers with tie remnants, you will need 40 black cotton Tumblers and 36 tie remnant Tumblers.

Turning the Corner with a Tumbler Border:

Many times a border is easy to sew but getting the border pattern to smoothly turn a 90 degree angle around the corners of your quilt can be a real pain. The Tumbler border turns corners easily with two variations, depending upon whether you want a square block of fabric or a triangle of fabric in the corner.

See the drawings below to understand what your options are.

The above left photo shows you what your border would look like if you lined up the outer corner of your Tumbler with the edge of your quilt top. Note how the two black long skinny triangles “frame” the corner square….a perfect square to embellish! The above right photo shows that, if the number of Tumblers doesn’t quite work out, you can also “frame” the corner square with a partial Tumbler. Again, the square would be a great area to embellish.

Another option is to line up the corner of the narrow neck with the edge of the quilt and insert a triangle as seen below. This triangle could be fancy fabric or you could even paper piece a fan to fit in there. If you alternated plain black Tumblers with fancy tie Tumblers by starting/ending each border with the plain black fabric, the fabric you select for the corner triangle would be bordered by black on both sides and would be highlighted.


The Tumbler border results in a nice even edge that you can add another narrow border to or you can easily bind.

I hope you have enjoyed this introduction to borders (sorry about the math) and are willing to try a piecework border on your next crazy quilt. If you want to see more borders on crazy quilts go to Google Images and type in crazy quilt borders. Live long and sew many quilts.

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