Applique Border Designs

Most applique borders will enhance the body of the quilt. 

Almost any design will require an understanding of how to calculate the width of the border.

A free flowing vine with flower, leaves or hearts is a very popular border.

A sawtooth border which is nothing more than a square cut on the diagonal is also a popular applique border.

Determine the Border Width and Length

For a vine border a common way to determine the border width is to simply divide the individual block size on your quilt by two and add two inches. For example, a quilt with 12-inch blocks would have an 8-inch wide border (12 divided by 2 plus 2).

Find the center of each side of the quilt and again for the top and bottom. Measure from center side to center top and roll out a piece of freezer paper for that length. Then cut the freezer paper 8 1/2 inches wide from top to bottom. If you are a saver roll up the fall-off and hide it so you don't get confused. 

Grab the correctly measured strip and crease it in half from top to bottom. Each side should be 4 1/4 inches wide by the length of center side to center top.

You now have a quarter of your border on which to draw a stem that moves in waves back and forth across the middle crease. Add leaves and flowers and maybe a few hearts.

Directional Square
For a Dogtooth or Sawtooth Border

A triangle square is a square cut on a 90-degree diagonal and may also be called a sawtooth design.

Combine two contrasting fabrics that you may have used in the body of the quilt to form this sawtooth applique border. 

This is a directional pattern so you must decide whether the triangles will march around the quilt in one direction, or whether they will change direction at the corners or in the middle of each side.

For a sawtooth border to turn all four corners the same way, the triangles must reverse in the center of each side, which is the most common way.


What Makes a Dogtooth Triangle
Different From a Sawtooth Triangle

For a dogtooth border the triangles do not need to reverse in the center amd the angle can be narrow to wide.

  • If you have a 60-degree triangle ruler this is a good place to use it when making a dogtooth design.
  • Flying geese units are directional like sawtooth designs and may change direction at the corners or in the center also.
  • Traditionally a Pieced Border with flying geese are twice as wide as they are high which may be why they look more like a bird soaring through the air. Take a look for yourself!
  • All three designs are made from a square divided evenly on the diagonal. Once you move from a 90-degree cut there is a difference.
  • The sawtooth quilt border is always a right triangle (a square divided diagonally to form two parts). The dogtooth border is made by altering the degree of the triangle.
  • For example, it can be a 60-degree triangle. Both of these designs requires yet another understanding of how to determine the proper size of a patchwork unit to fit within the predetermined length and width of the applique border.
  • For a non-math way to determine the size of a patchwork unit and to get it to reverse equally at the same time is easy
  • This method can be used when figuring the number of repeating units that will be required and what size each unit should be. "Sure," you say! read on for clarity.
  • Remember, we said the triangles for a sawtooth design must reverse in the center of each side for all four corners to turn the same way when using the sawtooth design in your applique border.
  • First, cut strips from freezer paper or use adding machine tape the same width as your intended applique border. You will need to cut the freezer paper to the right width as it comes in rolls 17-inches wide.
  • Adding machine tape is generally 2 1/4-inches wide. So depending on your choice, unroll enough of either kind for a piece, half the distance of the quilt's length and half the distance of the quilt's width.
  • The paper template can be folded in halves, quarters, and eighths or just plain fold it accordion-style, making sure all divisions are equal in size.
  • Then make sure all folds are creased and visible to the eye in order to retain accuracy when you put the border together.
  • Secure the end of the paper to the center of the quilt width using a piece of masking tape and make sure the paper snugs up tightly and touches the edge of the quilt top. Do not allow the paper to overlap the quilt edge. Secure in two or three more places along the top edge as you advance toward the outer corner of the quilt.
  • Exactly at the outer corner point, bring the loose end of the paper strip back to line up exactly at the outer corner of the quilt top; then crease. At this point the paper strip is folded and one piece is laying on top of the other.
  • Bring the top piece of paper back (the end that is loose) and form a 45 degree at the corner, finger crease forming a 45 degree angle. The loose end of paper strip is now running away from you down the side of the quilt.
  • Pick up the loose end and bring the end of the strip of paper toward you and crease, exactly at the lower edge of the paper strip. The edge that you secured to the quilt top with the masking tape.
  • Unfold to see that you have just formed a perfect folded corner square with two perfect triangles.
applique border
  • If your paper is 2 1/4-inches wide your square will be 2 1/4-inches;
  • You are now ready to remove the masking tape and fold the balance of your strip of paper into perfect squares the same size as your corner square. Start with the corner square and fold using a back and forth motion (accordion style).
  •  If you want a larger patchwork unit you will need to increase the width of your paper, such as buying a wider adding machine tape or butt two strips of adding machine paper together and secure with masking tape and then cut to the desired width.
  •  If you are using freezer paper cut the width a little wider to accommodate the finished width of your applique border;
  • Use an accordion style back and forth motion to fold the paper template until you reach the midpoint of the applique quilt, both on the side as well as the top. This is where the patchwork units will reverse if you have a directional design as in a Sawtooth border.

Once you know how many folded segments you need for half of the distance; double that number to find the number of patchwork units to make for one side, then double again because your quilt has two sides.

Repeat this exercise for the top and bottom quilt borders. Add the two numbers together, and then add four more patchwork units for the corners.

This gives you the total number of patchwork units to make for your applique border plus it gives you the size of one patchwork unit.

Two Ways to Cut and Sew Triangles
for an Applique Border

applique border

Cut and Sew Method is the first way;

With this method both sides of the 90 degree angle will be on the straight grain of the fabric and the diagonal angle will be on the bias.

  • With right sides together layer a light color and a dark color strip of fabric that has been cut to the desired width. I prefer to stack only one layer as it helps me to maintain a perfect cut;
  • If you need a lot of triangles try stacking two more strips of fabric on top of first set with light color on bottom and dark color on top (opposite of your first two strips). Just be sure you hold the ruler good and tight. If it slips, you will get a distorted triangle which will be hard to piece together with any degree of accuracy;
  • Also be sure your rotary blade is extra sharp if you are cutting four layers of fabric;
  • Crosscut the layered strips into squares that are 7/8-inch larger than your finished triangle measurement;
  • Without separating the layers, cut the squares diagonally to form triangles that are ready to sew together using the chain stitching method;
  • The diagonal cut is the bias edge and will stretch easily so handle with care and as little as possible;
  • Using a chain method to stitch, sew one unit after another without raising your presser foot.

applique border

The 'Drawn Layered Square' Method is the second way which is a quicker and more accurate way as it eliminates handling cut bias edges that tend to stretch out of shape.

Remember, all fabric has a memory and the fabric reacts with the grain when cut. Review the Simple Border page for a refresher on how to deal with the fabric grain.

  • Mark a diagonal line from corner to corner on the wrong side of the lighter square which is on top. This will be the cutting line;
  • Because you are marking on the bias, use a fine point pencil or chalk wheel to draw the line and do not pull or drag on the fabric to avoid stretching the fabric;
  • The squares still need to be <strong>7/8-inches bigger</strong> than the desired finished size triangle square;
  • This method also puts the bias on the diagonal, but the difference is that you do not cut the triangle until after you sew which eliminates any stretching;
  • Spritz the squares with spray starch and press before marking to help any pencil or marker flow more easily. The starch will allow the pieces to stick together temporarily until the seam has been sewn;

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  • Next draw two stitching lines on each side of the cutting line by aligning the 1/4-inch line of a ruler just a hair to the left of your cutting line. Draw the second line just a hair to the right of the cutting line;
  • If you have mastered the art of making an accurate 1/4-inch seam by using your 1/4-inch presser foot you can omit drawing the stitching lines;
  • Chain piece for faster assembly. Sew one seam on each pair and without clipping the chained pieces apart, turn and chain and sew the pieces again to complete the second seam;
  • Press to set stitches;
  • Using the cutting mat and rotary cutter align the edge of your ruler with the original marked line and cut the square in half. Or simply cut apart using scissors as accuracy is not real important when cutting the patchwork units apart.

applique border

By reading Quilting Instructions for pressing with precision you will gain insight on why the up and down motion is superior to the back and forth motion.

The following pressing and trimming directions apply to both Methods...the 'Cut and Sew Method' and the 'Drawn Layered Squares' Method for making triangles for your applique border.

  • Place the triangle square on your ironing board dark side up and press it flat to set the seam again;
  • Open the dark triangle and finger press by running your index finger across the seam so that the unit lays open and then bring the iron straight down on top of the unit to press it open;

applique border
  • Do not move the iron back and forth as the triangle square will stretch easily;
  • Once the triangle square has been pressed open trim the 'dog ears' (triangle tips) flush with the sides of the square. This makes it easier to join the patchwork units together;
  • If you started with a 3 7/8-inch triangle, the triangle square should measure 3 1/2-inch square. If it doesn't, double check to make sure your seams are a true 1/4-inch. This is important as any discrepancy will multiply as you progress forward.

Using Triangles in an Applique Border

applique border

If you are using a 90-degree dogtooth applique border the squares need to be cut 1 1/4-inches larger than the finished patchwork unit. Arrange the long side, or the bias cut, along the border, alternating the colors.

Stitch the triangles together along their short sides, offsetting them by 1/4-inch when you sew them together. As I mentioned earlier, a 90-degree sawtooth and 90-degree dogtooth are identical.

A triangle in a dogtooth applique border or quilt border can be any angle. Be creative and go either very narrow or very wide. Don't feel limited to 90, 60, or 45 degree triangles for dogtooth applique borders. Try very long, skinny triangles or shorter, fatter ones when deciding on the best applique shapes.

One way to get an accurate dogtooth applique border is to use a paper foundation method to construct. That is the technique we used with the irregular triangles on this quilt top. In foundation quilting or paper piecing, as it is sometimes called, you can make a template from cardboard and add 1/4-inch seam allowance.

Now that I have talked you into being creative, one way to get an extremely accurate dogtooth applique border is to use a paper foundation method to construct. In foundation quilting or paper piecing, as it is sometimes called, you can make a template from cardboard and add 1/4-inch seam allowance.

Lay the template on a piece of typing paper and trace it as many times as it will fit. Make several copies of the original sheet and use for foundation stitching. The points will be accurate and you will have fewer problems when you bind the edge of a dogtooth applique border.

If you are still having problems with the sharp points, here is one more suggestion. It is easier to get nice, sharp triangle tips if you add a plain border before you bind the quilt. When you stitch the dogtooth border to a plain border first with the triangle border on top, you will be able to see the tips as you sew and your accuracy will be noticeable.

quilt borders

With a 60-degree dogtooth applique border the patchwork unit is the finished size of the base of the triangle. To determine the cut width of the strip, measure the height of the triangle, and add 3/4-inch. Cut strips of triangle of light and dark fabric that width.

The easiest way to keep it all straight is to layer the light and dark fabrics right sides together before you cut the strips. Keep them layered as you cut the triangles. When it is time, sew the pairs of triangles together along one of the bias edges and press the seams toward the darker fabric.

The easiest way to cut is to align the 60-degree angle on the ruler along the bottom of the strip set and cut. Turn the ruler around so the 60-degree angle is at the top of the strip and cut again. Repeat this process until all the cuts have been made.

If you layered the fabric strips, right sides together and light color on top, the cut patchwork units will be stacked with the colors being alternated. When you sew the sets together don't forget to offset the ends by 1/4-inch.

One last tip if you have a wavy border. If you did not cut all the triangles with their base along the straight grain your edge of the border could look very stretchy. To fix the stretchy border, run a line of stay-stitching 1/8-inch from the edge of the border. If it is real bad you will need to run a basting stitch first and ease in the fullness evenly along the border and then stay-stitch the edge.

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