To Border or Not to Border

by Elaine Quehl

An issue I have often struggled with when designing my art quilts, is whether or not to add borders. Over time, I am finding myself adding borders with much less frequency. I have observed that most art quilts I admire do not contain borders, although occasionally I find myself completely enamoured with one that does. I have pored over Quilt National catalogues, studying quilts with and without borders, and counting the numbers in each category. While they are certainly in the minority, a few quilts with borders are accepted into this prestigious show.

As a teacher, I have longed to have clear guidelines for my students about when to apply borders. The question of whether or not to border became particularly urgent for me in the past year, when I launched my new workshop series, “The Art Quilt”. In six days of workshops over a period of six months, I share with students my process for making an art quilt from beginning to end.

Elaine Quehl

Elaine Quehl - Curtain Call

In many other classes I have taught, I observed that students often feel compelled to add borders to their work. This compulsion is likely a habit that students carry over from a traditional quilting background to their art quilts. After all, adding borders to bed quilts is the norm. I also observed that sometimes adding a border interfered with an otherwise good composition. I could usually identify when the border did not enhance the work, but I did not seem to have the concepts and words to explain why.

When I find myself perplexed by an issue related to art quilts, I typically turn to my online communities for feedback and opinion. In January 2009, I initiated a discussion about borders on the Quiltart list. I was thrilled at the number of responses I received. Everyone seemed to have an opinion, and I felt it would be valuable to share these with the broader community.

Although I occasionally meet quilt artists who feel that borders should never appear on art quilts, virtually all of the artists who participated in the Quiltart discussion think the option of bordering an art quilt should be available, if it enhances the artwork. I should add that despite this fact, a good number of artists, such as Virginia Spiegel, never add borders even though they believe that the option should be available. Delores Hamilton, who is also open to the possibility of borders, says that, “In almost all cases, I can’t think of a single reason to add one.”

Borders are shunned by some artists because of their association with bed quilts, where they are often used to increase or alter the size to fit a particular bed. Too often borders are added without regard for whether they enhance the existing design. The fact that I have struggled with the border dilemma, and that I raise it as an issue, probably speaks to my background as a traditional quilter.

Quilt artists who reference traditional quiltmaking elements in their work, are often inclined to use borders. Such references are an important feature of Sue Reno’s artistic vision, and therefore borders figure prominently in her quilts. In the words of June Underwood, “When the artwork references traditional, quilterly work – containing blocks or centred imagery – or even decorative vining – then perhaps the traditional border would be not just appropriate, but important to continue the theme.”

Not unexpectedly, many artists who participated in the discussion expressed an aversion to rules and dogmas. Johnni Mae Schell, for example, states: “For me to define borders and/or bindings as ‘dated’ or only for bed quilts, just creates walls and boundaries to this exciting quest of art quilts. I want to be ready to throw them off or add them on, as the design needs.” In making art quilts, Sue Reno considers herself “free from having to adhere to any particular dogma”, but “this applies just as much to dogmas that say art quilts cannot have borders or bindings.”

During the Quiltart discussion, I heard over and over again the opinion that there is no right or wrong answer to my question, and that we should all feel free to use the technique best suited to the design. The majority seem to feel that the quilt should have borders if it needs them. In the words of artist Scott Murkin, “It would seem that leaving a border/frame off a piece of art that needs one is just as much a faux pas, as putting one on a piece that doesn’t need it.”

In the decision to border or not to border, says June Underwood, “Intentionality really is paramount. We need to know what we intend to convey in the art we make.” Reno adds, “I don’t think the borders or the binding per se, make my work any less of an art piece, because they are just elements in an overall design and execution, that exists to express an idea. It’s the intent of the work, not the details of construction that make it art.”

Sue Reno
Sue Reno - Silk Mill

Borders are a design decision, just like any other design decision, rather than an add-on at the end. More importantly we should put “attention into the basic design first”, says Sandy Donabed. “Adding a border has about the same design significance as any decision you make”. “For this reason,” says Alison Schwabe, ”the principles of design and colour theory apply here as they do in any other medium. Any edge treatment is totally a design decision, and options need to be considered at the design stage. Regardless of medium, any border, binding, facing, or other treatment is an integral part of the surface of a successful piece of art.”

Borders will greatly impact your design, and in the words of Ellen Lindner, “can often be major players in the overall design.” Lindner offers tutorials on her web site at on border considerations. Similarly, Lyric Kinard states that, “Everything you surround your art with, has an impact on the design.” Kinard advocates mounting or framing small works to give them more presence, and offers tutorials on her web site at

What was reinforced for me during this discussion, is that the border is an integral part of the overall design, and therefore an integrated approach is called for. “The border must relate to the inner portion” of the artwork,” states Lindner, “and in no case should the border attract more attention than the interior.”

Ellen Lindner

Ellen Lindner - Crotons

Many artists decide on whether a border should be added based on whether the design seems to need containing, or whether they want to create a feeling of expansiveness where the design appears to move off the edges of the artwork.

Cathy Bargar states: “Sometimes a design needs containment, as part of both the artistic and conceptual aspect. Sometimes the whole point of a piece is non-containment.” When I created my quilt “Standing Still”, I did not feel a border would enhance the work. I now see this as a good design decision, because it successfully creates the impression that the tree is continuing beyond the edges of the quilt.

A particularly interesting piece of information I learned from this discussion, is that some artists make a distinction between a border and a frame. Betty Busby, for example, often chooses to put a 2”-3” solid fabric frame around her work if it needs containing. For Busby, a frame sets off the main image, but does not introduce new design elements. June Underwood appears to make a similar distinction between border and frame, although she still uses the word “border”, “There are times when the border can be made to look like a frame (which in the broadest sense of the word, it is) and therefore take on an unexpected, but pleasurable appearance.” Busby sees many of my works as framed rather than bordered. Almost all works in my foliage series, for example, feature a darker valued fabric frame around them which has the effect of setting off the design within them, “almost like circling a paragraph” in Lindner’s view.

Up until this discussion, I had always considered bindings separate from borders, but found that many artists view the impact of a binding in a very similar way to a border. A traditional binding, when highly visible or contrasting with the inner design can contain the work and prevent the eye from moving off the piece just like a border can. While some feel that traditional bindings now look dated, others feel that decisions relating to binding and facings should be based on design, and not what is “in” or “out” in the art quilt world. Scott Murkin is one artist who has discovered that even though he likes to use facings, not all of his work looks best this way.

I realize now, that all too often I was making a decision about whether or not to border at the end of the design process. When I did not use a border, it was because the design seemed to stand on its own. Most of the time when I did use a border (or what some might refer to as a frame), I was using it to draw attention to what was inside the border and to set it off, as I have done with pieces in my foliage series. An integrated approach to borders is called for. New elements should not be introduced in a border, nor should the eye be drawn away from the main part of the design. It really is all about the design, and any border decision needs to be considered in the context of the entire design.

This discussion about borders has proved to be an enlightening one for me. Thanks to the generosity of the many artists who shared their views, I feel much more comfortable with the path I am on, and have a better understanding of when a border might enhance an art quilt.

SAQA Juried Artist Member Elaine Quehl is a teacher, dyer of fabrics, and quilt artist. She lives in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada and her web site is