Saturday, March 9, 2013

Spacer Borders

Many of us would describe this Irish Chain quilt as well proportioned. Viewed as a piece of art on the wall, the double border and the bright-colored binding frame the inner composition nicely. The quilt is probably from about 1880 to 1910 or 1920.

Similar aesthetic

For both these quilts I am guessing origins in a German Sectarian Community, possibly Pennsylvania, but perhaps Ohio, due to several design characteristics noted by quilt scholar Ricky Clark in a chapter in the book Quilts in Community: Ohio's Traditions. A vivid palette, multiple borders and contrasting binding were favored by women of German ancestry and Anabaptist Protestant faith, women described as German Sectarians. The best-known among these conservative Protestant communities are the Amish and Mennonites.

Amish quilt from the early 20th century.
Women in Amish communities in places like Iowa and Kansas
also used this aesthetic.

Once late-20th-century quilters began seeing these classic Amish and Mennonite quilts in print and in museums we began to think of their double borders as a design necessity.

Amish quilt date-inscribed 1928

Mennonite quilt

Today we tend to call the inner border a spacer border, especially if it is narrower than the outer border. It's a fairly recent term. I found that Marsha McCloskey advised using "a spacer strip...a plain inner border" in her 1984 book Projects for Blocks and Borders, indicating that the term came into use in the mid-1980s.

She was probably talking about using a plain border to separate two pieced borders, so a spacer strip could be any width of plain border as in her wide white border here.

Amish Quilt
Today we think of a spacer as creating a color space too.

The German Sectarians weren't the only quilters in the past to use double borders. This Drunkard's Path (notice it is two alternate blocks) was probably not made by a woman from a German Brethren group.
Other women liked pink and other women used a double border.

Or a triple border.

And that inner framing border wasn't invented in 1880.
The quilts above and below may be from 1840-1890.

It may be that we see more of these multiple strip borders after 1870 when the sewing machine made long seams more practical.

Whether your machine was treadle or electric powered.

 That Germanic aesthetic of the 1880-1930 era works so well.
It's one more thing that makes these quilts so collectible.

Here we have a double inner border with contrasting binding.
Four frames around the baskets.

Six frames!

And then there is the pieced inner border.

You can see why the spacer border is so popular today.
The proportions seem just right.


  1. I do like the look of the double border and the pieces ones are beautiful examples of adding to the design of the quilt.


  2. Barbara, I love this post! I use double borders a lot. The quilts pictured are fantastic! I especially love the orange baskets one, so intense. Thank you!

  3. Thanks for the history and inspiration.

  4. Barbara, can you tell me what pattern that is on the very last quilt pictured? I have one similar, that I got as a top in Missouri several years ago. It was in rough shape and had been restored and adhered to a fusible backing to hold it together. I was told that it dates to the Civil War era. Mine is in turkey red with blues and neutrals making up the geese units, and my geese seem to be flying in the opposite direction! I'd love to know what this pattern was called. I have it in a frame now to hand quilt it, but haven't yet decided how I want to quilt it.

  5. Judy-thee are many variations on that pattern numbered 2900 to 2916 in BlockBase and those are just the variations that were published and named. Names include Wild Goose Chase and Odd Fellows Cross.

  6. Very interesting quilts. Wish I owned them all. Spacer borders have a very practical use also, beyond the pure aesthetic. When you have the center portion of the quilt made or designed a certain way, and you don't have enough border fabric to make the quilt the rttsize you want, or when a border has to be a certain size because it's pieced or you want the fabric print design to repeat evenly or symetrically, and this border doesn't fit the center of the quilt, a "spacer border" is the solution. Like magic (after a whole lot of math).

  7. Thank you for the information Barbara!