The Hypotenuse Problem: Snowy Spring’s Braided Border

“It all comes down to a hypotenuse problem…” says Angela Huffman, on episode 3505 of “Love of Quilting.”

Braided borders, such as the one Angela created for Snowy Springare truly spectacular, especially when you are able to wrap the braided effect around the corners of the quilt.

So why didn’t we pattern it that way?

The answer takes you behind the scenes into our pattern-writing process, into the realm of hypotenuses, heavily seamed quilt centers, bias edges, and “coping” patchwork…

Angela’s original sketch for Snowy Spring featured a braided border, as well as two quilt blocks that used a nifty disappearing V-block method—one that looks like a crown, and another than looks like a snowflake. We were enchanted.

All was well and good, until it came time to construct the quilt.

Angela discovered that, when lined up, the borders built from strip-set triangles weren’t joining at the corners properly. And those wrapped, braided corners were the best part!

The long edge of the triangle—called the hypotenuse, if you can recall your 10th grade geometry—is where the math went awry. It turns out that her quilt top was slightly shorter than originally planned, so it was no longer equally divisible by the length of the hypotenuse.

“I didn’t get into the quilting because of the math!” Angela Huffman jokes. She and Sara Gallegos walk you through one solution for a braided border that doesn’t quite match up.

“I was getting into the level of math that I’d need to call my children to solve,” says Angela. Instead of surprising her kiddos with a frantic, math-based phone call, Angela took another approach. “I’ll show you my oopsies, and how I got out of it,” she says on the show.

Her solution was to drop in “coping”—or compensation—blocks at the cardinal points of the braided border. It created an attractive crown effect, and preserved the wrapped, braided corners.

Angela’s decision to drop in “coping” blocks at the cardinal points helped resolve the issue with the braided borders on Snowy Spring.

This is where we, at Love of Quilting magazine, ran into patterning issues. Our staff diagrammer and two technical writers dug in to the calculations. We determined that, regardless of the measurements we provided, the design could not be reliably reproduced at home.

As a fun aside, while researching this method, we stumbled across a 3-part post from a quilter’s blog in 2007, which made us smile; it mirrors our experience pretty closely. (Ivy Arts Ribbon Quilt Border, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.) My personal favorite line is in blog #2— “This thing is going to make my head explode.” (Right there with you, sister!)

The challenges begin with the center of the quilt, which has all those lovely blocks with all those seams. Even the slightest variation in seam allowances (generous ¼”, scant ¼”, slight wobbles…) in the center could throw off the math on the borders—and with that much piecing in the center, we knew, variation was more likely than not .

“And there’s the other problem,” says Eileen Fowler, editor of Love of Quilting. “Once you cut the strip squares in half diagonally for the braided border pieces, you’ve created an unstable bias edge.”

Should we increase the size of the quilt center to make it divisible by the hypotenuse instead? And would we then include the coping blocks, or not? Where and how could we tell readers to trim the braided border to drop in the blocks, given that the center would vary and the braided border would stretch?

Rather than publishing a pattern that’s almost impossible for a reader to achieve (we aren’t deliberately trying to frustrate quilters, I assure you), we chose to write the pattern for a series of border strips.

Because of the potential for wildly inconsistent measurements with the bias-edged, strip-set triangles and a heavily seamed quilt center, we elected to write the pattern with un-pieced border strips, and give readers tips for exploring the braided border if they wished .

“If you’re better with math than I am,” Angela says on Snowy Spring‘s episode, “Then for those two inner borders, you could change the width and the length so that [the quilt center] is divisible by that hypotenuse, so that you can wrap all four corners.”

For those daring enough to try a braided border, that’s the approach we recommend. In the pattern, we provided guidance for making the braided border, and also for calculating inner coping borders. You may need a coping border on the top and bottom only… Or just the sides… Or maybe the top, bottom, and sides, except all different widths…

We provide tips for constructing a braided border, and strongly recommend a generously sized design wall to lay out all the pieces.

But first things first. Once the quilt center is complete, start your braided borders.

For Snowy Spring, you’ll need about 5/8 yard each of five prints, sewn into 10-1/2” x wof strip sets.

First, cut those strip sets into 10-1/2” squares, then cut those squares in half diagonally to create your 4 different types of strip-set triangles. Set aside the strip-set triangles for the corners. (Simplest explanation, set aside 4 squares; cut 2 in half diagonally from bottom left to top right, and 2 in half diagonally from top left to bottom right. You will mix-and-match these to form the wrapped corner unit.)

Contrary to normal operating procedure, you then sew the strip-set triangles to form the braided borders. You need the length of these borders to determine your inner border coping strips.

(And remember, you’ve just created a braided border with lots of bias edges. Treat those with care so that they don’t stretch and ruin all your careful measuring! Annette Falvo, a staff technical writer, says, “You really should use a lot of starch, or even staystitch those edges.”)

The first coping strips to calculate are the sides. Why? Because the width of those side coping strips determines the length of the top and bottom coping strips.

Once you’ve calculated the coping strips, sew the side coping strips first, then the top and bottom coping strips. Sew your braided borders in any order, and only then, add your wrapped corner units.

If all goes according to plan, the borders should create a diagonal, as Angela shows with her paper samples. Two more strip-set triangles are placed, and the braid wraps around the corners.

Instead of an inner border coping strip, Angela used coping blocks. She laid out her braided border from the corners in toward the center (in order to preserve the wrapped corner effect), and placed a coping block at the center to eliminate the awkward join of those strip-set triangles.

If you decide to use a coping block like Angela did, find the mid-point on each side of the quilt center. Lay the block at this center point. When you lay out your strip-set triangles, you can determine where your coping block should overlap. Trim the braided border accordingly, taking into account the ¼” seam allowance, and sew the block to the borders.

Sara and Angela discuss solutions. How do you make a braided border work, when the measurements aren’t?

If piecing in a coping block is daunting, another approach is to cut the strip-set triangles where they meet at the center (allowing maybe a ½” overlap) and sew together with a straight seam. The “braid” won’t be as clean where it joins, so appliqué a patchwork motif to cover it. (Maybe even use the coping block as the appliqué motif!)

On episode 3505, Angela’s instruction and advice is very helpful. If you’re up for a challenge, the end result is worth it! We’re rooting for you!

*Originally published in March 2020.

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