Medallion Sew-Along #3 — Second Border Set

Welcome to Catbird Quilt Studio’s Medallion Sew-Along! If you’re just joining us, you’re not too late. Parts 1 and 2 of the Sew-Along can be found here and here, and other resources are under the Medallion Sew-Along tab. To join in and receive updates, just follow this blog.

This sew-along is a little different than some you may have done. The difference is that there’s no pattern. If you want a pattern, you’ve come to the wrong place! YOU will make your own decisions for color and value, for shape and size, and even for how many borders you’ll add. My job is to help you with strategies for those decisions.


Before we dive in to the next border sets, I want to talk a little about design decisions. Most important, the role of the borders is to support and enhance the center block. As you choose fabrics, colors, and shapes for borders, they should provide unity and balance, not competition, for the center or for each other. Not every border needs to be fancy. Sometimes the best choice is an unpieced strip, with or without corner blocks.

Proportion is key. Opinions vary, but I think the center block (or block on point) should be at least a quarter the width of the total quilt. A third is even more pleasing to me. If you’ve started with a 15″ center, straight set, your total quilt width should be no more than 60″, by this guide. Set on point, it might be as much as 84″. Joen Wolfrom, in her book The Visual Dance, says that the center should be about half of the quilt’s total width. By this rule of thumb, a 15″ center block would belong in a quilt about 30″ wide.

That’s a pretty wide range, from 30″ to 60″ for a straight set block. But these are just rules of thumb for your consideration, not immutable laws of the universe. A block made more important with the right border can support a larger quilt. And besides, it’s YOUR quilt. You get to decide.

Take another look at my medallion quilt. (I should just name it “My Medallion Quilt.”) It doesn’t even follow my own rule. The center block is a variation on a churndash, and it measures 15″. But the whole quilt is 72″. In my opinion it works because the strong lines immediately around it, including the pink frame, the sawtooth border, and the teal frame, give the illusion that they are part of the center.

Here’s another example of proportion. In this quilt, the hourglass border blocks are proportionally a little too large for the center, especially considering how close they are to the center. Part of the problem is the lack of value difference between the center’s background (cream) and its setting triangles (pale green.) If the setting triangles were darker, the center block might seem stronger, and the hourglasses would offer more proportional support. Alternatively, if a smaller scale were used closer to the center, and the same hourglass size was used farther out, they might seem fine.

Wolfrom’s book does provide some great reminders about the role of borders. The borders must work together to enhance the center, not overpower it, as the hourglasses do above. The designer can do this with unity of color and fabric, shapes and pattern. In addition, the size of border shapes should relate to the sizes in the center.

Another great book is Intuitive Color & Design, by Jean Wells. While her focus is on art quilting, the design principles work the same for any two dimensional work. She discusses working with color in quilts and says

When you work with colors in a quilt that is not a repeated block quilt … Introduce as many of the fabrics as you can in the first third of the quilt. …

Decide which fabrics will be the main fabrics, the supporting fabrics, and the accent or sparkle fabrics. Complete the second third of the quilt, repeating and working with combinations that you like. Evaluate the quilt again.

She also talks about proportion of color use, suggesting that colors in equal measure make us uncomfortable. Instead, one color should dominate, even if just by a little.

And a couple of tips from me: first, remember plain strip borders and coping strips can be used to adjust for size problems. (I use them regularly.) If you use pieced blocks in your border, they can be alternated with plain blocks, giving another great place to adjust for size. The alternate blocks do NOT need to be same width as the primary ones! Keep your thinking flexible for ways to solve spacing issues.

Busy or patterned fabrics hide piecing errors — believe me, I know and take advantage of that! And lots of piecing leads to more opportunity for size errors. Simplicity sometimes works to our advantage.

Finally, your borders don’t have to be symmetrical! Your top/bottom borders can be different from left/right, or top/right different from bottom/left. Example: you might want to use 4-patches across the top and bottom, while using flying geese left and right.

If you need ideas for pieced borders, you can find them here and here.

The first border set took your top to 24″, whether you used a straight setting or on-point. From here, the instructions are the same for both.

Add 4″ of border to all four sides. The border will take the total size to 32″ finished.

Introduce any new colors in this border. Think about unity of design by repeating shapes from the central block and/or first border set. Is there any new shape you want to add? For instance, if your center block and the first border set use only 90° angles, is it time to add in triangles? Likewise, if your center is very angular, it might be time to calm things with straight angles or even curves. Besides shape and color, consider variation of value so there is appropriate contrast. Balance and repetition are key.

Here are four examples I’m working on with 4″ borders. These each finish at 32″ now.

The 4″ border is unpieced except corner blocks. The fabric repeats the background in the center block, and the corners repeat the circle motif, lending unity. I don’t love the 3″ triangles border because the colors don’t read as dark as I expected, but I think I can get it to work as I add more.

This 4″ border is made from hourglass blocks. The blue repeats the blue in the center.

Dazzling but a little locked in for color. The 4″ border is a checkerboard made from 2″ squares. Both the oranges and blues are scrappy.

The 4″ border is partly half-square triangles (the units towards the corners) and partly rectangles with triangle corners (the units in the centers.) I hadn’t used this idea before but I like the effect.

How are you doing with this one? I hope you don’t feel abandoned. Last time I asked you to square and frame your block if needed. If you used a straight setting, you were to add a border or border set no greater than 5″ wide. If your block was on point, you added a border or border set no greater than 4″ wide.

Whether your center is on point or straight set, you’ll add another border or border set between 3″ and 6″ wide. How big will it be after this border? Approximately how big of a quilt do you want? This will be a major bridge between the center and the final edge.

You may need to add another frame, either for size or to control color and space. When your current finished size is easily divisible into units, you have choices of what units to use. Consider how the border relates to what’s come before, especially the center.

And if you wish to introduce new colors, this is the time to do so.

Here are three things I’m working on.

The impression of a ball field without being too literal about it. The next border will help tie things together, besides the overall baseball motif.

I twisted the star on a black frame and edged with the green and black geometric print. The red line and bark cloth aren’t attached yet, but will be mitered on the corners.

This is still very rough, but I have a plan. The quilting itself will play a big role here.


The next official MSA blog post is scheduled for September 27. I will be offline for a number of days between now and then. While I’ve been trying to stay ahead of things, you may well catch up to me! Either way, have fun and keep us updated with your progress!


6 thoughts on “Medallion Sew-Along #3 — Second Border Set

  1. Rosie

    Your new starts are great, so many possibilities. I have been following along, just a bit behind at the moment. I chose the center block and decided on the first border, that’s it so far! Rosie

    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      Thanks for following. Everyone’s lives are on different schedules. You can catch up when you can.

      I’m enjoying seeing the variations, too. It’s fun to think of all the possibilities.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Nann

    I haven’t begun, but I’m following your lessons. I completely agree about proportion. I’ve seen many medallion designs where the borders overwhelm the center.

    1. Melanie in IA Post author

      It’s easy to do, and I can’t say I haven’t done it myself! I am learning SO much with this process. I do want to make sure, though, that I don’t learn a specific process or rule set that makes my quilts static and boring. Sometimes you gotta break the rules!

      Thanks for coming by today.

  3. Shirley Sherrod

    As I sit here on my way towards a new adventure and experience, I am sorry to have to say, “I am putting Miss Betsy, my sewing machine, away.” I am headed for Ecuador until Christmas and will be taking along some hand appliqué that I hope to get done. This will be a new endeavor for me but it should be fun. You can follow along if you will, at my blog,
    later …


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