How I Design Medallion Quilts

For the last couple of years, most of the quilts I’ve made are medallion quilts. I’d guess I’ve made more medallions, or at least written more about them, than almost anyone else. There are no other blogs I’ve found focused on them. There is a pretty small number of books out there about medallions, and I think I either own or have considered owning all of those books. I’ve studied them carefully, as well as a few great books on borders. I’ve studied design of quilts, as well.

The fact that there is little written material on medallions has actually helped me learn about them. Rather than simply following directions from someone else, I’ve had to think deeply about how to solve puzzles as they’ve arisen. And writing here about those solutions has helped me to understand them more completely and find new ways to incorporate them in my work. Medallions’ design strategies and construction techniques sometimes differ a fair amount from block-format quilts. They can be challenging quilts, but they’re never boring to make.

However, the lack of information out there leads quilters to think medallions are hard, too hard, something to put on the list for later. Or if they do make a medallion, it should be from someone else’s pattern. If you want a “traditional” medallion, you find a “traditional” pattern. If you want a “modern” medallion, you find a “modern” pattern. (The labels are in quotation marks because I think the labels are ridiculous. I could go on, but will save it for another time.) After all, with a pattern you have a pretty good idea of what the outcome will be. You don’t need to trust your own powers of design. If you don’t want to, you don’t even need to pick your own fabrics.

But for some of us, there is little satisfaction in a paint-by-numbers quilt, and tremendous pride in one we create ourselves. For those quilters who want to, you CAN design your own medallion quilt, even if you haven’t designed many (or any) quilts before. EVERY quilter who wants to can design their own medallion.

How? By being mindful.

“Mindful” is kind of a buzzword these days. At a minimum, being mindful means paying attention more thoroughly to what we’re doing right now. When we multi-task, or listen while our minds are on something else, or bog down our brains in what-ifs or should-haves, we aren’t really paying attention to the present. One researcher and author, Ellen J. Langer, discusses being mindful as being the opposite of mindless. Mindlessness is doing things on automatic pilot, or doing things just because we’re “supposed to,” without considering who made those rules or why. Mindlessness also includes concern for evaluation by others, or comparison with others, to determine how “good” we are at something.

These are part of how I understand mindfulness. I would also include being open. When I am open, I am willing to accept not just what’s going on right now, but also the possibilities that now offers. The whole range, as broadly as they could happen. That includes things that might have a “bad” outcome as well as those that might have a “good” outcome. I don’t need to imagine all those things, I just need to accept the possibilities, without prejudging.

Many (many) years ago I worked at Continental Bank in Chicago. I was a software programmer and analyst, a good fit for someone who likes to solve puzzles. But sometimes I’d get frustrated that the projects I worked on weren’t well defined. I could come up with solutions, if only other people would stop changing the questions. My boss, Wendell Meyer, was a kind and wise man. He spoke quietly and thoughtfully. Besides his demeanor, the thing I remember most about Wendell is a suggestion he offered when I expressed my frustration: “Think of it as a challenge and an opportunity.” In other words, reserve your judgment and face the work with a positive attitude. You might be surprised at the outcome.

That sounds surprisingly like what many quilters laugh about: the design “opportunities” that arise from mistakes we make, unexpected effects of color or contrast, or running out of a fabric. When we view our quilting as full of challenges and opportunities, we are being mindful of the possibilities.

My word for the year (and for last year) is “EXPERIMENT!” To me this means not just trying things, but trying them without expectation of how they’ll turn out. When I have expectations of specific outcomes, and things turn out differently from that, I could be disappointed. I’d rather just be surprised.

How does this work in my designs? When I make medallions, I design as I go. That means that each segment of the quilt is a brand-new experience when I get to it. It can be any color, any size, built of any shapes I want. I’ll only know what I want by trying things. Even if I envision a particular block for a border — even if I’ve already built all those blocks and attached that border — I know it might not work right. And while that can set me back momentarily, it doesn’t crush my spirit. Because there is always something out there that will work. I just need to find it.

Here is an example. One of my current projects is for the class I’m teaching. For the sake of the class, I’ve assigned certain sizes for the center block and borders. (Normally I don’t set such restrictions on my work.) The center block is 15″. I began with an economy block (square-in-a-square) that finished at 7″. To take it to 15″ I had to frame it or otherwise amend it. There are infinite possibilities in how to frame it, but I began with the colors I wanted to use — dark reds, black, greens, and golds, inspired by a piece of black paisley.

I like stars for center blocks because the points create outward lines, immediately strengthening the center’s position as a focal point. If I added variable star points to the economy block, I would double the size, from 7″ to 14″. That’s still not 15″. So the decision to make then was to use a variable star format or something else, and if I used it, how to adjust the size.

15" block for class

15″ block for class

Believe me, I could go on explaining each and every decision I’ve made so far in this project, and why I’ve made them. But both you and I would get bored!

When I design medallion quilts I am mindful. When I am mindful I:

  • look at each decision point as having many possible solutions, none of them inherently bad or good.
  • know that there are no rules I must follow, only guidelines.
  • trust the process, which often includes backtracking.
  • remember that skills in design, execution, and mindfulness are built over time, not conferred with a wave of the skills fairy’s wand.
  • don’t compare my work or my abilities with other people’s, except to learn and be inspired.
  • share generously with others, rather than guarding my knowledge jealously.
  • know that when I am mindful, I am powerful.

I’ve written about power before without using the label “mindfulness” with it. But my power arises from understanding I have choices in what I do with my quilts, how I pay attention to my husband, or how I react to a nasty comment from someone in Facebook. I strengthen that power when I make skillful choices, and I can only improve at those skills with practice, as for anything else.

If you’ve read through this long post, thank you for sticking with me. If you have any questions about how I design from an operational standpoint, or about how I see mindfulness in my life or quilting, or pretty much anything else, you are always welcome to ask.

22 thoughts on “How I Design Medallion Quilts

  1. grandmapeachy

    Thank you for this post. I have yet to make a quilt from an actual pattern. I’ve used design elements such as pinwheels or strip blocks but never from a pattern. I designed everyone I’ve made and love doing that. I couldn’t write a pattern if I had to though so mine are all one of a kind. I enjoyed the medallion quilt I made for my brother and his wife for their 50th anniversary. I took a Craftsy class on quilting large quilts on small machines. The medallion method suited me well. I enjoyed this post and need to come back and read more of your posts. Thank you for reaffirming that I’m doing fine as a quilter even though I don’t do other quilter’s patterns. Reassuring.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Oh my goodness, how boring quilting would be if we all made the same quilts! I’m with you — much prefer designing my own. I did buy a pattern once, but it was poorly written. So I mimicked the design in my own sizing and colors, using my own logic. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. knitnkwilt

    I got into medallion quilts when I did a couple round robins, each person having to add a border. I totally enjoyed the challenge of getting something I may never have thought of, adding something that both fits and opens up new and allows for the next round.

    I enjoy reading about all design decisions. 🙂

  3. Joan Dix jakubowski

    Melanie, my husband and I both worked at Continental Bank, me from 1976-81, in Trust, and Mike worked in Charge Card from 1976-80, and then in Systems programming from 1981 until outsourcing. Small world, isn’t it? I remember Wendell as a very good natured analyst, I’m glad he was a good manager for you. I was also good buddies with Charlene Lohmeier thru outside activities. I’m never surprised to find a former programmer quilting, it’s a natural. Joan

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Hello, Joan! Thanks so much for your comment. I hesitated to put Wendell’s name in my post but decided to go ahead, since I only have good memories of him. Now I’m very glad I did. And I’m pretty sure I remember Charlene, as well.

      Yes indeed it’s a small world. I began working for Firstar as an investment manager in 1997, here in Iowa. My boss had been on my first team at Continental when I came out of training there. And one of my profs at Iowa had been there in commercial lending, or something.

      Are you a quilter? Are you still in the Chicago area? Thanks again for your note and for reading. I really appreciate it.

  4. KerryCan

    You spend a lot of time in our own head, Melanie! But so do I, so I appreciate watching you work through your ideas, too. I like the extent to which you embrace uncertainty in making these quilts–that’s difficult for me.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      It’s easier for me all the time. It would be wonderful to know what they’ll look like before they’re done, but not wonderful, as well. That would take all the surprise away! And even when I have a pretty good idea, as I did for both my two most recent, they both needed more/different than I expected. I’m learning to roll with it. Thank you. 🙂

  5. Alexandra

    Sounding very Buddhist here. 🙂 You remind me of this quote:

    “Life is more difficult if you worry. It’s better to deal with things as they come up.” Penor Rinpoche

    A great motto for quilting indeed.

  6. Kathy Aho in MN

    Insightful and helpful! I enjoy growing my quilt projects without a preset pattern–especially my ufo blocks from estate sales and so on. I never know how big or how small they will end up until they are done. Very organic. It is indeed a challenge and an opportunity! Thanks for this post!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      The way you rescue old blocks and parts requires the same as I’m talking about. The need to listen and respond (as my husband was talking about in his comment) is so similar. From things you’ve said, you, like I, feel so fortunate to have these challenges available. THanks for reading and commenting.

  7. Jim in IA

    If you were a musician, I think you would enjoy playing jazz. The musicians are mindful of their playing and that of the others near them. The music is taken in as a whole. There is give and take. Changes can happen that are unexpected, yet they can turn out great.

    I’ve been reviewing to some old home movies that contain our son’s performances in jazz bands from jr-hi through college. As the kids developed skills, the music sounded more whole and complete. There was dialog. It was something learned through being mindful.

    This isn’t a perfect analogy. But it fits in many ways. Thanks for your insights. Be brave. Try new things.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Your comment brought a couple of tears to my eyes. I so enjoyed watching the kids learn to listen and respond to each other. I do feel like that’s what I am learning, also. With your help and support I am braver all the time. ❤


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