Lessons: Starting a Medallion Quilt

The Mountain. 60" x 60" with 15" center block. 2015.

The Mountain. 60″ x 60″ with 15″ center block. 2015.

While I love all quilts, medallion quilts continue to fascinate me for a number of reasons. They’re one of the oldest formats of bedding quilting, and I love the history behind them and the huge range of styles they can take. Aesthetically, the variety of borders makes them exciting, while the symmetry appeals to me, too. Each one teaches me new lessons. But one of the things I like best is they are a mystery to be solved. I don’t need to know the ending before I even begin.

If you would like to make a medallion quilt, where should you start? First you need to consider a few things.

What is the purpose of the quilt? Will it be a gift? Will it be a wall-hanging, a baby quilt, a bed quilt? Do you need to please someone else or just yourself? Colors and size, and even blocks used may be influenced by this.

Is there a specific center block you plan to use? If so, that will drive many of your decisions as you go. If not, here are a number of centers that may inspire you.

What colors/fabrics will you use? Are you busting stash or will you buy some new? Are you comfortable with scrappy and improvisational fabric choices? The tradition of medallion quilts allows incorporating “new” colors and patterns clear into the last border, as long as they continue to relate to what’s gone before. If you’ve already chosen a center (or have a plan for making one,) you may want to pull fabrics that might work, knowing that others likely will be used, as well.

THE CENTER BLOCK
Once you’ve decided the purpose for the quilt and the approximate size, you can consider the center block. (Or alternately, if you already have a center block, that might guide the purpose and size of the quilt.)

How big should the center block be? When I study “successful” medallions (meaning, ones I like,) the center block is at least a quarter the width of the whole quilt. A smaller block tends to lose its importance when the scale is less than that. My largest block was about 60% of the width of the total quilt. [For some illustrations of center block proportions, see my post Proportion, Part 1.]

For example, if you have a 15” block, your quilt might be up to about four times that, or 60” wide. If that 15″ block were half the width of the quilt, your quilt would be 30″ wide, perhaps a wall-hanging.

What if you want a larger quilt? Well, you could use a larger block, or you could increase the scale of your block by turning it on point. [See my posts on turning a block on point: Straight or On-Point Setting? and How to Set a Block on Point.]

That same 15” block, if turned on point with an exact (not over-large) setting, creates a block that is 21.21” wide. How do I know? Using the math for diagonals,
15 x 1.414 = 21.21.

Using a block about 21”, you can make a quilt up to about 84” and still have the same proportions.

(If you make the setting triangles “too large,” you can increase that more. If you decide to do this, you’ll want to think carefully about scale and how the block may “float” on the setting. If the block’s design is too far from the edges, it again may seem too small.)

Another way to make a block larger is to make it the center of a bigger block. Rather than turning on point with setting triangles, as above, you could frame it with the outside piecing of a larger block.

To the left is a basic variable star block, with the center left blank.

Imagine your block surrounded by star points. A variable star would double the size of your center, as shown in the photo below.

The little star below is framed by the bigger star, which could turn an 8″ block, for instance, into a 16″ block.

But there are any number of ways you can use your block as the center of another. Here are just 16 frame blocks I found in EQ7! This may be a little hard to see, because there are so many and all so different. But the idea is, you can frame your chosen block with any one of the bigger blocks below to expand it and make it more substantial, just like I showed with the little mock-Amish wall-hanging above.


I’ll write more about center blocks in the next Lessons post. Look for more Medallion Lessons here

Do you have a block? Have you thought some about your goals? I’d love to hear about your ideas in comments. 

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15 thoughts on “Lessons: Starting a Medallion Quilt

  1. Tammy

    Melanie – maybe this is an outline for a chapter in a your once and future book on medallions? That would be terrific!

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  2. katechiconi

    I have an idea for a ‘sometime, when’ medallion quilt, but the centre would be quite large and a rather long rectangular shape. I think that’ll bring its own interesting framing/border problems!

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I love rectangular centers. And large isn’t necessarily a problem. It’s just a matter of getting proportions right. Sometime, when you get to that, you’ll be ready.

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      1. katechiconi

        Hippocrates had it almost right:

        Ars longa,
        vita brevis,
        occasio praeceps,
        experimentum periculosum,
        iudicium difficile.

        Life is short,
        Art is long,
        opportunity fleeting,
        experiment dangerous,
        judgment difficult.

        He clearly wasn’t a quilter, or he’d have known the error of stating that experiment is dangerous!

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  3. Kathy Aho in mn

    Great article. I am just starting to plan a new project with an orphan “block” center. Really it is a large pieced grouping I bought at garage sale. Probably meant for a wall hanging or table mat. I will make it the center of a whole bed quilt size. I will be following this series with interest! I know it will help me as I go.

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  4. zippyquilts

    With your inspiration, I’m thinking of using one of my orphan blocks as the center of a medallion donation quilt. Nice to know what size it may need to be before I start! Since the blocks are mostly 12 x 12, and the finished quilt needs to be 40 x 40, I think I’m OK. Thanks for the idea!

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