Category Archives: Medallion Lessons

My Best Advice on Using Half-Square Triangles in Borders

I could call this a rule, but that would be silly, wouldn’t it? 🙂

Here’s the advice: when using half-square triangles as your border blocks, try them multiple ways before choosing.

Why? Because setting them with different line and value orientation changes the appearance significantly. It’s worth taking the few minutes to audition variations. This simple illustration gives 4 different ways to arrange them.

Here are some examples from a little quilt I made in 2014. They aren’t sewn together yet, hence the wonky look on some of the pictures.

There are still other ways to try these, too. Other than the first one, they all have the dark value close to the center. Try them with the light side against the center for a different look. Also, they aren’t shown with changing orientation, similar to the right side of the illustration at the top of the page. In other words, there are at least eight ways to use them, and that assumes that you pattern them the same on all four sides.

Here are some examples from my quilts. First, Marquetry. Note that two of the borders use HST, but with different arrangement.

Another one is Bird On Point. Closest to the center, the HST run around in one direction. In the middle blue-and-blue border, they’re positioned differently to create movement in the other direction.

And one more, Black Sheep Manor. This also has HST in two borders. In the one around the center block, the triangles “spray” outward symmetrically. In the middle border, they have changing orientation for value and line.

I could go on, but I’ll bet you get the point. 🙂

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A Look at Some Medallion Quilts

I’m still on the road, so I’m sharing an older post. It’s a good follow-up to yesterday’s on petting older quilts and remembering the lessons they taught. This was first published more than four years ago, very early in my “medallion period.” Since then, I have studied design more carefully, and my opinions on some of these quilts has evolved as my knowledge has. Even so, it is fun to see some of my early medallions.


While working on developing the Medallion Sew-Along, I thought about what makes a successful design. I haven’t studied design formally, but when we talk about quilt design, we usually talk about elements such as line, color, value, size, shape, and texture. And we talk about how those elements are used, including principles such as balance, repetition, contrast, movement, and unity.

I decided to take a look at a few of my quilts and consider what design aspects work well and what don’t. (All are my original designs.) I welcome your thoughts on them, too. Don’t worry — you won’t hurt my feelings! We all have different taste. But besides looking at mine, take a look at some other medallions, either online or in books, and really think about why the design does or does not appeal to you.

One of my earliest quilts. I designed it. 72″ square.

As the caption says, this is one of my first quilts. I found beautiful, bright butterfly fabric and went from there. What works: the butterfly blocks create movement and unity with the focus fabric. The colors contrast well with the background. Colors are balanced across. What doesn’t work: it’s a little clumsy looking. The squares in the pieced border are simplistic and might look better if they were half-square triangles.

To look at more quilts with a critical eye, click here.

Taking the Show on the Road

Today I’m off to present to a guild. I love preparing for these meetings! Each time is a treat: the audience and space is new to me, the way I think about my quilts evolves, and I get to pet my quilts as I choose which ones to bring.

One of the things I enjoy about choosing my quilts is seeing how much they have changed over time. The differences might not be apparent to other people, but I can tell. In late 2012, a mere five years ago, I made the first quilt I think of as from my “medallion period.” (If Picasso can have a “blue period,” surely I can have a medallion period!) It was for my dear Jim, made at the end of a year that was hard for both of us. I always include this quilt in my trunk shows, for sentimental reasons and to illustrate design issues.

Extra-large lap quilt for my husband Jim, made in late 2012. It’s about 69″ square. 2012.

Since then I’ve made dozens of medallion quilts. All of them taught me lessons. For example, I learned that

  • the center block doesn’t need to be intricate, it just needs to be bold with multiple shapes and colors, and some decent value contrast;
  • placing the center on point makes the quilt a lot bigger in a hurry;
  • when you put it on point, it’s better to have the setting triangles too big than too small;
  • it’s easier to add new colors in the inner and middle borders than in the outer ones;
  • try arranging half-square triangles in a variety of ways, since placement of value and line make a difference in their effect;
  • spacer borders and blocks are your friends.

Dizzy. 60″ x 60″. One of my most recent quilts. 2017.

Besides lessons about design and construction, I also learned a few things about patience and persistence, and about asking for help.

Quilting, in any format, is good for developing patience, a trait that hasn’t always come easily to me. Consider the process of making a quilt, and all the steps required. Even when it all goes well, you have to be willing to work through the fabric prep, cutting, piecing, pressing, assembly, sandwiching, quilting, binding. You know this is the short list! And when things go wrong, besides the swearing and throwing of things, there’s also unstitching, sometimes yards and yards of unstitching! Or building different blocks, or cutting different strips, or taking the whole thing apart and starting over. Yes, I did that on the Garden Party quilt.

Garden Party. 2015.

I’ve also learned to ask for help when I need it. My tendency is to push through challenges without asking, not always a good decision. But Jim is my willing “consultant,” and I ask him for help frequently. Learning to trust his opinion (because he’s almost always right!) makes it easier to ask for others’, too. When I teach my class, a big portion of class time is in “workshopping” the students’ projects, allowing other students opportunity to advise and comment on the works in progress. They learn to evaluate the project and the process; while they do, so do I. Student comments have made an impact on multiple quilts of mine. And I’ve received tremendous help from my sister in learning to see color better.

I always hope I can convey a small portion of this in my guild presentations, along with the fun and excitement of designing and making these special quilts.

Do you enjoy looking at your past quilts? What has quilting taught you? I’d love to hear your comments.

Lessons: Unpieced Borders (aka “Strip” or “Slab” Borders)

One of the biggest stumbling blocks making medallion quilts is getting borders to fit. Pieced borders provide their own special challenges. But plenty of quilters, of any kind of quilt, have trouble with unpieced borders.

When I started quilting, almost every block quilt or strip quilt had an unpieced border, or perhaps two. Books on quilting gave recommendations to make the width proportionally pleasing to the center of the top. Too wide and it would look like you’re trying to make the quilt bigger. Too narrow and it wouldn’t have enough visual impact.

Quilt police chimed in with edicts to join lengths together at an angle, or with a perpendicular seam, depending on their own preferences.

Patterns continually called for cutting border strips across the width of fabric.

Most sources recommended measuring the quilt center in three places (the same direction) and averaging those three. Somehow, that would magically make your border fit.

And occasionally I saw instructions to mark the center of the border strip, the center of the top, and perhaps at the quarters, and pin those marks. Usually it was recommended to pin every few inches in between.

Whatever these instructions did, they did not, generally, make borders fit better. I’m in a longarm quilting group in Facebook, and badly fitting borders might be the number one complaint quilters have about their customers’ work. They share photos of the worst cases. Once a top is loaded on the frame, it’s easy to see the ripples and waves of excess border fabric. That will not quilt out!

How does this happen? A lot of ways. The most common, I expect, is that people cut a long strip of fabric, probably across the grain, lay it on without measuring or pinning, and sew. As they sew, they smooth the border out, continuing to stretch it farther and farther as compared to the quilt piece below it. The feed dogs pull slightly more against that bottom layer, making the problem even worse. It’s almost like gathering a skirt by having more fabric on one layer than on another, and easing it in. Do you do this? I have!! What a mess!

Medallion quilts often use unpieced strips in the interior, as well as outer borders. Rippling inner borders make it nearly impossible to correctly fit the next borders to them. You can sew it on, but the distortions will make a flat, squared top impossible. The flatter the top, the more easily it can be quilted and the better it will look finished.

There are easy ways to make borders fit better. Here are a few tips.

  • Square the center’s corners before attaching a border. Splayed corners will multiply if they aren’t fixed. (The “center” is everything that is already assembled into something that will be bordered. If you are adding multiple borders, each new border becomes part of the center once it is attached.) Use your largest square ruler to check the center’s corners. If the center’s edges don’t align to the square, you can either trim them to square, or adjust seam allowances perpendicular to the edge to improve the shape. OR if the problem is minor, attach the strip border and then trim it to square.
  • Cut border lengths along the selvage if possible. The grain is more stable than on width-of-fabric, meaning you’ll get less stretch and distortion.
  • If you need to join lengths, use a perpendicular seam. It is easier to align the pieces correctly this way. You won’t have a bias seam to stretch. And the seam is shorter than if joined on the diagonal, so any mismatch in the print extends for a smaller length.
  • Determine the correct length of the strip border and cut it to size. (More on that below.)
  • Pin. A lot. A lot of pins. Smooth the center its full length and find the middle of its edge. Mark that point with a pin. Find the middle of the border strip and mark that point with a pin. Match the middle-point pins. Remove the pins (each through only one layer) and pin the two layers, center and border, together at that point. Smooth the border strip along the center’s edge until it reaches each corner. Pin the corners. I pin near each corner twice, about a half inch apart. It keeps the layers from shifting at the start and end of sewing. If you’ve measured and cut your border correctly, and if your center isn’t too out of square, the two pieces should fit well together. Pin about every 2″, easing with more pins where needed. (Why pin so much? The pins allow you to ease the layers together where they don’t fit exactly. And they help support the weight of the layers so they don’t shift, which makes sure your seam allowance maintains its width. The bigger the center is, the more weight and the more closely you need to pin.)
  • If you have corner blocks, they will be on the third and fourth strips of the border set. Begin your pinning by matching the seams of the corner blocks to the first and second strips of the border set. Continue to pin as above.
  • Secure your long seams by backstitching at both ends.
  • Use your walking foot (even-feed foot) if it helps keep the layers from shifting, giving a smoother seam.

How to determine the correct length of the strip border
When I began quilting, I relied heavily on a few online sources of information (and back then, there were only a few!) One of them was Bonnie Hunter of Quiltville.com. (She still has great stuff on her site. Take a look around, especially at her Tips & Techniques.) Bonnie has a whole page just on border hints, and this is where I learned to cut and attach border strips.

According to Bonnie, the best way to assure your border will fit and your quilt top will lie flat is to use one measure (for each direction) across the center of the quilt top. She says:

Some people take several measurements across the quilt and average that measurement for borders. (hear me gasping in fright here!) I *NEVER* “average” when measuring for borders because they can still flare, and where they are going to flare the worst is at the center of the quilt sides…That’s why the CENTER measurement is the one to go for. If the ‘averaged’ measurement is longer than the quilt CENTER measurement, you are GOING to have a flared border. If the ‘averaged’ measurement is smaller than quilt  center measurement, you are going to have borders that are too tight for your quilt center, and the center of your quilt is going to balloon out. Just use the center measurement and your quilt will lie flat!

How to get that centerline measurement? Should you hold the quilt top in your lap and move the measuring tape across it a few inches at a time? (Can you see my eyes rolling?!?) No.

  1. Lay the quilt top out flat, preferably on the floor. If you don’t have enough room to spread it out, you can bunch up or fold in the sides. But the center must be spread out flat in a straight line, without twisting. Smooth it out without stretching, just to flatten it to the floor.
  2. Cut two border strips for that direction and stack them on top of each other. Cut one end perpendicular to the length.
  3. Lay them across the center. Start with the cut end flush with the edge of the quilt top. Smooth the strips out so they are flat against the center. Don’t stretch them!
  4. Mark the other end of the top strip using a straight edge and pen or pencil.
  5. Cut the strips on the marked line.
  6. If you will have corner blocks, repeat with the other two strips in the other direction prior to sewing the first two strips on. If you won’t have corner blocks, sew the first two strips on, and then repeat.

Click on any photo below to open the gallery.

I’ve applied hundreds, maybe thousands of borders using this method. My quilt tops are almost always square and flat. Thanks to Bonnie Hunter for the lesson!

Black Sheep Manor

Some quilts decide to be made, regardless of our intentions. Such was the case for Black Sheep Manor. This is a quilt I would not have made, if not for seeing a panel print earlier this year at a local quilt shop. The full panel had 15 small panel motifs with a country estate theme. The faux-crackled, tea-stained background with black print featured a sheep, two manor houses, a squirrel, two trees, and other assorted illustrations. This is not my typical style.

But Jim and I have friends, smart, funny, warm people, who’ve recently moved to a home they call their “Black Sheep Manor.” When I saw the black sheep on the panel, I had to get it. The quilt called to be made.

The Center Block

The black sheep had to center the quilt, but the small panel finishes at 7″. The size is better suited for a pillow or placemat than the focal point of a lap quilt. I’ve written before about enlarging center blocks with frames of various types. Adding variable star points doubles the size, and making a star-in-a-star quadruples it. But as much as I like stars, this little sheep called for something else.

To highlight and enlarge the sheep without other distractions, I chose to set it with an economy block setting. The simplicity draws the eye to the middle. Using strong value contrast with the subtlety of tone-on-tone prints emphasizes the block structure, as well.

The pattern design on the brick-colored fabric is of wheat stalks, and the pinky-tan setting triangles are printed with a deer motif. Both suit the small-farm life of our friends. These two fabrics, along with the sheep panel, set the theme for the rest of the quilt.

The Inner Borders

Beyond the economy center block, the first border of half-square triangles bursts forth to further enlarge the appearance. Here again, simplicity serves the purpose of enhancement rather than distraction. I did try a different arrangement of HST using two borders, and the effect was messy. As Jim reminded me, KISS is often the best policy. 🙂

The darker rust print edge around the HST finished the look of the center. Rather than the center appearing as a 7″ square, it is 22.5″.

The Middle Borders

Outside of the narrow rust strip is the second most important piece of the quilt. Though the sheep literally plays center stage, the wording personalizes it. Anyone could like black sheep, but there is only one Black Sheep Manor. The wording is hand-lettered using fabric markers. I printed the words on paper and then arranged a light box with an overturned plastic tub on top of a CFL utility light. I taped the paper to the plastic tub. Freezer paper on the back of the fabric stabilized it, and I taped that down, as well. I outlined the letters with a very fine-tipped pen, and then filled them in with a heavier marker.

Framing the wording on either end, and below the sheep block, are strips from the width-of-fabric panel print. On the left and right borders are paper-pieced triangles that finish 2.5″ x 3.75″. They are proportioned differently than flying geese, which lets them fit the space evenly as well as suggest pine trees. The corner blocks are of the broken dishes format.

Black Sheep Manor. Approx 58″ x 58″. September 2017. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

The next pieced border is of larger HSTs. The HSTs repeats the shapes of the inner border, but the shifting orientation keeps them from simple repetition. It also prevents them from making a dark line on either side of the border, so it is more open and airy.

Also note the narrow strip borders on either side of the HST. These are one of the lightest values in the whole quilt. Using the light color is a bit unexpected, and it keeps the quilt from descending into dinginess.

The Outer Borders

The next border is a style called “piano keys.” I cut the piano keys border to finish at 6″ and planned to make shoofly corner blocks. Instead, I chose four of the other small panel pieces and cornered the border with them. Once their decorative “frame” was trimmed off, they finished at 5.25″, so I trimmed the piano keys to match. Aside from the corner blocks, the piano keys border is mostly dark in value.

The piano keys are made with 28 strips on each side. I made the strips into blocks of four strips each. Each block has a red, a brown (or black,) a blue, and a green strip. These are two warm and two cool. I assembled the blocks in haphazard order, and then assembled the borders only making sure that no two strips of the same color touched each other. Aside from very minimal rearrangement, the placement is random, but the colors and “temperatures” are well-distributed. This was easy! And more importantly, it is not formal or regimented, but casual.

The last border of another rusty print frames the whole. I didn’t know what width I wanted until I tried it. No elements of the quilt are very large, so a relatively narrow border worked better for proportions.

The Fabric Choices

Almost all of my quilts have at least one scrappy border. They help to integrate the multiple pieces of similar color that I use within a quilt. This quilt differs by being scrappy throughout, giving it a casual and homey feel.

Even with scraps, the look is consistent. All the colors have a golden tinge. The reds are brick red and rust; the greens are olivey; the blues all have a touch of teal; and the browns and blacks are warm, not cool. The tan or “background” fabrics also tend toward golden, not grey.

However, if you look more closely at the fabrics, you’ll notice I didn’t take the fabric patterns too seriously. They range from 1800s reproductions to a small piece of a circus print, to Kaffe Fassett. The color and value were far more important than the style of print.

To keep the dozens of fabrics from leading the quilt into chaos, there are places without scraps. For example, the center block has only three fabrics: the black sheep panel, the inner brick red triangles, and the outer tan triangles. The brick red and tan are repeated with the same fabrics for the broken dishes corner blocks. The inner strip border and the final border echo the brick red, varying it somewhat toward rust. The two pale strips borders use the same fabrics. The panel corner blocks with the piano keys emphasize the sheep by repeating the same fabric style. All these points of repetition help calm the appearance.

Except for the panel (which demanded I buy it and make a quilt with it,) all of the fabrics are from my stash, including the back. The vast majority is from scraps and small pieces. Very little is from yardage. It’s been a very long time since I worked with mostly scraps and I enjoyed it a lot.

The Quilting

I had a hard time deciding how to quilt this. I didn’t want the stitching to run rampant over the little sheep, but I also didn’t want to custom quilt the entire piece. I compromised by quilting the center very simply, with an outline of the sheep, a simple fan pattern on the brick red, and triangles of leaves and loops on the tan. For the rest of the quilt, I did an all-over leaves and loops design.

My Overall Assessment

I really fell in love with this quilt. As noted at the top, this is not my typical style, with the black-and-tan-and-country feel. But I often think my very best quilts are those I make for specific people, and I think this is one of them. Another reason I love it is because I couldn’t have made it before now. The design shows a level of expertise that I’ve developed over time. The paper piecing is a new technique for me this year. Hand-lettering the banner isn’t something I would have tried until recently. Besides the look, I enjoyed the process. The ease with which it went together is rare. Each step of the way, decisions were simple, but from a strong sense of direction, not merely from habit.

My friends received the quilt and are thrilled. They’re happy, and that makes me happy.