Tag Archives: Creativity

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.

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. 

What’s the Worst that Would Happen …?

[Note: I published this long ago, in the early days of this blog. Recently I read a post by Kathy Loomis on fear and art, wondering if we focus on the fear too much, teaching fear rather than boldness. That may be so. But the most important thing to learn about fear in art and in most making is, there is really nothing to be afraid of. In that context, I post this again.]

A friend recently posted on Facebook, “Usually I’m a pretty good cook… today was not one of those days. Man did I mess breakfast up. Oh well, the dogs liked it.”

I said, “If you ask yourself ‘what’s the worst that would happen if…’ and the answer is that the dogs will get to eat it, you might as well try it!”

There’s a lot of stuff I don’t try in my quilting. Sometimes I actually don’t have interest in a technique or style. Sometimes I do but feel a little (or a lot) intimidated. While I definitely have favorite styles and colors, I want to push my creativity by being open to failure. I want to, but honestly sometimes I have trouble doing so.

There are many sports metaphors about risk and winning – Wayne Gretzky’s famous quote is “You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” However, we don’t always apply the same thinking to our art. In reading about creativity, I understand that we don’t take risks because we fear failure. Really, failure or success is determined by setting some standard to reach, and then measuring whether or not we reached it. The worst part is, we set our own standards in quilting, and usually we set them too high. We hesitate to try new things because we fear we won’t do them as well as our heroes, or as well as the best thing we ourselves ever did, or because we are worried about others’ opinions.

Another facet of “failure” for me is I am a finisher. If I try something, I want the results to be “good enough” to finish the project. (Others might have an odd fear of success with the same result — those who don’t finish projects may not wish the obligation that comes with a successful experiment!)

Could we measure success as having been bold enough to try something new, and having learned something from it? Then every project we undertake could be a success. And every experiment would be its own finish, with or without a completed project.

Another friend, an actor, talked to me recently about stage fright. A particularly bad commercial shoot several years ago led to lingering anxiety about how each “next shoot” would go. But the stage fright makes him angry and he refuses to succumb to it, becoming stronger all the time in overcoming it. He says, “Perhaps we are too ‘full of ourselves’ and think that we should be ‘perfect’…and when we are not, we just can’t handle the thought….”

Stage fright, writer’s block, quilting fear, all part of the same structure. There is fear to try, to be judged a failure, if only by ourselves.

In Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, she talks about the process of creation. As a writer, she’s well aware of the desire to create perfection each time we begin a new project.

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

Or more bluntly from her, “In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

Shitty first drafts, practice blocks, even finished quilts we assess as failures, are the predecessors of better work. Go ahead and write that shitty first draft. Only when we begin something can we learn from it, improve on it, and be done with it, one way or another.

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of bestselling Eat, Pray, Love, gave a TED talk about the elusive nature of creative genius. Genius, inspiration, the “muse,” when they show up at all, sometimes show up at inopportune times. Whether or not genius shows up, she says, keep at it, keep showing up. Do your job, whether or not genius does.

At the end of the talk she reiterates, “Don’t be afraid, don’t be daunted. Just do your job.

Sometimes it feels like we’re doing our job with little guidance, no clear path.

Anne Lamott again:

“E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

It’s okay to not know where you’re going, or how it will turn out. Don’t let fear stop you. Don’t be afraid. If the worst that would happen is the dogs eat the breakfast, the first draft is shitty, or the block goes into a pile of orphans, try it anyway.

What’s the worst that would happen?

Lessons: Medallion Books Review

Very few books on medallion quilts have been published in the last 35 years. Mostly they provide patterns. A few provide some historical context. Only one has an in-depth discussion of design.

For those interested in medallion quilts, whether made by yourself or in a round robin, I wanted to give short reviews of the ones you might encounter. Some I own and others I don’t. All reviews are presented in order of year of publication.


The Art and Technique of Creating Medallion Quilts by Jinny Beyer, 1982
I own this out-of-print book and am glad I do. It’s a useful reference even though it is dated in presentation. Beyer’s writing is wordy; the book is largely in black and white; the quilt styling is formal and symmetrical; and construction methods use individually drafted templates for piecing. None of this is very appealing to today’s quilters, used to rotary cutting and quick piecing methods, as well as less formal styling. Things I like include a comprehensive history of the medallion format. Also, two chapters specifically consider design, though they focus on the broad outlines of proportion and not on aspects like color, value, shape, line, and movement. This book acknowledges construction challenges but provides little help for solving them, and there are no projects or patterns.

Classic English Medallion Style Quilts by Bettina Havig, 2003
This book shows traditional styling, providing patterns but no design context. The author asserts you can make an authentic English-style quilt using a center block and borders that alternately are pieced and wholecloth. There are ten types of border block units with instruction. The layouts of quilts are attractive, but the colors would be considered dated now. In addition, there are no construction strategies offered to help the quilter get borders to fit, assuming all sizing is absolutely accurate. The author provides planning charts, allowing quilters to customize their quilts with different blocks. However I find the charts very confusing, and the borders sizes odd. I don’t use this book much.

Medallion Quilts: Inspiration & Patterns by Cindy V. Hamilton, 2006
I don’t own this book but I’ve checked it out many times from my guild library. It includes some historical information about medallions, as well as beautiful photos. Hamilton is a skilled designer and includes patterns for four quilts. (I have not made any, so can’t comment on quality of instructions.) Though she encourages substitutions in border styles for the quilter’s preference or skills, her patterns include complex piecing with templates, and significant amounts of appliqué. Also, Hamilton’s book mentions making borders fit but doesn’t discuss solutions so quilters can do so.

Liberated Medallion Quilts by Gwen Marston, 2012
Marston is best known for her exuberant, “liberated” style. With its wonky, non-standard styling, liberated piecing gives plenty for the eye to enjoy. In this book she extends that styling to the traditional medallion format, and provides plenty of evidence for the notion that liberated IS traditional. The quilts in this book are playful and unique, a treat to look at.

In text Marston argues for design-as-you-go, but she doesn’t support that with strategies the reader might use to design their own, though there are patterns for a number of quilts. In addition, though I love many of these quilts, the liberated style is not how I like to work. So I use this beautiful book for inspiration if not instruction.

Focus on the Center by Pat Sloan, 2012
This is a pattern book with no design discussion. There are patterns for six lap quilts and one bed quilt. The marketing information doesn’t say what sizes those mean. I haven’t seen it in person, but the pictures of quilts are generally attractive.

Blocks, Borders, Quilts! by Sunny Steinkuhler, 2012
This book includes one blueprint for customization of a 40″ square quilt, with a number of specifically sized blocks. Though the creative reader could deviate from this pattern, there seems to be little to no design or construction information. I haven’t seen this book in person. One thing in the Amazon preview puts me off entirely. Steinkuhler says about contrast, “… you may not want any contrast in your quilt at all. There are no wrong answers here.” While wholecloth quilts can be very beautiful and interesting, they do have contrast in texture. And her book is on pieced medallion quilts, not whole cloth. What reason could there be for piecing a quilt with no contrast? I found this confusing.

The Modern Medallion Workbook by Janice Z. Ryan and Beth Vassalo, 2015
I don’t own this book but I’ve checked it out from the public library. Compiled by Ryan and Vassolo, it is a book featuring patterns by 11 designers including themselves. In addition, there are notes on basic quilt creation such as choosing fabrics, improving seam allowances, and cutting, which might be useful for beginning quilters. It is marketed as a “workbook,” as implied by the title. The premise is that the quilter can pick and choose favorite elements from the patterned designs, to customize a quilt to their taste. The workbook section does provide some helpful tips for this process. However, at only six pages, it really doesn’t cover either the design process or construction strategies in any depth. In the first printing, all three formulas given were stated incorrectly. All three said to multiply when the function should have been to divide, and one of the three had incorrectly stated order of operations. An experienced quilter might be able to suss that out, but a new quilter might be hopelessly confused. I won’t add this book to my personal library. For a more complete review, check the one written by Joanna the Snarky Quilter.

Quilter’s Academy Volume 5: Master’s Year by Harriet Hargrave and Carrie Hargrave, 2016
I wrote an extensive review of this new book when it came out in January. It was a big disappointment to me, for several reasons. The book is poorly formatted with at least three page layout styles; photos are murky; and all the quilts shown are in dull, muted colors. The content is marketed as a reference book and specifically not as a pattern book. Instead, it features patterns. The design reference section focuses on how to draw medallions on graph paper. The writing is confusing, both for basic text and pattern instructions. The authors’ tone is at least as off-putting as anything else. Please see my complete review for more detail.

Do you have any of these books? What do you think of them? What are your favorite medallion quilt books?

Untied, Unquilted

A few days ago I shared my new quilt top. It was buried deep inside another post, so you might have missed it.


Currently it is still a quilt top, unquilted. The name is “Untied.” This is a reference to both the African print that centers it, as well as to the freedom I felt in creating this piece. I did not measure anything, and no math was involved (beyond third grade skills, at least). I made things the size I wanted them without regard for the numbers. While I wouldn’t want to work this way on every quilt, I enjoyed it quite a bit for this one.

Step One — The Center 
I began with the African print, a fat quarter I purchased a year ago. You can see the two tan batik insets placed vertically through it. Inserting those accomplished two things. First, they allowed me to stagger the rope colors, so the orange did not line up with orange, nor blue with blue. Having the colors offset is more interesting to me than having them line up. Second, the print design broke between vertical columns of rope. While that may have been an intentional part of the design, I chose to hide it in seam allowance. The tan insets have a similar feel, and they match well with the gold and brown spider-webbing in the background of the fat quarter.

To insert the tan batik, I used Debbie Bowles’ curved piecing technique, described here. Once you’ve done it a couple of times, it’s incredibly simple. Having decided to use it on this piece, I didn’t hesitate because I was certain it would work well, and it did.

Once I finished inserting the batik, I squared up the center (made 90° corners, not made it square.)

Step Two — First Border
One of the considerations for a first border is whether to enclose the center or extend it. Diagonal lines tend to extend a center, which is one reason sawtooth borders work so well for a first border. Besides that, lines that are perpendicular to the edge extend the center. Lines that are parallel to the edge are like a hard frame and tend to close it in. My center has fairly strong vertical and horizontal lines. In addition, the pattern clearly runs off the edges of the fabric, and I wanted to maintain that effect. The border I chose does not frame the design, but extends it.

I knew I wanted to make irregular dogteeth borders for two sides. After pondering for a long time about method, this is how I did it:
1. Cut two strips of equal width and different colors.
2. Stack the strips with right sides UP for both strips. (Below both are solids, but right sides UP.) 
two strips
3. Cut with rotary cutter through in uneven diagonals. I didn’t use the ruler to cut.
cut through
4. Slide a purple kitchen cutting mat under them to transport to my machine.
picking up
5. Move EVERY OTHER top cut patch to a new line. Move the ALTERNATE EVERY OTHER bottom cut patch in line with them. Maintain the order in both lines.
6. Similar to curved piecing, match the patches up with right sides TOGETHER to stitch, maintaining scant 1/4″ seam allowance.
7. Press the strip.
8. Trim the strip to desired width.

The main benefit of this method was that I got the wonkiness I wanted but ended up with a straight strip. Even though I trimmed farther, that was easy because I was simply knocking off edges rather than trying to make adjustments for it getting way out of balance.

Now here is the part of the story that goes back to design rather than construction. I planned on these two dogteeth borders to be left and right. As soon as I attached the first one, in orange and tan, I knew it was in the wrong place. Nothing is sewn that can’t be unsewn! I unstitched. I had planned to use the brown sticks print as the top and bottom, but they became left and right.

I made the lower border of reddish print and tan triangles long enough, because I made it after deciding it would be a top/bottom border. However, the orange and tan set was too short, so I need to add more to it. I chose a yellowish solid rather than more tan. It brightens the corner and makes the whole line a little more interesting.

The narrow blue strip separating the center from the top and bottom dogteeth borders is a Marcia Derse print. It’s also the fabric in the last border. The stripey effect reminds me of the texture on a rope, as well as animal stripes or even a blue tiger maple.

Step Three — Second Border
This narrow solid teal strip is the same color as the teal rope. With its hard line, it serves as the enclosure to the center.

Step Four — Third Border
This border uses four different fabrics log-cabined around. The top and left are relatively narrow and muted. The right is a wild batik with a lot of distinct pattern and color, including oranges, teals, and blues. The bottom is one stripe of a two-stripe pattern from fabric sent by another blogger. Gwen the Textile Ranger sent me this lovely African print. Amazing, huh? When I started this project, I knew I would use a piece here. I chose to center the pyramids on the teal box, rather than on the whole length of border. This adds emphasis to the teal as a frame.

Step Five — Fourth Border
This was harder and stumped me for a while. First I added a narrow strip of a fabric that didn’t end up in the quilt. I liked it, but after contemplating what came after, I decided to remove it and was very glad I did!

This border had to be light to add some value contrast and allow the prior border to shimmer. At the same time, it had to have enough heft that it maintained the unity of the piece. Unity? By that I mean that nothing looks out of place, it all looks like part of a whole. If the border was light and wimpy, it wouldn’t stand up to the drama of the prior work.

I found a mottled creamy-tan print, with black spatters on it. It seemed close but not close enough to actually cut it. (I’m glad, as it will be greatly useful on some other project.) I looked through all my light stash multiple times, considering creams/tans and greens and anything else. Finally the fabric used for left and right landed in my hands at the right time. If you click on the photo at the top, it will open in a new tab. Then you may be able to enlarge to see the detail. The fabric looks like a jacquard but is actually just a print. I had less than a fat quarter and pieced it so my lengths were enough. I added the blue inset on the left side to extend the interior line of blue.

Though the border needed to be light, I also wanted to add color. The top and bottom includes the other colors using an improvised framing or sashing method. This was done all freehand and with scissors, unlike the dogteeth triangles described above. I never used scissors so much before! Can’t say I would switch, but it’s good to remember that they are an available tool, and appropriate for some use.

I attached the top and bottom with the same curved piecing method as before.

Step Six — Fifth Border
Final border. I wasn’t sure this would be the final, but as I looked at the center so far, and had the blue next to it on the design wall floor, it seemed to be the right punctuation.

I cut the blue across the width to capture the striping. Of course it was not quite enough length, so it was pieced to make the left/right edges. The top and bottom also were pieced. They were a little tougher to add, because of the curved piecing. In addition to the curves, the prior top and bottom had a fair amount of stretch and splay. Ultimately I got them on and then trimmed the whole to square it (made 90° corners, not made it square.) It’s not perfect and there is a little ruffle in the final top and bottom edges, but they’re workable.

Step Seven — Backing, Quilting, and Binding
It will finish at something like 43″ x 48″, though likely I’ll trim it once more when quilted. At that size, it’s best as a wall-hanging. I don’t need a fancy back so may use muslin. I don’t know how I will quilt this, but I’m considering at least some big-stitch hand-quilting. Binding will probably be a bright rusty orange, but teal is an alternative, too.

Thought Process and Stories Told
In my prior post, I pledged to share process more often. A lot of times I get wrapped up in a project and simply am not motivated to talk about it until I’ve a) completed a step where I know what I’m doing or b) figured out a step where I don’t know what I’m doing. That just means you get the full data dump when I’m done, like today. I don’t include the inspirations I have just as I’m drifting off to sleep. I don’t tell you about when or where I bought particular pieces, and what other quilts I’ve used them in. The stories you get may be true, but not complete and not always very interesting, no need to protect the innocent.

Even so, there is value to me in explaining, and I hope there is some value to you in the reading.

Thank you, as always, for taking the time to read my blog.

Playing with Color and Value Placement

Recently I showed you a block that uses the economy block as the center. It’s called “Union Square,” or “Contrary Wife Variation.”

Union Square block

I showed you two different versions of it. Here is the straight set with sashing.

Union Square straight set

Union Square or Contrary Wife variation, straight set with sashing.

What a difference it makes to remove the sashing. If you’re like me, your eye starts to focus on the dark shapes rather than on the blocks. In fact, you might start to see T blocks.

Union Square unsashed

Union Square unsashed

And one more change, putting some subtle color in the blocks’ corner patches. For me, this really blurs the block outlines.

Union Square unsashed 2

Union Square unsashed, with color/value variation

Now let’s try placing the values differently. Different colors, here, too.

Union Square unsashed 3

Union Square unsashed variation

Honest to Pete, it’s the same blocks. Putting the darkest value in the corners and their adjacent wedges takes the eye directly to them. In other words, the visual weight is where the dark values are. That is accentuated by using the pale yellow to create squares on point between the dark segments.

The lesson in this, if there is one, is that the way you see a pattern or design first is not the only way it can be done. Most of us are used to using our own preferred colors. But values can be placed differently, too. Experiment with designs to see how color and value placement changes the look.


If you’d like to see my other posts on economy blocks, the first post showed you how to make the economy block ANY SIZE with my tutorial and cheat sheet. The second showed you 17 different arrangements of the block with alternate blocks. They range from simple to fairly complex. The third is linked at the top of this post. It is on blocks that use the economy block as their center.