Tag Archives: Line

Lessons: Medallion Center Block Considerations

If you’re just beginning a medallion, you may already have a center block in mind. Perhaps there is an old traditional block you’ve always wanted to try, like a feathered star. Or maybe a modern log cabin setting has you excited. Did you receive a beautiful block in a swap but not figured out how to use it? If you’d like some other ideas, see my post A Center Block for a Medallion Quilt.

Here are a few considerations as you begin. First, the center is the focal point of the quilt. It does not need to be spectacular to serve that purpose, but it does need to be eye-catching. Many of my centers are fairly ordinary blocks such as variable stars, Ohio stars, or churndash variations. Bold is more important than fancy.

Second, the block should be sized appropriately for your goal. In general, you may want the center to be a quarter to half the width of the finished quilt. If it isn’t, there are ways to enlarge it while retaining the flavor of the block. I discussed size in Lessons: Starting a Medallion Quilt and in Proportion, Part 1.

Third, it’s very helpful if the block has good variations in color and/or value. I once made a block that had three main colors, teal, salmon, and red. All three had small prints with colors that were hard to pick out. All three were similar value. It was very difficult to find ways to expand the range and make it interesting.

Oh my! All the same value, and hard to pick out more colors…

As you look at the block above, you might note a fourth factor: shape. All the discernible shapes are squares, though in truth the red patches are non-square rectangles. Even the shapes aren’t interesting here. The diagonal lines created by the salmon squares is the only thing that saves this from being completely weird/ugly/disastrous. Well, it is those, but I rescued it…

Sparkle. 48″ square. Finished January 2014.

The shapes are important not just for how interesting the center is. The shapes also play into the fifth factor. Is the center block enclosed or expansive? Lines that direct the eye outward tend to make the block expansive. Diagonal lines tend to do this but aren’t the only way. Triangles and star shapes often create natural movement outward. In the block above, other than the salmon squares, there is no line that directs the eye beyond the block itself, and they don’t do a very good job of it. I would call that block enclosed.

Here are a couple more examples.


I Found the Housework Fairy But She’s Not Coming Back. 35″ square. June 2015. Photo by Jim Ruebush.


The Big Block Quilt. 84″ square. February 2016. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

In the Fairy, the center block is enclosed. Though we can imagine the scene extends beyond the frame, we really are called to look inward to the fairy herself, not outward. In the Big Block Quilt, the center is expansive. The outward-pointing flying geese, set in slightly paler gold for emphasis, literally radiate from the center.

Neither one is better ultimately. It is just a design aspect to understand for how it fits into your whole quilt. If your center is expansive, at some point you may need to contain it, as the first broad strip border does for the Big Block. If your center is enclosed, you might want to find a way to direct attention outward and provide some sense of movement. In Sparkle, above, the borders including the large red triangles serve that purpose.

Blocks set on point are expansive naturally, because of the long diagonal lines created. Look at the difference between this

and this.

The top one is more neutral than either expansive or enclosed. Though the brown triangles of this churndash block provide some visual movement, it is largely stopped by the blue and gold print at the center edges. Once it is turned on point, the strong blue diagonal lines push the eye to the outer edges of the block, where the brown unpieced border stops it again. This example has fancy corners added, but there’s no need to do extra piecing in the setting corners. See my post on when to set your block on point.

Finally, the examples here all show square centers. While they are easier, perhaps, there is no reason not to use a non-square rectangle. Some of my favorite quilts have non-square centers.

All of this makes it sound like choosing a center block is very complex. In fact it’s not. How should you choose a center block? Just pick something fun, or beautiful, or the right colors, or sentimental. As you saw with my weird/ugly/disastrous block above, there is no wrong block. They all can work.

Next comes borders. They all support the center and each other, but first borders have a little different role than last borders. And look for more Medallion Lessons here


EXPERIMENT. My focus word of 2014.

It’s tempting to think of experimentation as an improvisational creative process. Just try it! See what happens! In fact, no, in both hard science and social sciences, experiments are set up with great care and planning. Scientists define the question, determine what variables might impact the outcome, decide which variables to control and which to change, and carefully observe the outcomes.

In quilting an easy example is creating a number of sample pieces of free-motion quilting. Start with the same backing and top fabric, the same batting, and the same stitching design. Then try different threads. Observe the different looks of the stitching you’ve done.

Another example: in EQ7 or another design program, you might draw several variations of a border, using the same center design and color scheme. Changing just the border piecing, you are experimenting with the final look of the quilt.

For artists, working in series gives similar benefits as more structured scientific experimentation. Though I didn’t intend it as an experiment, I guess that’s what I’m doing with all the medallion quilts. It’s true that each one I do teaches me more about the format and how to design for it. For instance, one Medallion Sew-Along sample I’m working on now began with a center block of three main colors. Peach, red, and teal.

Backed myself into a corner on this one!

Though the peach and red both have more colors in their prints, the three colors dominate. Besides that, they are similar in value, as the peach reads as a medium rather than a light. I really constrained myself with that center block and needed to find ways to bring more color and more contrast into the quilt. Though I’m happy with its direction now, (after experimenting with different solutions,) in the future I’ll try to vary medallion centers more, to give myself more options.

Working in series is one way to experiment. Practice is another. Practice for the sake of improvement is simply experimenting with different technique or position or supplies. You test over and over, seeing what works best for you. And once you’ve found it, you try to repeat it, to verify and solidify the results.

That said, I also like the more casual notion of experimenting. Just try it! See what happens! And here is where I sometimes let fear stop me. At my best, I go ahead. After all, what’s the worst that would happen? Quilting isn’t brain surgery. No one will die if I mess up.

Still, I’m a structured gal. I know for me, I’ll do best with a list. What do I want to try? Why?

Here are a few things on that list, not particularly well-defined and in no particular order:

  • multi-size block quilt
  • using Shiva Paintstiks to transform fabric
  • long-arm quilting designs — practice/experiment
  • art quilt of shapes (Matisse inspired?)
  • art quilt featuring words (EAT/hunger-related)
  • landscape quilt of Irish rowhouses along river
  • landscape quilt of cityscape
  • quilt portraying boulder
  • quilt portraying snake

Looks like most of my intentions to experiment are to change the way I use shapes on fabric, breaking out of pure geometric formats. Even making a block quilt from many sizes of blocks breaks the linear boundary, beyond what I’ve done in the past.

What do I need to break free from? What constraints keep me confined to the linear, symmetrical structure? Nothing needs to. More to ponder…

Learning Quilt Design from “What Not to Wear”

Color, Texture, Pattern, Shine — these are the foundation of wardrobe design on TLC’S What Not to Wear, a wardrobe/life make-over show that ran for ten years. Hosts Stacy London and Clinton Kelly emphasized these, as well as shape, proportion, fit, and appropriateness.

Last Monday while I worked out, I watched a re-run. It occurred to me that quilt design follows many of the same principles as wardrobe design.

Using color, texture, pattern, and shine are simply ways to create contrast and visual interest. Stacy and Clinton pair color with neutrals, for example showing a chartreuse print top with taupe slacks. For accent they might add teal shoes and a textured mustard-colored purse. To add sparkle, a bangle bracelet and dangling necklace. They repeatedly insist that colors don’t have to match, they just have to “go.”

How is this like quilt design? Colors in quilts don’t have to match, and in fact often work better if they don’t quite match. But using strong color with neutrals is the best way to highlight the colors.

The rerun showed a woman who enjoyed dressing in rainbow colors and cow prints. One “before” outfit showed her in rainbow-striped tights and sweater, with bright red corduroy jeans, rolled to the knee. I read a blog post elsewhere recently criticizing “scrap vomit” quilts that feature scores of colors, all the same in size, intensity and value. (Look up the term — I didn’t make it up!) The blogger reasonably commented on the visual confusion that occurs. This is the same effect given by the make-over participant in her clownish rainbow togs.

As she moved through the make-over process, she learned about fit, proportion, and appropriateness. You can have a great outfit in other regards, but if the fit and proportions aren’t right, it won’t look great.

In quilt design, we could compare this to using shape, size, proportion, and balance. Consider a basic block-style quilt with an unpieced border. We can add any size border at all, right? It could be 3″ wide or 30″ wide. And like Goldilocks, we might assess one extreme as too small, and the other extreme as too big. They are out of proportion and out of balance. Somewhere in the middle is the width that is just right! Just right will depend on the total width of the center, as well as the block size, and possibly the size of units in the block.

Color, texture, pattern, shine, shape, proportion, fit, and appropriateness… What about appropriateness? When we design quilts, choosing patterns and fabrics, we choose partly based on appropriateness. We rarely make a baby quilt as a wedding present; if we do, it’s either because a baby is due or we have a poor notion of good taste. In this culture we rarely choose pinks and flowers for a little boy’s quilt, or trucks and footballs for a little girl’s.

Fit? Large quilts are for big beds. Table runners are for tables. I made a table runner a few years ago for a friend. Her home was in the midst of renovation; her kitchen was going to be substantially larger than before. Her kitchen table, without leaves, would be nearly eight feet long. Her table runner, to fit and to look proportional, needed to be large. It was about 76″ long, much too large for a typical kitchen table, but perfect for hers.

You can learn design principles from so many sources. Television shows on decorating or even cooking, blog posts on photography, books about writing, stops at museums or hikes in the wilderness. All have much to offer. Be open. Absorb the lessons around you. Think about how to incorporate what you see into what you quilt. Your work will be richer for it.

Design Process — Irish Inspiration

Color, shape, line, value, texture. Unity/harmony, variety, balance/proportion, repetition/rhythm. Elements of design.

We can find inspiration by how the elements are used all around us. Engage ALL of your senses to detect them. When you eat a wonderful meal, you use taste, smell, touch, hearing, sight. You note the textures of the food and how they contrast. You see the items on the dish, how they are arrayed and relate to each other. The scents and tastes of each bite contrast and complement each other. You may note too much of one flavor — it is out of balance.

When you look for quilting inspiration, you might use a wonderful meal. See the beautiful photography on my friend Angie’s blog, The Novice Gardener. Who wouldn’t be inspired by the appearance and descriptions of her creations?

Or you might use a vacation. I was “thumbing” through some photos of a trip Jim and I took in 2011 to Ireland. Here’s a little inspiration from that trip. All photos by Jim Ruebush.

Where do you find inspiration? I’d love to hear about it.

Medallion Sew-Along #6 — Two Tops Done

Welcome to Catbird Quilt Studio’s Medallion Sew-Along! You’re not too late to join the fun. Parts 1 through 5 of the Sew-Along describe choosing the center block and four border sets. These and other resources can be found under the Medallion Sew-Along tab.

Now the instructions are all posted as linked above, and continuing blog posts will show you my progress. I’d love to hear about your medallion quilts, too. Drop a comment, give us a link. Show and Tell is always the most fun.

When beginning this adventure, I started with nine center blocks. Six of them were Track 1, using a 15″ center and following directions for border widths. Three were Track 2, more free-form. In truth, I might not finish them all. But I’ll show you progress I make along the way.

Today’s progress report is on two tops that are completed. Both followed Track 1.

The first one used the center block I showed you in Make a Block with Me. Well, in truth it was a minor variation of that block, because it was the third or fourth one I made, and I was bored with it by then.

15″ center block. This photo shows the colors most accurately.

Block turned on point, and then framed to 24″

4″ border added

At this point, it languished on my “design floor” for two or three weeks. I loved the spikes of green but wasn’t happy with their background color. It’s a pale gold background with very fine red print on it. Of course gold and red are colors here, but it shows as pinkish from a distance, not at all what I intended. Besides that, I just couldn’t decide what to do next.

Finally I framed it with a narrow border of poison green. Then I was stuck again.

I wanted to use the cream with green circles again, and the wonderful red print in the very center. With just small scraps of the red, I had to get creative. I pieced patches together from scraps. I like the way the squares on point form a bead necklace around. Another thing that works for me, considering the size, is framing it very simply as the last border. If the top were going to be much bigger, another pieced border would be better. As it is, the top finishes at 52″.

The 2″ poison green border with gold corner blocks was followed by the red beads on a pale background, repeating fabrics from the center. The final border is another 2″ green strip, this time with red corner blocks. Finished size is 52″.

The second top began its life as a bursting star.

Another 15″ center block. I didn’t like the center patch — too pink, so I changed it.

Note the different center patch. First border set added 1.5″ blue and oranges on angle, and then the 3″ blue stars. Second border set added a checkerboard of oranges and navies. All the navy fabrics have stars.

I changed the center patch again! Third border set was 2″ of blue followed by 6″ friendship star blocks. Final border set repeated the orange and blue checkerboard, framed by navy to contain all those stars!

I’ve named this quilt “Oh My Stars!” It finishes at 60″. In my opinion, it’s kind of an odd quilt. It’s brilliant to look at with the stark color contrasts. It’s also a little different for me, in that it really only uses two colors. That said, I really like it!


Next week I’ll post another progress report. I’m working on a third top using the 15″ center. This quilt will be LARGE and a little more complex than the first two.

Until then, I’ll look forward to hearing from you. Any questions, comments, great ideas, news about progress, you’re always welcome to stop by and share.