Tag Archives: Medallion Lessons

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.

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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!

Kim’s Bright Garden

It’s been a while since I’ve written, and I’ve missed reading a lot of your posts, too. But here I am, finally with a day unscheduled and more flexible. In some ways I feel like I’m finally coming up for air. Whew!

Today I’ll start with Kim’s Bright Garden, a quilt finished on March 31 and opened Monday by Kim, aka Son’s girlfriend.

I started this project late last year after imagining a border built from variable stars on point. The imagined border had a pale yellow background for the blocks, with blue or lavender setting triangles. The star centers would be pieced, and centers and points would be from chalky pastels. The feeling would be floral, though without actual flowers or floral fabric. However, after I made 16 star centers and cut much of the rest, I felt unfocused and uncertain. As it turns out, it’s often wiser to begin a medallion quilt with a medallion or central motif. The center creates context and direction for what comes after.

After that rough start, I refocused by choosing a center block design and fabrics. I chose first borders and middle borders. After extensive puzzling, I designed and made the final borders. In March I quilted it and bound it. The binding is the same saturated yellow as in the center block.

Kim’s Bright Garden. 71″ x 71″. Finished March 2017. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

Son has been traveling a lot for work. We finally had a chance to visit with Son and Kim Monday evening. After he unsealed the box, he handed it to her to open. She was very touched and pleased, to say the least. It was a good gift, made with love and received with generosity. 🙂

For Guild
Part of my busyness lately has been projects for guild. In the last few months I quilted 10 projects, two of which I did early this year. Each has required more prep work than I anticipated, so I’m putting more of these on hold for now.

Besides that I’m on the program committee, the guild’s group that sets up speakers and presentations for upcoming meetings. Currently we’re working on the 2018-19 year. It’s a big responsibility, as programs is where the majority of the annual budget goes, and we want to make sure members get their money’s worth. I’m newish on the committee and still learning the ropes. Fortunately, it’s a good group and I’m learning a lot.

We have a quilt show in early June, and I’m working on a couple of parts of the planning. The big contribution I hope to make is with a Powerpoint slideshow outlining the value of a quilt. Our show is held on the same weekend as the local (big, regional, juried) art fair, and many people attending won’t have quilting backgrounds. If my slideshow can explain what makes a quilt special, by the process and the value of time and materials, it might add to attendees’ appreciation of the quilts they see. And it might increase the bids they are willing to make on our silent auction offerings.

Besides the efforts for the benefit of the show, I’ve also worked on two quilts to enter. (It is non-judged, simply an exhibit to share the beauty of our work with others.) We’re having a special “red and white” exhibit and I’ve made two quilt tops for entry. Both still need to be quilted, bound, and labeled before our show.

More to come in the next few days, as I get back in the swing of writing some. Good to be here again! If you’re still reading, thanks so much!

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.

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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?