Gotta Love Medallion Quilts

This week I want us to take a look at an old quilt type called the Medallion Quilt.  For this blog (or next couple of blogs) will explore the history behind this quilt and why it’s still just as essential in today’s quilt world as it was in the 18th century.  We’ll also discuss how to make one of these and why it could be your saving grace when it comes to those panels you have absolutely no idea what to do with as well as how to incorporate   an orphan block you simply can’t throw away.

Before we go any further, we must first define what exactly is Medallion Quilt.  Quilting in America states:  In simplest terms, a medallion quilt is made of a central motif surrounded by multiple borders. The center and borders could be pieced, appliqued, or embroidered, in any number of combinations. 

This is a typical medallion quilt you might find in any of the current quilt magazines. 

The Medallion Quilt (which I’ll refer to as MQ from here on out) takes up a sizeable chunk of early American quilt history – which I will get into in a bit.  However, like most of us, it too was in immigrant.  The MQ concept was brought to America by settlers who crossed the Atlantic.  It was a popular quilt concept from the 1780’s through the early 1800’s.  It lingered, still popping up here and there until the mid-19th century when Americans turned to making quilts with rows of blocks much like we have today.  However, the MQ didn’t lose its popularity in Europe and Britain.  Quilt makers in those areas continued making Medallions well beyond the middle 1900’s. 

Chintz seamless pattern. Floral background. Indian Fabric with red and blue flowers

These early quilts were primarily made of Chintz.  Chintz is a fabric which is woodblock printed, painted, or stained.  It has a glaze over the top of the calico fabric and originated in Golconda in the 16th century. The cloth is printed with designs featuring flowers and other patterns in different colors, typically on a light, plain background (Wikipedia).  Chintz was used both in clothing and upholstery before some smart needlework person decided it would also look lovely in a quilt. 

And that idea spread like wildfire. 

The notion of using Chintz in quilts developed in such a rush that fabric manufacturers printed Chintz prints with special border fabrics to aid in the creation of these quilts.  Ruth Marler points out fabric manufacturers noted quilt makers wanted fabric for the multiple borders and, “Around 1790, prints on a dark background became fashionable and were often printed in strips ready for the quilt maker to cut out for borders.”  See – even way back then, they had cheater fabric.  Quite often a motif was cut from these Chintz prints and was appliqued on a block of plain fabric (a technique known as broderie perse).  This appliqued block served as the MQ center.  Additional prints from the Chintz could be cut out appliqued in the borders as well.  This broderie perse applique was dominant in Medallions until the late 1700s.

Broderie Perse Medallion Quilt

In addition to the use of Chintz prints, sometimes an interesting piece of fabric served as the Medallion center.  One of the most popular of these is the Tree of Life prints. 

Tree of Life Medallion Quilt

Baskets and Toiles were also used a great deal.  Some early fabric manufacturers specifically designed panels to be used in the center.  Sometimes parts of these panels were cut away and used in borders or in the corners.  Most of the surviving examples of this method are from my home state – North Carolina – as well as other southern seaboard states. Around the 1830s, Medallion construction shifted again and here’s when we see quilters begin to piece centers.  Quite often, this pieced center was made from a star block pattern, since those were some of the earliest pieced blocks.  Hexagon mosaic centers were also popular choices. 

You know what’s really neat?  We still use all three of these center construction methods today.  I think it’s simply marvelous that the more things change, the more they stay the same!  Today if you want to make a MQ, you can cut apart a print and use broderie perse, use a panel, applique, or piece your center – just like they did from the 1700s on.  Sure, fabrics have changed, and most certainly colors have, but the techniques have remained the same. 

Antique MQs are prized and they run the gamut from elaborate, carefully planned creations to the type we are more familiar with today.  Some of them are perfectly symmetrical with intricate piecing and/or applique to the informal and asymmetrical.  Most of the finer ones were probably made for formal or guest bedrooms and the others were for everyday use.  The rarest ones are medallion baby or doll quilts. 

Today, the majority of Medallions are square quilts.  It just seems the math part of the quilt is easier if the quilt is square.  Historically, this wasn’t so.  Medallions in the 1700s-1800s were rectangle because those quilts were bed quilts.  In the 20th and 21st century, not so much.  While current MQs do grace a great many beds, just as many are wall hangings.  Since those early quilts were destined for the bed, most of those MQs are rectangles and some even have the corners cut out so the quilt could fit on a four-poster bed. 

Medallions continued to be made through the end of the 19th century and then almost faded from quilters’ minds.  However, when America celebrated her bicentennial in the mid-1970s, the craft was revived.  These Colonial Revival quilts were not identical to their predecessors.  The centers were generally appliqued or embroidered and the borders were plain strips of fabric. 

Okay…that’s a brief history of MQs. Now let’s shift gears and think about this:  If you decided to make your own Medallion, what steps would you take complete its construction?  Where would you start?

If you guessed the center, you would be correct.  One of the great design features of MQs is its flexibility.  You can create the center as large or as small as you’d like.  I’ve seen Medallions with the center block as large as 28-inches square and as small as 8-inches square (in this case, the center was an antique handkerchief).  And just like the antique MQ, we have the options of piecing, appliqueing, or embroidering the center.  Don’t want to do either of those or you’re in a situation where you have a deadline with the quilt?  Pick a panel, like I did with my Fish Almighty! Quilt.  Its center was cut from the largest block of a panel.  The final technique choice is up to you and how you want the center to look.

The second step is designing the borders.  And while the centers of Medallions are exquisite, the borders aren’t exactly shabby.  Medallions can have multiple borders, and their construction is just as amazing as the centers.  Borders have the same creative options as centers – they can be pieced, appliqued, or appliqued and pieced.  They can even be strips of plain fabric.  This isn’t my favorite way to make borders, but sometimes you need a plain strip of fabric to calm down the piecing or a narrow strip of plain fabric to add length and width so the quilt will “math” out easier.  These narrow strips are called “floaters.” 

Analyzing a MQ borders isn’t really hard.  For certain, the borders can appear complicated and intimidating, but in reality, most of them are made from the most well-known quilt blocks and units – nine patch, four patch, half-square triangles, quarter-square triangles, and flying geese.  It’s how these are placed  around the center square which makes the quilt look harder than it is. 

So, it all sounds sort of easy, doesn’t it?  Make a center, make some borders and join everything together.  Those are the steps, but there’s significant planning behind any Medallion.  And I do think every quilter should be able to design and make a Medallion without a pattern.  I also know what some of you are thinking, “If there are perfectly good Medallion Quilt patterns out there, why in the world do I need to make my own?”  Glad you asked.

  1.  Panels

There are some beautiful fabric panels out there in the quilt marketplace.  Really, really pretty ones.  And they deserve so much more than plain strips of fabric sewn around them.  I mean, if you use a panel as your Medallion center, half your work is already done!  You have the time to make those borders just as beautiful as the panel.

  •  Orphan Blocks

We all have these, be it one or two or a half a dozen.  Small blocks can always be sewn into a table topper or a table runner.  But if you have a large orphan block, it can serve as the center of your quilt. 

  •  Technique

Constructing a MQ improves your basic techniques.  Do your HSTs always come out a little wonky?  Use them in your Medallion.  Nothing like constructing a couple of hundred HSTs to improve your technique.  If your quarter-square triangles, flying geese, four or nine patches need a little polish, you can practice them (sometimes by the hundreds) with a Medallion.  In the end, not only will your techniques be hundreds of times better than they were before you started, but you’ll also have a very impressive quilt to show for your work. 

  •  Dissection

I’m not talking about the type of dissection we used to do in high school biology class years and years ago (do they even dissect now?).  In this sense of the world, I’m discussing quilt dissection. Putting a quilt together on your own, without a pattern, not only stretches you as a quilter, but it also gives you to tools to take a quilt apart.  Not literally, of course, but with your eyes.  When you can recognize basic units and border treatments, you’ll be able to look at almost any quilt and know how the quilter constructed it.  You’ll know which quilts took huge amounts of expertise and which quilts are easier.  And be able to reproduce it if you so desire.  Or better yet, improve on it. 

One additional technique which will improve with the construction of a Medallion is your quilt math.  In past blogs, I’ve given you lots of formulas – the Golden Ratio, Quilter’s Cake, half-square and quarter-square unit formulas, even flying geese ratios.  I wish I could hand off a solid MQ formula right now.  But I can’t, because there isn’t one.  The wonderfully, creative, freeing element of the Medallion is its appearance is completely up to you.  You’re in control of how large you want the center square, how big you want the finished quilt, and how wide you want the borders.  You’ve got to figure out what size borders and border blocks will work, or if floaters will make everything come out even.  That may sound intimidating or too hard to handle, but it’s really not.  It’s 90 parts basic math, five parts common sense, and five parts deciding what will look good.  If you can multiply and divide (or have a calculator that can), you’ll be good to go.  Trust me.

I also don’t use my EQ 8 to design my MQs.  Nope.  I find that good, ol’ graph paper works best.  It’s just a lot easier to erase pencil marks on graph paper than lines on a computer program.  Medallions the only quilt I still design on paper, but this is one time I don’t find a computer extremely helpful.  I will turn to EQ if I need to re-size blocks, but all my design work is completed on graph paper. 

As you begin working on your MQ, there are a few questions you may want to ask as you plan your design:

Do you want an abstract or representative quilt?

Do you want it pictorial or geometric?

Do you want to showcase a piece of fabric or embroidery?

Are you celebrating a theme or event?

What about your colors?  Are they muted and serene or bright and energetic?

What kind of style do you want (to me this is the most important question)?  Do you want casual or formal?  Elegant or whimsical?

What is the quilt’s purpose?  Will it be a bed quilt or wall hanging?  Miniature or small?

What are your constraints?  How does time, size, shape, and detail affect your design?

Usually, designing the center is the first step.  If you’re using an orphan block or a panel, congratulations – your center is complete, and you can begin planning your borders.  However, if it’s not, now’s the time to consider what you want your quilt to look like.  In the past, star blocks were used as the center:

Eventually the Star of Bethlehem became a popular choice. 

Then there’s always applique. And the great thing about applique centers is they can appear to be oval (even though they’re really not). 

However you chose to make your center square and no matter how big (or small) it is, there are five design elements to keep in mind as you work through the process.

  1.  The center square is the focus of the quilt
  2. The center square establishes the theme and the color scheme.
  3. The center square introduces forms and/or ideas which may be repeated in the orders.
  4. The center square sets the style for your quilt – elegant or whimsical, formal or informal, traditional or contemporary.
  5. The center square should be strong enough to merit the border treatment.

The fifth design element needs a little explaining.  Balance is needed in all quilts – from color choices to quilting.  With MQs, the balance depends on how you make the center square.  For instance, if you make the center something like this:

And then proceed to have all the borders in dark colors and heavily pieced, the visual effect is off balance.  The applique is open, airy, and delicate.  The borders would need to “breathe” – have more negative space to rest the eyes – as well as not overpower the center. The borders could be pieced or appliqued, or a combination of both, as long as they don’t overpower the middle square.  However, if the center is something like this:

Then the borders can be heavily pieced, or pieced and appliqued.  Some negative space is needed (because you always need somewhere to pause), but large, open areas of plain fabric may not look right or balanced.  This is where that graph paper comes in handy.   Draw your center square in the middle and then begin planning your borders around it.  Trust your instincts and your eyes.  Play with the drawing until you’re happy.  It’s always easier to erase lines than it is to take apart blocks!  Above all, realize each border serves to enhance the center.  Strong colors, impressive patterns, or elaborate detail will give your center panel the weight to carry the design. 

Once you’ve decided on the center, now it’s time to plan the borders.  This is the point I wish I could give you a formula to use to figure how to proportion your quilt.  However, this equation doesn’t exist.  You’ll take your initial cues from your center block – does your quilt need more negative space or will you need to plan on a more elaborate setting?  If your center is large itself, you probably won’t need as many borders, such as with this MQ to the one I made the grand darlings for Christmas.

The center Minnie and Mickey are large.  I only needed a few borders to make the quilt big enough for them to cuddle under.  How many borders you use is a personal decision.  However, just like with the center square, there are a few design elements to keep in mind. 

  1.  Use a variety of border widths.  Using different widths makes your quilt more visually appealing.
  2. Change the color intensity from one border to the next.  If one border uses a lot of different color fabrics, don’t be afraid to use a solid color between that border and the next one.  This gives the eyes a break before taking in the next border.  Plus, it showcases the busier border.  If a border with lots of colors is placed next to another busy border, the eye doesn’t know where to look and it actually detracts from the quilt.
  3. Mix techniques.  Just like varying the border widths gives more visual appeal, the same goes for mixing techniques.  Don’t be afraid to mix applique, piecing, and fancy quilting.  Be bold.  Be daring.  Your quilt will benefit.
  4. Repeat the same colors used in the center.  This adds continuity to the quilt. 
  5. Use the same design elements in the borders as you did the center.  Again, this is another way to add continuity to your quilt. 
  6. Keep the borders as symmetrical as possible.  This helps the corners flow and turn. 

Everything I’ve written so far is not only my consensus about Medallions, but I’ve read and heard other quilters talk about these very same factors.  However, at this point, I want to throw in a few things I’ve learned from my experiences.  These are truly “Sherri” thoughts.  Take them with a grain of salt.  You experiences will (and should) vary from mine.

First, I think square medallions are easier to “math” out than rectangular ones.  Maybe this is just me, or maybe there is some truth to this, but I have less issues with square MQs than rectangular ones.  Does this stop me from making Medallion bed quilts? No. Not at all.  But I know going into such a project I will have to spend more time on a rectangular medallion than a square one.  For instance, let’s say I’m working with a 24-inch square center.  Twenty-four is easily divisible by 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, and 12.  I can add varying border widths, block sizes,  and techniques around this center square and make a beautiful quilt with relative ease.

However….what if I’m working with a center square which is 12-inches by 18-inches?  Right off the bat, I will be completely honest and tell you I would design two side borders, each 3-inches to sew onto both sides of the MQ center to bring it to 18-inches square.  But, if the quilt is destined for a bed, a square quilt doesn’t always work well (except for queen-sized beds – square quilts work for those).  What numbers divide both into 12 and 18?  Two, three and six.  If I plan to piece the borders for the 12-inch by 18-inch center, initially I’m limited with the size blocks I can piece for the borders.  Eventually floaters can be added to allow for more options, but the choice of block sizes for the first border(s) can be far fewer for a rectangle center than a square one.  Not always, but this holds true for a good bit of the time.   Let me also add, this is a great place to pull out the graph paper and calculator and get really creative. 

Second, if floaters will figure into my Medallion, I try to find a border print with some narrow strips, such as this:

If I can find a border fabric which works with my color scheme, using those narrow strips as floaters just really adds some zing to the quilt.  Border prints can do a lot of the “heavy lifting” for you with a MQ without making you work any harder.

Third, I’m not afraid to let the purpose of the Medallion dictate the size.  The most recent personal example is the Fish Almighty! Quilt I made Bill for Christmas.  If you look at that quilt from a proportional view, there are too many borders and they’re really too large (especially the last one).  However, the purpose of this quilt was to lay on the back of the couch in his den.  He pulls it down to cover up when he wants to take a nap or watch TV.    It wasn’t meant to go on a wall or to enter in a quilt show.  It was made to keep him warm.  It’s the perfect size for the purpose it’s intended. 

With all of this, I hope you’ll seriously consider making a Medallion Quilt.  If you’re hesitant about your own design skills, use a pattern to make your first one.  Then try designing your own.  These quilts will help you master techniques, get comfortable with quilt math, and help you down the path to designing your own quilts.  In addition, they give you enough quilty tools to look at another quilt and know how it was constructed. 

Until next week, Quilt on!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

2 replies on “Gotta Love Medallion Quilts”

As always, you have shared your knowledge on an interesting topic. You have inspired me to make a MQ of my own design. It has been on my bucket list but I needed a little nudge. I look forward to each and every post. Love the photos you share of Sam.

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