A mystery quilt is just that -- a mystery. You do not know at the beginning what the quilt top will look like except for the amount of fabric needed and the finished size. Yet a mystery quilt can be a great project and a good way to spend a day with other quilters for stitching fun.
A mystery may be done with a small group of three quilters who get together and agree to do a project or it could be done with a very large group at a large facility working on the same project at the same time.
My first mystery was done with three people participating. We all purchased the pattern for a small wall quilt and worked independently on the mystery with only a date for finishing our tops. It was OK to talk about progress of what step we were currently working on but if we were on step four and another participant was only on step three we did not reveal specifically what we were sewing. At the end of the agreed time we met and had show and tell and shared our thoughts and experiences. One quilter did not follow the guidelines for value of fabric and placement and some of her fabrics did not have quite enough contrast. The other two wall quilts turned out well and everyone had a good time.
The second mystery was another from the same designer. It was a two color quilt and was done in a group setting of a dozen or more quilters. We had fun talking, laughing, eating, and sewing and everyone finished with a twin-size quilt top.
The third mystery was an online mystery that I chose because I was familiar with that designers work. Most of her patterns were tutorials and knew that I would learn some new techniques from making this quilt top. I worked on mystery independently. I downloaded and printed the weekly instructions and was able to keep up with the schedule outlined by the designer on her website. I learned some new techniques and had a very nice quilt top.
All the mysteries were fun to do. I learned new techniques and had fun working with my group of quilting friends.
How A Mystery Works
When you participate in a mystery quilt you will be given a clue or small portion of the instructions at one time and when that section is completed you will be given another clue or small portion of the instructions. As each section is completed you still don't know what the blocks look like, or what the final setting is, or what the final quilt top will look like. A good mystery quilt pattern will keep you guessing right up to the last clue.
Individual mystery patterns may be packaged so each instruction is sealed in a small envelope. When you complete instructions in one envelope you may then open the envelope and continue with the next step. Some online mysteries are held for a specific day such as a holiday and encourage you to come back every hour to receive your new instructions.
Mystery quilt patterns are available commercially in books and as individual patterns. They are also available for purchase online either as a pattern that is mailed or a download. There are also free mystery quilt patterns available online.
Be cautious about free mystery quilt patterns. Like any quilt patterns offered online there are patterns that are well written and of good design and there are patterns that are not. If you find a free mystery quilt pattern from a designer you know and trust or from a website you frequent and know the quality of their free patterns you should be satisfied with the finished mystery quilt top. Otherwise choose one or two people to be the mystery facilitators. They will need to look at books, patterns, and online very carefully and look ahead to the last step for a photo of the finished quilt top in order to see if the quilt top is a good design. They will know what the finished quilt top will look like and be able to better choose one to meet the needs of your group.
Mystery patterns like any quilt will require as little as two different fabrics, or they could require three to five fabrics. Some mystery quilt patterns require more then twenty different fabrics. If your group is happier working with fewer fabrics choose a pattern accordingly.
There are mystery patterns for full size quilts, baby quilts, and as small as a table runner or table center. Maybe your first mystery project could be a baby quilt or smaller so your investment of time and fabric won't be too great if you are not pleased with your finished quilt top.
Your first clue is usually a shopping list. This will give you the fabric amounts and tell you if any special tools are necessary. Usually only a rotary cutter, mat and ruler are all that is required. Most mystery quilt patterns allow for a little extra fabric needed for straightening the edges before cutting and cutting errors.
Ideas for hosting a mystery for your quilt group
Decide if your mystery will be with a small group that works independently at home or if you will gather in a large hall and do the mystery together for a day of stitching. Or try for an all night mystery quilt.
If you will be getting together for social stitching, be sure to provide food -- order pizza or other take-out, or simply have each participant bring a dish to pass. Disposable table service is a good idea for easy cleanup. Provide soft drinks and ice water.
Ask a quilter that doesn't want to sew if she is willing to simply press and rip. Some want to come and join the fun but don't really want to sew and they could participate in this way. Purchase an extra pattern to reward this person at the end of the day.
Not everyone will complete their mystery quilt in the time allowed. There will always be some who finish first and others who plod along and some who simply do not finish on mystery day. Usually those who don't finish are perfectionists and they aren't going to enjoy having a speed stitcher help them catch up!
It is better to have those who stitch at a slower pace to piece only half of the quilt during class. It is better to do half of the quilt and finish all steps than to do all the work on only half the steps. If they do all the steps they will have the knowledge and skills to finish at home later.
Copyright laws for patterns
If you are hosting a mystery quilt, each participant must purchase her own copy of the mystery pattern. This is in accordance with copyright laws. Some shops may purchase a license that allows them to furnish copies of a pattern to their customers but that license is not the same for guilds or smaller groups of quilters.
Some online downloads give permission to use the pattern for your guild or to publish in your newsletter and some of them require that you ask permission first. Be sure that you have the copyright issues taken care of before you copy and distribute patterns. When in doubt about copyright issues -- ask first. It is better to ask and be turned down than to face prosecution and fines later.
If you aren't entirely satisfied with your quilt top in design or fabric placement a finished mystery quilt could be donated to a charity. On the other hand a mystery quilt that did not take a large fabric commitment or time commitment would be an excellent learning tool for a perfectionist type. This quilter would have to "let go" and follow the flow of the mystery instructions and may learn a something in the process. She may learn that not knowing the outcome of a particular quilt may be better for design decisions than to always know the outcome and have it graphed out and color coded on paper.
A mystery quilt would be a great learning experience for everyone.