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Quilting Resources from Debbie Caffrey

How to Host a Mystery

I'll bet most of you have heard of mystery quilts in one format or another. Well, just like parties, the possibilities are endless! Here are just some of the options for hosting your mystery.

  • Assessing the Situation
    • What's the occasion?
      • Class
      • Retreat or tour/cruise
      • Home party
      • Shop incentive
      • Contest (Service quilts, team competition)
    • Is there a theme?
      • Mystery meal or potluck
      • Holiday or community event
      • Exchange- fabric or block
    • How much time do you have?
    • What facility is available?
    • How many quilters will participate?
    • Is this a first time mystery or an experienced group?

  • Choosing the Pattern
    • No fail fabric selection
    • Basic machine piecing and rotary cutting
    • Size of quilt
    • Participants' skill levels
    • Type of quilt or its setting
    • Techniques

  • Pulling it Off!
    • Prior to class
      • Make a model to be shown at the end of the mystery.
      • Write detailed instructions with good sketches.
      • Provide detailed supply list.
      • Provide precutting instructions.
      • Cut instructions into individual steps and package.
    • During Class
      • Inform the quilters that no question is a stupid question!
      • Have a designated ripper & presser. (That's probably you!)
      • Let quilters progress at their own pace, or decide to keep them together.
      • Keep watch over the slower quilters, helping them to keep up.

Now to expand on the ideas I've presented…

Assessing the Situation

What's the occasion?
Most of you are familiar with mystery classes, and many have taken part in a mystery. Retreats, classes, and monthly installments in magazines are some of the more popular places to find them. Consider these, as well as other options.

First, what if you are on a longer retreat or tour which lasts for a week? Wouldn't it be fun to do one step a day and have a show and tell at the end of the tour? Maybe there would be more than one mystery going at a time. Even if you are on a weekend retreat, you could get a step at each meal and work on the mystery around your other workshops.

While Tupperware, Mary Kay, Pampered Chef, etc., have their merits, why not host a new kind of home party? Many quilters are members of small quilt-go-round groups, and this would be a fun change of pace.

You've seen the six part mysteries that have been offered in the quilt magazines. Why not do one in your shop? Give away one step per month. Offer prizes for the first one done of viewer's choice.

Add an element of fun to making service quilts by doing them as mysteries and competitions. Place quilters on teams and require the quilts be finished. Give prizes to the winning team members! Many pattern and book publishers, fabric representatives, and shop owners are very willing to donate prizes.

What's the theme?
My most popular classes, by far, have been those where I cook for the participants. Everyone loves to have someone else do the cooking, and I keep the menu part of the mystery, too. Be prepared to share your recipes. Potluck is another option. For some reason, food and quilting go very well together!

Holidays are always popular for quilting themes. A cookie and recipe exchange would go well with a Christmas theme. What about exchanging recipes for using turkey leftovers at a fall mystery class scheduled in early November. I can see your wheels turning!

Fabric exchanges for scrappy mysteries are fun. For example, have each student cut pieces from six or eight fabrics, and divide them into enough groups to give one group to each student. You tell them how many groups, containing how many pieces, and what sizes. Have them cut more fabrics than needed. That way they'll have choices of fabrics, or maybe they'll make a larger quilt. IMPORTANT: Give them specific rules for the fabric exchange! Such rules should be: quality 100% cotton; prewashed & pressed; precut; and anything else that is important to the quilt's success (for example, solids (yes or no)?), and tell them the success of everyone's quilt depends upon their contribution! I often make a poster displaying the fabrics I'll be contributing to the trade. This gives them an idea of what is expected. Insist that the pieces be precut! I've had great success when the rules are specifically stated. Trading finished blocks is another possibility.

Time, facility, skill level, etc.
Evaluate these remaining topics. Knowing your participants will be very important for choosing just the right mystery.

Choosing the Pattern

No fail fabric selection is important to your mystery quilters' success! One of the most exciting things about mystery classes is the wonderful array of fabric combinations that quilters use. There is no model or pattern to imprint an idea as to the "right" fabrics. Even so, quilters need some guidance in fabric selection. Fewer fabrics, and tips, such as contrast, main print, tone on tone, accent (used in small amounts), etc. are essential to the success of the mystery. Don't expect your quilters to be able to select a light, medium light, medium dark, dark, and very dark of four color groups! Something better would be a main print, two accent fabrics, and a background that contrasts with all three.

Select a size of quilt that can be accomplished within the time and skill level you have available. If mysteries are new to your audience, I suggest you do one that requires only a few yards of fabric, therefore, the investment of money and time is smaller for the skeptics who are less willing to buy a "pick in a poke".

If you've never offered mysteries before, any technique will be a surprise. The challenge comes when you've done dozens, and many of the participants have been in most of your classes! Mix it up! Don't use set in pieces or curves. Vary the type of quilt and its setting. Some suggestions are: blocks, crosspatch, medallion, on point, straight set, alternate plain blocks, etc. Likewise, vary the techniques. We all have favorites, but if you use the same technique every time, they're bound to catch on! Throw in an occasional template, but make it easy. It should be used to trip squares, rectangles, or strips that were cut prior to class.

Pulling it Off!

Prior to class
Until now you've been brainstorming, designing, and imagining every quilt you see as a potential mystery quilt. It's time to put those hours of work into action. Outline and sketch your instructions. Look at them one at a time, masking off the others. What do you think? Remember, it won't look nearly as "mysterious" to you. You already know the solution.

If you like what you see, make a model, taking good notes as you do. Write detailed instructions with great sketches.

Provide a detailed supply list and cutting instructions so the quilters will be ready to sew when the mystery begins. Your supply list should give a list of tools, required and optional, yardage, and guidelines for fabric selection. Cutting instructions should be fairly complete for a one session class, but may be spread out over the course of the mystery for those lasting more than one session.

Copy and divide the instructions into steps. Mix them up. Keep them as mysterious an order as possible. Try to put the most difficult step first to allow for a demonstration. Whenever possible, stagger the steps to avoid bottlenecks at the ironing board. Arrange the steps so that the quilters can go on to the next step without pressing the current one.

You're ready for the party to begin! Don't tell anyone what the mystery quilt is! It's bound to slip out!

During Class
Greet your quilters. Make those who are new to your classes feel at home. Inform them that no question is a stupid question, since they have no idea what it is supposed to look like. Tell them to ask you and not their neighbors! They don't know what the quilt is either!

Suggest that newer or slower quilters may want to piece only half of the quilt during class. It's much better to accomplish all of the steps with half the pieces than it is to only do half of the steps with all the pieces.

When I teach a mystery class, I allow the quilters to progress at their own pace. Once a quilter completes Step 1, she goes to envelope 2 and helps herself to the next step. Walk around the class area, talking and demonstrating one on one as each quilter begins a new step.

I know that some teachers won't allow anyone to go on to the next step until everyone has finished the current one. They ask the faster quilters to help the slower ones. In my experience, most of the slower ones are only slower because of their desire for perfection, and having a faster, less perfect pieces helping is only asking for trouble.

A designated presser/ripper is a must! Since there's little else for the instructor to do, that job is usually yours! This allows you to check their work, too, and correct mistakes before it's too late. If the class is large, a second presser would really help. Often you can find a volunteer that just wants to be part of the fun. Give her a complimentary copy of the pattern at the end of class.

I offer a number of mysteries for you to use in any of these formats. There's a special series of six part, step a month, mysteries for shops, only. Please call or write if you have questions.