#MysteryQuilt - Recommendations, Tips & Tricks

Quilt designers are creative people; they put a lot of time and effort in writing patterns. Instead of giving a list of clear directions on numbers and sizes, most of the time they write a story that you have to read thoroughly to understand what the designer means.

In this blog you’ll find a lot of tips and tricks that may be helpful when making a mystery quilt.

These tips come from tips mentioned in mystery patterns and from the (more experienced) members of the quilt related Facebook groups.

MOST IMPORTANT - Don’t share pattern details like numbers or sizes

As mentioned before, a designer puts in a lot of time and effort in designing and writing and patterns are subject to copyright.

You are not allowed to share any details of a pattern.
You can save and/or print the clues for personal use only and you can direct others to the designer’s website for more information.
So don’t give (or sell!!) the files you saved or printed for yourself to others.
Don’t mention any numbers or sizes in any of you public comments or posts.

Instead of writing “I finished all 63 of the 5 inch blocks” [example] write “I finished all of the blocks of this clue”. 

When sharing pictures, use a neutral surface to show your units, instead of laying them out on your cutting mat with grid lines.

A quilting projects is not a contest of who finishes first, it is a personal journey resulting in a warm quilt

Take your time and work at your own pace. Some experienced quilters will have all units of a clue sewn in only a few hours/days, where others only have sewn a handful of units before the next clue is published. If you’re not able to keep up, just print or save the clues and get back later.

Starting later than others could also be an advantage; if you wait until the final result is revealed you could decide to use different colors or to make your quilt more personal by adding or changing something to the layout. 

For example, this is what I did with Bonnie Hunter’s Grand Illusion.
The original came out way too busy for me. I decided to play with settings, add sashings and change the borders a bit. It still is the same pattern but the result looks totally different.

Can a beginner do a Bonnie Hunter mystery?

Yes – absolutely!

If you look at a quilt you would say: Oh, wow, that is way too difficult for me!”

However, the beauty of Bonnie's mystery quilts is that you only get one step at a time, with very clear instructions and all the information you need.

Usually, each clue is making all required numbers of one small block for the whole quilt, like a gazillion of 4-patches - it certainly feels like a gazillion the first time ;-)

After a few clues, all components of the quilt are sewn and you will get clear instructions on how to join them together. Before you know it, you have made a stunning quilt. 

If you feel intimidated by the numbers required, only sew a few blocks of each unit and make a few place mats, table runner, pillow case or something else small – just to get the hang of it.

You will learn how to cut accurately, how to sew perfect ¼ inch seams, and much more.

After you have made one Bonnie Hunter mystery, you have learned so much that not one quilting pattern will intimidate you ever again – at least, that is my experience.

General preparations

Before starting a (new) project, take some time to prepare yourself and your working area.

  • Clear your workspace and cutting mat - working space tidy, cutting mat easy accessible?
  • Pre-wind bobbins - enough yarn and full bobbins?
  • Have all your materials ready - fabrics ready? All rulers accounted for? Extra needles available?
  • Check and oil your sewing machine, change the needle
  • Change the rotary cutter blade - scissors handy?
  • Inform family they need to take care of their own ;-) - meals prepared?
  • Do you have enough paper and ink for printing the clues?
  • Comfortable clothing washed?

Then it's time to put a “don’t disturb” sign up and start sewing!

    Read the instructions carefully

    Designers tend to write long stories with all kind of little details in their clues. You must be sure you understand the clue completely before even thinking of cutting and sewing. So start reading, re-reading and reading again. Highlight the important bits like numbers or pressing direction, so you can find them back later easy. If you still have questions: ASK! Especially members of the relevant Facebook groups are very helpful!

    You may experience that quilters in general use a lot of abbreviations. A long list of quilt related abbreviations can be found here (LINK).

    Choosing your colors – using paint chips and black & white pictures

    Designers will give either their choice of fabrics or very vague directions like the yardage of light, medium and dark fabric. They will often post pictures of examples of the colors they use.

    Bonnie Hunter uses paint chips to specify the colors she uses for her mystery quilts. You can go (but don’t have to!) to the hardware store and pick up those specific paint chips and use them to have a visualization of the colors that are used.

    Paint chips are also very useful for quilters who are challenged in selecting colors by hue and value. If you have to go shopping for fabric with a color in mind you may come home with (a lot ;-) ) of pretty fabrics but they may not fit the preferred color scheme. In that case paint chips are useful, and they are easy to carry (in a purse).

    If you prefer to use different colors than the designer, use a black & white picture to determine the values that need to be used. Turn a picture of the designer’s fabric choice into a black & white picture, and do the same with your own fabric choice. Lay both pictures next to each other; both black & white pictures should have the same gray scales.

    Of course, you could also decide to something completely different, like reversing the values. Once you have made up your mind you can take either matching paint chips or a little piece of the preferred colors and carry them with you.

    Remember: it’s your quilt, so it’s your fabric choice!

    How to use your ruler

    When measuring your fabric before cutting, be sure the ruler line is on the fabric (picture left), not on the mat next to the fabric (picture right). If your ruler line is next to the fabric, your piece will be too small.
    If you cut your piece just a thread or two larger, you will be able to cut it off when squaring the required unit. Measure twice, cut once!

    Don’t cut all required pieces at once

    Sometimes you have to cut and sew many units for a clue (like 120 or so). Start with cutting and sewing a few units first (six or so) and check whether they end up as described in the pattern.

    If they do, you can continue cutting and sewing. If they don’t you have to find out what went wrong and start the testing process again.

    If you have only just enough fabric for the pattern you may want to use some scraps from other fabrics for practice. Use the same quality as you intent to use for the quilt however, as different qualities will give different results. Make sure the units are the right size before you make them all.

    Don’t cut all your fabrics at once

    Cut only the fabric that is required for a certain clue and not more.  Often it happens that the same color is used in other clues, but other shapes and sizes are required.

    For example: in clue one you will be using 2 inch strips of color A and B, and in clue two you’ll be using 1 ½ inch strips from color A and 3 inch strips from color C – and so on.

    Soo… cut a few; sew a few until you have enough units.

    Try to avoid sewing long strips of fabric

    Long strips of fabric tend to stretch a little, causing warping the fabric. Try to use smaller strips if you can.

    For example, you need to sew 2-inch strips of fabric A and B together, and after pressing them open you need to sub-cut the strips into units of 3 inches. You could choose to sew strips of 6 or 9 inches – a multiple of the required unit size.

    Sew accurately

    Take your time to set the seam allowances and placement correct. For mystery projects you may be sewing many of the same units; your skills will improve with each clue. Even if this is your first project, when you have finished the top you have learned so much that you are confident to start anything else – at least that was my experience only a few years ago.

    If you have a modern machine and you can move your needle to the correct position, make sure to make a note of that and keep it with your pattern notes.

    I love to use my little seam guide on my vintage machine. You just screw it on the surface of your sewing machine (only possible if your machine has hole to put a screw in), adjust it to the correct seam allowance and off you go! All seams will be the same.

    Use a leader and ender when sewing

    Some people use a folded scrap to sew on and off at the beginning and ending of a strip, mostly to prevent having “birds’ nests” when starting to sew or having to cut a lot of loose (starting & ending) threads after sewing.

    Using this method and always leaving something under the foot can prevent many problems.

    Instead of a folded scrap you use over and over again, you could also decide to sew units for a different project and use those units as leaders and enders.

    My endless leader and ender project for 2017 was sewing small scraps together to become strips, and these strips will be sewn on grocery receipts to become new scrappy but colorful strips that can be used in various projects, like this baby quilt I’m working on (my own design, no pattern).

    Use paper plates for keeping parts ready to sew and move them from the cutting station to the sewing station, and later to the ironing board. I don’t have paper plates at hand but I do have plastic ones. It works great! If you use paper ones you can even make notes on the plates.

    Pin or clip sets of 10 blocks
    To be able to keep track of how many units you have made already, you could use pins or clips and make stacks of 10 units. It is easier to count than hundreds of loose blocks!

    Tilt your sewing machine
    Put door stops to angle your machine toward you. Many find it improves your field of vision when guiding your fabric, and it reduces neck strain.

    I don’t have door stops but I do have a few rolls of wasi tape. That works too.

    And last but not least: Have fun!

    Mystery quilt projects are supposed to be a treat for quilters. Share pictures of your progress and mistakes (oops) in relevant Facebook Groups; others may get inspired or learn from it.

    Do you have additional tips? Please share them in the comments and I’ll add them to the list.


    An overview of all my quilt related post scan be found here.

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