How to Survive a Block of the Month or Mystery Quilt….

This week I would like to discuss another topic I have a love/hate relationship with – Blocks-of-the-Month (hereafter referred to as BOMs).  I want to discuss the two different categories, how to decide if you would like to join one, what kind to join, and once you’ve committed to a BOM, how to survive it. 

While BOMs can cover many types of quilting (modern, art, traditional, applique) and many different types of techniques, there are basically two categories:  Those you pay for and those you don’t.  The paid BOMs are generally more detailed.  They offer lots of illustrations, lots of details and many times include a Facebook Livestream, Zoom, or an interactive webpage.  They may offer different fabric color ways, or they may leave the fabric selection up to you.  The free BOMs typically offer no fabric, just patterns, and some details either on a Facebook page or blog.  These are generalities and certainly there are specifics for each and every BOM.  I first became aware of BOMs in 2000, when Hancock Fabrics advertised one in the local newspaper.  I was several years into my quilting experience by then, but was largely self-taught.  I wanted to learn more and how to do it better, so I signed up.  For me, this BOM was the answer to everything I needed at the time:  It was conveniently located near my home, it supplied the fabric, and every block emphasized a different technique.  Bonus one: The instructor loved her students and willingly answered every question either in class or via phone call.  By the end of that experience, I was introduced to needle turn applique and had acquired some serious piecing techniques and tricks.  Bonus two:  I met fellow quilters there – a group which was seriously lacking in my social circle.  These women are still some of my closest friends.  You also must remember where I was at personally at this point in time – I had two young children, a job, and a husband who worked out of town most of the time.  One 12 ½-inch block a month was doable.  

Fast forward to where I am now and BOMs are a very different story.  Now a BOM must have a serious draw for me to participate.  It must offer advanced techniques or wonderful fabrics.  I may really like the instructor and will do every BOM he or she offers just because I always learn something.  I tend to participate pretty equally in both the free and the paid-for.  There are some years I may enroll in five or six.  Other years – like this year – I may not join in any (except my guild’s) because none appeal to me.  There are some BOMs I take part in simply to get the patterns.  I have no plans or time to make the quilt now, but will someday and will need the instructions. 

So, how do you decide whether or not to participate in a BOM?  You will probably go through many of the same questions I do before you make up your mind.  Here are several things to think about before you sign up:

  • Why Do I Want to Get Involved?  The answers to this question will vary, because it depends on the quilter.  It could be the social aspect.  If the BOM is offered through a group in a guild, bee, or quilt store, it means meet-ups with fellow quilters (or at least it did pre-COVID-19).  This type of quilty fellowship is always good for the soul and is one of the main reasons I join a BOM.  Some people want to learn new techniques or better ways of constructing their blocks or stitching their appliques.  Other folks may simply adore the designer or teacher and sign up for all their BOMs, regardless of whether they really like the quilt or not.  I’m that way with a few designers and teachers – whatever they’re offering, count me in.  I always learn a lot and have a good time in the process.
  • What Do I Want to Get Out of This?  This is a little more specific than the first question.  Yes, you may want to get involved with a BOM because you want to learn something, but if you’re jones-ing to become a better appliquer and you’re enrolled in a BOM which is primarily piecing, then your objective won’t be met.  While a BOM generally won’t involve a huge amount of time (most of them are one block a month or a few small ones), it will cut in on the sewing time for other projects.  If you’re quilting hours are like mine – limited – make sure at least one BOM is helping you attain your quilting goals.  Currently, I’m enrolled with Angela Walter’s BOMs because she emphasizes the quilting process and that’s a technique I really want to become better at – both on the long arm and Big Red.
  • How Are My Questions Answered?  In the past, this was a no-brainer.  However, in the past most BOMs were run through guilds, bees, or quilt stores.  You met there in person and the individual leading the BOM would field all your questions.  However, 2021 is an entirely different scenario.  Even pre-COVID, groups were meeting virtually via Facebook, quilting forums, blogs, and YouTube.  At some point, all of us will have a question about something.  Make sure the BOM you’re enrolled in has a way to answer them – especially if you’ve plunked down your hard-earned dollars to pay for it. 
  • What Is Included with the BOM?  If the program is free, the pattern is probably the only item included.  However, if you have to pay a monthly or upfront fee, be sure you know what come with the pattern, if anything at all.  With some BOMs (especially applique ones) the pattern may be the only thing you receive.  Others may involve fabric.  If the fabric comes with the pattern, how much is included? Is there any leeway for cutting mistakes?  Does the final BOM include border, backing, and binding fabric (or any combination of those)?  If they’re not included, can they be purchased separately? 

Regardless of the BOM, I do have a few suggestions on how to successfully navigate one. 

Stay on Schedule

The objective with most of these programs is to make enough blocks for a bed quilt or large-ish wall hanging.  Some BOMs issue one block a month (these are usually 8 ½-inches to 12 ½-inches) or several small blocks a month (usually 6-inches or less).  Whether the group you’re sewing with meets virtually or in person, I would issue this cautionary statement — try to stay on schedule.  For me, the kiss of death with a BOM is to fall hopelessly behind.  The more I find myself behind schedule, the less enthusiastic I become about the program.  Knowing I must complete a block in a month before I can have access to the pattern/pattern and fabrics for the next month generally keeps me on track.  However, with some BOM programs, all the patterns and fabrics are all given out at the same time.  It’s super easy to get behind in these BOMS, because you know you can still complete the quilt even after the program closes out.

Set an Appointment with Your BOM

 I would also suggest you set aside a regular time to work on your block(s).  For me,  this has always been Saturday morning.  When both my kids were at home, they generally slept late on Saturdays (unless it was softball season for Matt).  Bill would fish or golf.  I could get up early, make a pot of coffee, and sew for several hours before the call of motherhood pulled me away to make mall runs, scouts, or band/dance practices.  Even today, Saturday mornings remain my primary sewing time.  Bill still fishes or golfs, leaving me most of the day to quilt.  If I’m participating in a BOM, at least one Saturday a month is carved out for it.  If you have a regular “appointment” with your BOM, it’s easy to stay reasonably caught up.   

Purchase Extra Fabric if Possible

If the BOM programs offers an “oops” package – a bundle of extra fabric to use if you make a cutting mistake not that any of would make a cutting mistake I’ve always thought it was a good idea to purchase it.  Invariably, if I don’t, I end up deeply regretting it.  If such a package isn’t offered, I never throw away my scraps until the quilt is bound and labeled.  If border fabric is available for purchase and you want to use it, buy the material early in the program.  I’ve found if I put this purchase off, it may be sold out by the time I get around to handing out my debit card for the yardage.  The same thing holds true if you want their backing fabric. 

Read the Instructions.  All of them. Every Word.

This is true for any quilt pattern.  Even if it’s a simple a four-patch, read the directions.  However, this is especially important in a BOM which includes the fabric – which is limited.  There’s only enough fabric to cut out and construct the block units the way the pattern indicates.  If that method isn’t your favorite way to make the units, there may not be enough fabric to do it the way you prefer to.  Plus, the pattern may offer insights into additional construction tricks and what construction issues may be in the future.  Take a few minutes to read the pattern through, assemble any special tools or rulers, and see if you have any questions. 

Make Sure You Like the Fabric (or Can At Least Live with It for Several Months)

I almost didn’t put this one in because earlier I said you may want to enroll in a BOM to learn different techniques.  If all you want to do is learn a new technique or how to do a technique better, is it really super important you like the fabric?

Well…yes.  Quilters, for the most part, are visual people.  We learn best by someone showing us how to do something.  We are constantly assembling color palettes.  In order to stay engaged and enthused about a BOM, I do think is important you like the colors.  Many BOMs will offer several color ways (generally something kind of traditional, something modern, and something batik-y) in order to generate a large group who wants to make the pattern.  Most of the time these BOMs will involve several months out of your life.  If you hate the colors, how likely is it you’ll finish the project?  I know if I enrolled in a BOM which involved a palette of tans and browns, I might never make the first cut. 

Be Social

Many BOMs are virtual now.  They never meet in person.  It’s all done via social media platforms.  And even some of the BOMs who meet in person have platforms.  Here you can upload pictures of your blocks, see how other members are constructing their blocks, compare and contrast trouble areas, and cheer each other on. 

Join them.  And participate. 

I admit I currently have a love/hate relationship with social media.  There’s a lot of unkindness and bullying going on via Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms.  However, for the most part, I don’t see that on the quilting pages.  I mean it’s there on occasion, but the administrators shut it down admirably fast.  It isn’t tolerated and neither are phishing or other scammy things. 

Go.  Post your questions and the pictures of your block.  You’ll be surprised at how much love and encouragement will be thrown at you.  And during the time of COVID while we’re all feeling a bit isolated, this is a wonderful thing.  If you’re reading my blog and you’re a quilt page admin or moderator, bless you.  You are truly wonderful folks. 

Stay as Organized as You Can

I keep all my BOMs in one place, whether they’re only patterns I’ve pulled down off the internet or actual physical, fabric-and-pattern ones I receive in the mail.  I’ve found if I simply throw them on my sewing table or put them on the kitchen counter, invariably they decide to play hide-and-seek and when I need them, they’re nowhere to be found.  I keep them, any additional fabric purchased, special rulers, and other notions in a box.  I also label the box, so I don’t accidently use the fabric for another purpose.  This way when you have time to work on the BOM, you know where it’s at and you have everything you need.

Remember, You Don’t Have to Follow All the Rules

Ahhhh, this is the wild card and directed primarily at those of us who have been around the quilt block more than a few times.  If you’re a newbie, and you’re enrolled in a BOM to learn techniques and tips, it’s good idea for you to follow the directions pretty much to the letter.

But for those of us such as myself who has a bit of a quilt history under her belt…well…rules can be and will be broken.  If I don’t like a certain color of fabric, I’ve been known to replace it with some I do like.  If I don’t particularly care for the construction of a pieced block, I’ve been known to change it up.  If I don’t want to deal with Y-seams, I will redraft the block to use HSTs.  If the applique is too fussy for even my sensibilities (and believe me, I can sew some super-tiny applique pieces), I don’t hesitate to change them or leave them out completely.

Because, you see, even though this may be a BOM program, it’s still your quilt

There are some really great BOM programs out there – some you pay for and some you don’t.  I think it’s a good idea for any quilter to experience at least one of them.  If nothing on the market appeals to you, grab a friend and a pattern you both like and have your own BOM.  It allows you to encourage each other and help each other become better quilters, as well as have a great time during the process.

Now let’s talk another type of BOM – the Mystery Quilt.  In some ways, a Mystery Quilt (hereafter known as MQ), is just like a BOM.  Usually there’s one block issued every month, or a group of small blocks or block units issued every month (sometimes every week).  However, with a BOM, a drawing or photo of the finished quilt is included with at least the first pattern.  This gives you firm idea about how the finished quilt looks as well as what techniques may be taught.  Not so with a MQ.  With these you have no idea what the finished quilt will look like. 

Which makes them about 100 percent trickier than a BOM.  You have no idea if you’re wasting your time until the quilt is complete.  However, if you like a good mystery, these may be just what you’re looking for. Generally there is no fabric included with  MQ.  Directions are given either detailing the amounts of light, dark, and medium fabrics required, or how many colors are needed – such as five different greens.  Month-by-month you continue to make units or blocks until the very end when the final directions tell you how to assemble your quilt top.  It’s really at this point you discover if you like the quilt or not.  I’ve participated in several MQ programs over the span of 30 years.  I’ve really liked most of them.  Others have been complete duds.  Let me share with you what I’ve learned.

With MQs, I offer some of the same advice I stated about BOMs:

  • Stay on Schedule
  • Set an Appointment with Your MQ
  • Be Social
  • Stay Organized
  • Like Your Fabric and Purchase Extra Fabric – The fabric is usually your decision.  Make sure you can live with it for several months and with MQs it’s a good idea to purchase a few inches extra of each fabric just in case you make a cutting mistake.

My advice with MQs deviates from my recommendations with BOMs here:  With BOMs, I said it was okay to break rules.  Don’t do this with a MQ.  BOM programs issue a picture of the finished quilt which is usually included in the first pattern.  With MQs, you have no idea how it will look when it’s completed.  If you deviate from the instructions, you could find yourself in serious, quilty trouble when it’s time to join the blocks together. 

As you take advantage of MQ programs, you’ll learn (pretty quickly), which designers have really great patterns and which ones don’t.  If you begin a MQ, and you have problems, be sure to check its webpage or Facebook page.  Most of the time, you won’t be the only participant having issues and the answers will be posted on one of these.  You’ll also have a great time seeing what other fabrics are being used and all the different color schemes.  At least try one MQ in your quilting career. 

It’s worth noting that not all BOMs and MQs begin in January.  Usually there’s one or three starting at any given month.  If you want to try one or both, Google Block of the Month and/or Mystery Quilt Program.  You’ll get several results.  Look through them and read the reviews (especially if you have to pay a monthly fee) to see if quilters like them, the directions are clear, and the customer service is good.  Give one or both a try. 

Until Next Week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

2 replies on “How to Survive a Block of the Month or Mystery Quilt….”

Thanks, I enjoyed this post. I am currently participating in a round robin quilt adventure, in which a weekly prompt tells you what kind of border to add to your own quilt. As a beginning quilter, I am finding this a great way to practice different piecing techniques that are new to me. Have you ever done one of these challenges?

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