Secret Sewing for Outgoing Guild Leaders

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Quilters love to make quilts to commemorate special events or as a show of thanks. If you’ve been in the Modern Quilt Guild for long, you’ve almost certainly had a particularly wonderful leader decide to step down, and members decide they’d like to make a quilt to show their appreciation. Where do you start, and how do you keep them from finding out? As a former secretary and president of the St. Louis Modern Quilt Guild, I’ve been on both the planning and receiving end of such a quilt, and I’ve got lots of tips and guidance to share to make this kind of project successful.

To start, you need someone willing to head the effort. The ideal person is the guild secretary because they have access to all of the members’ email addresses, and can send official communications without the president’s knowledge. If they’re not interested, reach out to members using the guild roster.

Before you send the first email, get your plan in place.

Decide on a design.

It’s best to pick a simple block that lots of people can easily and accurately complete. These quilts are about including a block from as many guild members as possible who want to show their appreciation, so choose something any member could successfully and confidently make. You want lots of blocks, and you want them to be made well, so this is not the time to bring out designs with paper piecing, handwork, or other complicated piecing. Our guild has used economy blocks, flying geese, and plus blocks. Other good options include half-square triangles, four-patch blocks, hourglass blocks, log cabins, and other similar designs.

Small plus blocks and flying geese make great choices for their simplicity and size.

Choose a color scheme.

Think of who you’re making the quilt for and their likes and dislikes. Remember that you’re asking many people to join the effort, and you want the design to be as cohesive as possible. Perhaps surprisingly, the best way to achieve this is often by going scrappy but within a defined color palette. Unless you’re planning to provide the fabric for the blocks (which can take away a lot of the personal touch you want with this kind of quilt), bear in mind that people will be pulling from different kinds of stashes. Offering a color scheme with several colors can make it easier for people to find something in their stash that will work. Be sure to specify whether they should use prints, solids, or both, and if relevant, what kind of background they should use. Often, sticking with white or low-volume prints can be the easiest way to ensure blocks from a variety of makers will work together.

Providing a color scheme with a range of colors and hues can provide makers with options for using their stash.

Determine the size of the quilt.

Calculate how many blocks you’ll need to reach that size, most of the time these quilts will be throw-sized. Remember, you want as many people as possible to participate and be included in this memory, so keep the size of your guild in mind when planning. For example, if you have a large guild, don’t choose a 12” block because you won’t need very many to complete the quilt. Generally, 4-8” blocks allow for lots of participation and are easy for even the most beginner quilter to complete. Specify how many blocks you’d like people to make—is one enough, or are you going to need two or more from some members to reach your goal?

This colorful quilt made for our guild founder embraced scrappiness with lots of small economy blocks.

Decide who’s going to collect the blocks and how.

If possible, offer members multiple options for turning in their blocks, including at guild meetings or via the mail. You’ll want to give everyone at least two months to complete their blocks.

Determine the deadline.

Begin by deciding when you’re planning to gift the quilt. In our guild, the December meeting is the last for an outgoing leader, so we’ve always presented their quilt then. Calculate backward based on how long you’ll need to assemble, quilt, bind, and label the quilt. This is generally one to two months, depending on the capacity of those doing the work. This makes the deadline for our blocks sometime in October or November and that means we need to announce the project in August or September.

Have members sign up to help.

Create an online sign-up sheet using Google Docs or Sign-Up Genius so you know how many blocks to expect. If it looks like you’re not going to reach the total you need, you can reach back out to members and request additional blocks or consider creating a small committee to complete what’s needed.

Detail of the colorful quilt made for our guild founder featuring small economy blocks.

The plan is in place

Once you have a plan in place, use your guild roster to send an email to the entire guild (minus the recipient of the quilt, of course!). Make sure to spell out all of the information very clearly. Include pictures of the color palette, a few example blocks made up in the color palette, and specific instructions for making the chosen block in the size you want–don’t leave it to members to figure this out. Remind members to use quilt-shop-quality modern fabrics, and clearly state (multiple times) that the quilt is a secret so they shouldn’t post anything about it on social media or mention it to the recipient until after it’s gifted.

This flying geese quilt was made for the author in her signature color palette. Adding negative space is a great way to make the design more unique and fill in space if you’re short on blocks. The pattern is Flying Home for Christmas by Krista Robbins of Four Robbins Designs.

Finishing the quilt.

Once piecing the blocks is underway, it’s time to think about the next steps. After the blocks are collected, you’ll need to assemble the quilt top and backing, then have it quilted and bound. This could be done by an individual or a small group. Asking for volunteers for these steps in your initial email can help ensure you’ve got everything covered right from the start. Determine how the backing and binding will be obtained and paid for. The guild’s board may approve paying for these from the guild treasury, or you could ask for donations from members. When you start receiving the completed blocks, temper your expectations. Anyone who has ever been part of a bee knows that no matter how clear your instructions are, some people want to “do their own thing,” fail to use a consistent seam allowance, use lower-quality or very traditional fabrics, and so on. Try to remember that their hearts are in the right place, and the recipient will no doubt still want to see their handiwork. Usually, if your quilt is scrappy enough, a few blocks with less-than-ideal fabrics won’t be noticed. If a block is the wrong size, try to give it a good press or even take it apart and reassemble it. There is always the option to include it on the back. If you’re a “break the rules” kind of person and you’re on the block-making end of this type of project, try your best to follow the rules–the people on the assembling and receiving end will really appreciate it.

Don’t forget the quilt label!

Be sure to include what the quilt is for, who contributed (for the blocks, this will likely be something broad like the members of X guild), and the date. Most importantly, make sure someone is in charge of bringing the tissues to the meeting where it will be gifted, these quilts are always met with a flood of grateful tears.

A former president and secretary of the St. Louis Modern Quilt Guild, Jessica is the owner/designer of Blue Sky Modern Craft and an editor by trade who’s bridged the gap between her work and craft, writing and tech editing a growing number of her own and other designers’ patterns. She began sewing and quilting in 2009, shortly after moving to St. Louis from her home state of Texas and finding that a new hobby was a good way to get settled and meet new friends. In her quilting, she loves using bright prints and solids and incorporating texture and handwork wherever she can. Jessica’s quilts have been featured in national and local quilt shows. You can follow her creative journey on her website,, or on Instagram @blueskycrafter.