Judging Quilts: Not for the Faint of Heart
I had a new experience this week: judging quilts and textile arts at a county fair about 70 miles from home, somewhere in Nebraska.
These were open class entries, that is, not 4-H entries which are judged by an established set of standards. Which may have been why it was so difficult, even though it was a small show. There was nothing to guide me—no established judging criteria. I had to rely on 50 years of sewing experience and 30+ years of quilt making.
I am not a certified quilt judge, but I accepted the job because I knew it would broaden my range of experience. I thought it would be interesting and fun.
I was right on the interesting part. On the fun? Not so much.
Nobody tells you that even with a small set of entries, you’ll have to make hard decisions. You’ll have to ignore some really great work because you can only recognize a few entries.
You’ll have to make comments on work that is truly awful, trying not to sound terribly critical and unforgiving. When I wanted to say “This binding is a hot mess,” instead I prodded “Strive for neatness on your binding.”
When I wanted to say “Stitches this long should only be used for basting,” instead I encouraged “Shorten stitch length for machine quilting.”
I had a scribe who cheerfully wrote down each comment, handled the paperwork, and maintained the flow of items to be judged. A scribe should be a silent helper, and while mine was very helpful, she was not silent.
Without intending to derail my objectivity, she shared information that complicated my thought process considerably. An example: “This quilter is at least 80.” Or “This person really needs encouragement.”
Which brings me to the biggest problem of all: How much weight to give each aspect of the work. Here’s what I mean. The quilt below was fairly typical of the entries.
It was purchased as a kit. Most entries were commercially quilted (which means the maker paid someone else to quilt it). This leaves very little on which to judge a project. The only things you can evaluate are the piecing and the binding. Typically the quilts were made of squares and rectangles—no points to cut off. Which narrows even further what there is to compliment or criticize.
Here are the questions I smacked into over and over:
- Is it worth more for a simple quilt of squares and rectangles, where someone else chose the fabrics and did the quilting, to be well executed, or is there more value in a creative piece where a person conceived an idea, worked hard to bring it to life, and executed it with obvious “mistakes”—but clearly had a vision and pursued it creatively? Which is better?
- Is a king-size star quilt with flaws made by a person over 80 years of age to be recognized over a square, flat, nicely bound throw-size quilt of squares with no imagination, made by someone who is under 50? What if the king-size quilt is made by someone who is between 6 and 17? Which of these is preferred?
- Because I prefer flat quilts with low-loft batting, should I dock those with puffy batting? Is that a personal preference or a legitimate criticism? There were many personal preference questions.
- Some entrants had many items in the competition, and these various folks had consistently good or bad work. If the work was good, should the judge recognize them over and over? Or begin to recognize other good work that is slightly less perfect? If the work was bad, I began to admire their spunk. Hey, at least they are trying! They know they are going to be judged. Lots of people would never put themselves through it!
This is just the tip of the iceberg but you get the idea. The day was full of frustration for me. I had to keep moving in order to complete the task, and I couldn’t sit and ponder for long.
This was a piece that I loved, based on the Cindy Brick idea of using vintage hankies to make a small collage-type quilt. I wanted to give her a special prize for bravery—cutting family hankies apart is terrifying. She layered them in clever ways, and she embellished for added interest. She labored over this, and while it’s not perfect, in my book it was top notch. I’ll choose creativity over technique every time.
I was puzzled by the fabric choices in this small quilt, until I noticed that it was made for an ugly fabric challenge. It wasn’t clear whether I was to consider the challenge factor or not.
This piece was for the same ugly fabric challenge. It was more successful at making the fabrics work together, in my opinion.
There were some things that just left me wondering. This quilt had heavy weights straight-pinned to its bottom edge. They were wrapped in pieces of fabric, edges left raw. Another piece (not pictured) had food stains and a hole, among other problems. Why would you enter this at a fair?
The most often seen easy fix was this: Always go over the entire surface of your quilt, front and back, and clip off any stray threads. Hardly any of the quilts (good, bad and in-between) were cleaned up from random wisps of thread. Such an easy thing to do!
And while I know that some people will question my sanity, I chose this small original piece as the Best Quilt in the County. Here’s why.
- Original work is always the hardest work.
- She created great texture both visually and from a tactile standpoint.
- She attempted to give a sense of perspective.
- She cleverly used the wrong side of some fabrics, where it served her purposes.
- She added a facing to the quilt, which is a great skill to have if you’re making art quilts.
- She quilted it herself.
- She used a variety of techniques, including painted highlights to suggest snow-dusted trees.
I know that I could defend all of my decisions if I needed to, but that’s another frustration: You never have the opportunity to tell people why you did what you did. Most people will not even know who judged the quilts, let alone what the judgments were based on.
And come to think of it, maybe that’s okay.
Have you ever entered a quilt somewhere? What was your experience? I’d love to know, so please tell me in the comments.