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.
Tags: binding, competition, county fair, judging
Thanks for this post. I will be doing the same thing in a couple of weeks. My first time judging quilts, although I have done needlework. One thing I have learned is to always something good, and sometimes that is really hard ! I am impressed by the number of entries. Hopefully they will get better over time.
I hope it goes well for you! It’s a very tall order but it was good for me. Good luck, and please let me know how it goes. firstname.lastname@example.org
What timing to find your article on judging a quilt contest!. I am far less skilled than you, but was asked by a friend to judge a challenge quilt event, volunteer for me, where quilters will be from all over the Nebraska Panhandle. I’ve only judged one other event, and was shocked at the complications, similar to your explanations! Yes, some were really TERRIblE, yet were made by nearly blind woman, and others amazing, but from a kit – how does one determine the better??? The idea of a scribe was brilliant – I will ask ahead of time – I have 2 weeks to get my act together. It’s encouraging to know that MY fears and dreads are not unique. Thank you for the timely article. 8-).
Elaine, I wish you the best! It’s a challenge but also a learning experience, and a chance to encourage other creators. Do let me know how it goes! email@example.com
Very interesting. I’ll look closer at the quilts at our fair tonight. K
I have judged county fair quilt competitions several times, now, and it’s never easy. I tend to be a stickler for the technical aspects – composition and workmanship- when it comes to awarding ribbons, because it is a competition. Our local fair separates open class entries into youth, adult, and “golden age” categories, so that lets the judges make some allowance for lack of experience and/or physical limitations.
The scribe should not be allowed to speak at all, just as it is at the state fair. The age of the maker, the need for encouragement, or any other factor should not be considered at all. I have stopped entering quilts in my county fair because every year, the same woman wins because her quilts are hand pieced and hand quilted. It does not seem to matter that fabric choice is poor, value is not utilized properly, or that construction methods are not great. The reason she wins is because it is hand done and the county award is for “best handwork” not best quilt. Our county fairs need to update their requirements to be in line with state fair. Rant over:)
My one and only quilt entry in a judging situation was about 30 years ago at our county fair. I earned a white participation ribbon with no comments. I picked up my bruised ego and decided entering my work in a competitive environment was not how I wanted to spend my quilting time and energy. Since then, I’ve entered many of my quilts in quilt shows across the state, given trunk shows and lectures, and had a gallery showing in a quilt shop. I so enjoy seeing the work of other quilters and I enjoy sharing the quilts I’ve made so others can appreciate them also. For me, the fun and sense of accomplishment is in the making and sharing–not in the accolades or ribbons. (Oops! I forgot–I DID enter a quilt in the State Fair a couple of years ago and surprisingly received a ribbon!)
As an aside, the quilt of 30 years ago was a trip around the world, each square cut individually as this was before rotary cutters. The quilt was queen size, machine pieced, and hand quilted with the edges of the quilt looking like prairie points instead of a straight edge. And my daughter still uses it.
You are to be admired for tackling the judging job. Never easy to examine someone’s work without any criteria for them to use in making the item or for you to use in judging it. Thanks for sharing.
I enjoyed reading your insights into judging. I have faced many of those dilemmas in judging county fairs, however most of them have categories that differentiate sizes, techniques, etc. When it comes to best of show only blue ribbon winners can win that, although there is usually judge’s choice and I have picked some small wallhangings for that. My local county has around 10,000 people at most and we have many categories for judging. Seniors (over 62) work is judged separately from adults. We have youth categories as well. Quilts are entered under a technique and a size. A throw quilt is not judged against a king size quilt for example. Some of our categories are machine pieced, applique, combination or you can have it judged on the quilting if you yourself quilted it. Bindings are usually my deciding factors in ribbon awards. I enter quilts every year in our county fair and I am in charge of entries and I am the scribe as well. The hardest year was when our judge didn’t show up and I was asked to judge! I knew most of the quilts and quiltmakers, but everyone else involved said I was very objective and they thought I did a great job. My personal quilts were judged by someone else and I always throw one in there that is not the best just to see what they do! The judge we keep getting (not by my choice, it’s a matter of the fair board finding someone) asks me questions constantly and it’s tough to not respond!
I will be judging our local fair entries in a week. Reading your comments and suggestions was very helpful as we were given no criteria on which to base our decisions.
Best of luck to you, Dianne! I’d be interested in hearing about your experience. I hope it’s really good! Thanks for visiting Stash Bandit. 🙂
I entered about 13 hand pieced and quilted at the Fair in Moscow, Idaho for the first time in 2018. I’m debating whether to do it again this year, due to the fact that I hand draw, cut and piece the tops together by hand not machine. The comments that came back were about the points not being perfect, color themes, not enough hand quilting, creases removed before entering quilt, intersections not perfect aligned, need to remove markings, binding stitches closer, mitered corners, etc. I entered them not so much to win, but to show Traditional patterns, Scrappy quilts, and hand quilting. I am not an expert but thought this would be fun and have decided I won’t enter another fair.
Diana, I’m sorry to hear that was your experience. I admire your commitment to hand work! I’m sure it’s lovely, and as long as it brings you joy, nothing else really matters. Happy stitching!
Thank you for your insightful article. I am the Clothing and Textiles Superintendent for our Community Fair (we encompass three counties). I have always tried to have judging forms for every item, and if I can’t find one to a specific craft, then I have a generic Creative Arts judging form. This year we have 4 adult quilts and 5 youth quilts that are to be judge. The 4H forms for judging make the judges job for the youth a little easier, but the adults are always more of a challenge. We have two new quilt/sewing judges this year, so I will be curious to hear their feedback. Thanks for your article! I would love to see examples of the judging forms you used.
Because of Dianna Flint’s experience and I few of my own, I would like judges to mention things that they did like and then add …next year/time I would like to see you bind your stitches closer and mitered corners. Don’t dump it all on me, just give me something to keep coming back and to strive for.