Have you ever been to a quilt show and looked at some of the quilts with ribbons on them and wondered, “Why does this quilt have a ribbon and that one doesn’t?” Well, I think most of us have. What goes on in the “judging room” is a big mystery to many quilters. Since I’ve been in a lot of judging rooms, both as a judge and as an aide, I’m going to try to de-mystify this issue for you.
First of all, the main reason that one quilt may have a ribbon and another doesn’t is that the two quilts in question were not in the same category. Many shows (especially local shows) don’t have that information on the information sheet (attached to the quilt). So the public has no way of knowing if those two quilts competed against each other. Or, perhaps the quilt with the ribbon was judged, but the one without a ribbon was entered for “display only”. So those are the two most common reasons that may occur.
But let’s move on to judged quilts. What are the judges really looking for? From my experience, here are the things that judges look at when they are judging quilts.*
1) VISUAL IMPACT
Before judging each quilt in a category, a judge likes to view all the quilts in that entire category to get an idea of the caliber of the quilts in said category. If the judging is done with the quilts lying flat, the judge will have a couple of the aides “fan” the quilts so that the judge can see them all. At that point, the judge is looking for the quilts that visually stand out in that group (i.e. those that have a strong, visual impact).
If you don’t really understand the term “visual impact”, it’s simple! Think about the quilts you’ve looked at in your life. Don’t some of them just make your jaw drop, or take your breath away? Things like great color combinations, piecing or applique designs, complexity of the pattern, quilting designs, or all of the above, can account for “strong visual impact”.
When a judge sees a quilt (or quilts) in a category that have strong, visual impact, they mentally file that quilt in their memory because it’s already got a mental “+” next to it.
The next thing judges tend to look at when starting the “comments” for each quilt would be good workmanship. The judge will start to look very closely at the piecing technique. If the intersections meet perfectly every time, and the points are sharp, then that quilt has passed that particular hurdle. Also, the judge will look at the seams to see if the piecing thread matches and if the stitches are small enough and are securing the two fabrics together.
If there’s applique in the quilt, the judge is going to look at the stitches to see how small and invisible they are. Also, the judge will make sure the applique pieces are secure, the curves are smooth, and the points are sharp.
If a quilt is hand quilted, the judge will look at the size of the stitches, but more importantly, the stitch length consistency, and whether they’re consistent in size, front to back (i.e. on the top of the quilt and on the bottom of the quilt).
If a quilt is machine quilted, the judge will first look at the thread tension (front and back). If a quilt has a false back and the judge cannot see the thread tension on the back of the quilt, then that quilt will usually not be a contender for a ribbon. The judge must be able to see the bobbin thread tension.
Another thing the judge will look for in machine quilting is stitch length consistency (the same as with hand quilting). This is one reason why “stitch regulators” on domestic and long-arm machines is highly sought after. And if you don’t use a stitch regulator, you need to become proficient at getting consistent stitch length.
A judge will also look at the foundation quilting done on a quilt. For instance, when stitching in the ditch, whether it be along long straight rows of blocks, or around tiny applique pieces, that “ditch” quilting should be in the ditch! Honestly, as a machine quilter and a judge, it’s like nails on a chalkboard when I see ditch quilting that isn’t in the ditch. Also, that foundation quilting SHOULD NOT be done in a color of thread that shows up because that just detracts from the quilt.
Lastly in regards to quilting, the judge will look at the quilting designs and deem whether they are appropriate for that quilt. For instance, it will be noted whether the quilting designs fit well within the given spaces (borders, setting blocks, whatever). Sometimes a judge will make a comment about the theme of the quilting designs. Perhaps the quilt is a “Bear’s Paw” quilt, and the quilter quilted little bears around the border of the quilt. Then the judge might say something like, “Quilting in outer border is appropriate for quilt”. If the same quilt had big, artsy flowers in the border, the judge probably won’t say anything because that would be the quilter’s personal choice, but it could be a mental “minus” in the judge’s head, and cause the quilt to be “released” (i.e. not held for a possible award).
Judges will also comment on the amount of quilting in a quilt. For instance, if the amount of quilting seems to not be enough, the judge would probably make a comment like, “Piece would benefit from additional quilting”.
4) BORDERS AND EDGE TREATMENT
Do you ever see a quilt with wavy borders? Well, I can tell you that that just doesn’t fly in the competition world! Borders should always be straight and even, and should never buckle or wave. As a quilt judge, when I’m at a quilt show, I always notice if a quilt hangs straight, or if it’s wavy. A quilt that hangs straight and flat is a wonderful thing to behold. And conversely, a quilt that doesn’t hang nicely is very grating! So make sure you’ve cut your borders accurately, and make sure that they are quilted enough to make them behave!
Edge treatment refers to anything special along the outer edge of the quilt (not just the binding). For instance, if you’ve added piping to the binding, that would be considered an “edge treatment”. Or if you’ve made a scalloped edge, or added cording or beading to the binding, that would be considered “edge treatment”. Judges usually like special edge treatments, but said treatments must be appropriate to the quilt, and be done well!
In my experience, the last thing the judges look at is the binding on the quilt. The judge will usually walk down a side or two of the quilt, feeling the fullness of the binding all the way. What he or she is doing is determining whether the binding is evenly filled with the raw edges and batting of the quilt.
Another thing they’ll look at is the corners, and whether the miters are done well, and whether or not they’re sewn closed. I’ve heard differing opinions on whether the miters should be sewn closed, but I think the “ayes” have it (that is, those that favor stitching the miters closed). In general, I believe it’s a good practice to sew your miters closed as it helps to prolong the life of the binding and keeps those corners sharp 90 degree angles (another thing the judge will look at).
The judge will also look at the hand-stitched stitches that attach the binding to the back of the quilt. They want to see small enough stitches so that the binding is attached securely. Also, those stitches should be even and invisible.
These things are the primary qualities that are analyzed by quilt judges. But within each category, there are myriad sub-categories that judges will look at. Sometimes a winning quilt is very easy for a judge to pick out, but sometimes it can be the difference of one or two tiny things that can determine a Best of Show winner over another quilt. Something else to remember is that an award-winning quilt may not have all of these qualities and still earn a big prize. For instance, look at Diane Gaudynski’s “Delectable Mountains” quilt. The piecing is relatively simple (although it is done to perfection). But the visual impact is very strong, mainly because of her unbelievably beautiful quilting. Needless to say, this quilt is definitely an award-winning quilt!
Another huge factor of whether or not a quilt wins an award is how many quilts are in that category and who the competition is. For instance, it’s easier to place in a category if there are only 3 or 4 quilts in that category. One award I won at the Pacific International Quilt Festival was 3rd Place in the Wall category. Well, people may say, “Whoop-dee-doo, 3rd Place, that’s not so great! But guess what? There were 116 quilts in the category. So, yes, it was a “whoop-dee-doo” moment for me! Another time I lost a machine quilting prize (but won the “paper-piecing” prize) in a magazine competition. I wondered who I had lost the machine quilting award to. When the magazine came out, I saw that Sharon Schamber had won it! Well, OK then! I’m good with that! No one would ever doubt that she’s a fabulous machine quilter!
So the moral of the story is this: pay attention to details and do the best work that you can. Believe me, when it’s all said and done, you will NEVER regret having taken extra time to do something better. You may moan and groan about having to do more work when you are faced with it, but after it’s done, you’ll be proud of having done it correctly and more precisely. And your efforts will shine for all to see!
*These things are my personal generalizations from what I’ve experienced and observed over the past two decades of competing and judging. I’m sure other judges will have other things to contribute, and I encourage them to make comments below so that we can all learn from them!
This quilt, "Everlasting Bouquet" was made in 2011 by Molly Hamilton-McNally and myself. Molly designed the applique and chose the colors. I quilted it and did the edge treatment and binding. This quilt really has everything I mentioned above (strong visual impact, excellent workmanship, a beautiful design, excellent quilting, and a great edge treatment and binding). I guess that's why it won three "Best of Show" awards at major quilt shows and was included in the IQA 2013 calendar!