Lessons From Quilt Judges

Earlier in October I had a quilt schlepper’s view of judging a quilt show. My role involved moving piles of different categories of quilts to and from the tables used for judging, fanning the quilts (fast forwarding through a pile of quilts so the judges could get a preview), and holding each one up. That meant I got to eavesdrop on the judges’ comments between themselves, the comments that may not have been officially recorded.


Example of quilt being judged at Garfield County, Colorado, fair.

I’m certainly not going to report specific comments on individual quilts, but I did pick up some hints about what judges focus on in the three or so minutes allotted to each quilt. If you already do all these hints, you can have the joy of feeling justified. If you don’t, maybe they’ll help with the next quilt you enter into a show.

While the tips below are heavy on close up aspects of a quilt, the judges do spend a bit of time looking at each quilt’s design as worker bees hold it up. I learned that quilts made with wool are heavy.

First, bindings – their straightness, the sharpness of their corners, the security of their stitches, their fullness. Judges spend a fair amount of time on them. Hand sew down the miters on the back side edges if you want to impress a judge. The judges I observed didn’t care if a binding was completely sewn by machine as long as the stitching line was unobtrusive and of a consistent width. They also didn’t disparage butt end edges as long as the edges weren’t bulky.

Judges will measure for consistent width of narrow border strips. I know it’s hard to keep one inch borders even on a large quilt, but they do make a difference.

Removal of markings is important as judges will put their noses about four inches from your quilt top. I thought I had removed all markings from my quilt, but the judges found some blue dots. If I had examined my quilt under a surgical light I would have found those marks.

Straightness of quilt edges is important. Wavering edges show up when judges put the quilt edge next to the table edge. So, square up your quilt before binding it. In fact, square it up after each addition of borders.

For hand and machine quilting, judges check for even stitch length, quilting evenly distributed across the quilt, hidden starts and stops (bury those knots), and stitch tension on the quilt back. Free motion quilting will be checked for stitch tension especially. One problem the judges noted with FMQ is that long straight piecing lines can get distorted as numerous passes over those areas push the fabric a bit. This can make the piecing lines look crooked, even if they aren’t. I gathered that stitching in the ditch first helps prevent this. Another tip is to make sure the quilting goes to the raw quilt edge; don’t stop a half inch in, thinking the binding will cover that area. Some of the quilts had a half inch of puffiness between the edges of the quilting and binding.

The judges talked about problems with use of batiks. Apparently the close weave of batiks can cause waviness at the edges.

Judges don’t like animal hair on quilts. If you have a pet, either don’t use black or other dark fabric, or invest in many sticky lint rollers. Use those rollers before you pack your quilt and after you unpack it at the judging location. Remember, cats use different criteria for quilt judging.

funny-cat-pictures-quilt-competition-judgeis-thoroughOur show judges went through over 100 quilts in one day and remained good humored throughout. They voiced no nasty, disparaging remarks, and strove to appreciate each entry on its own merits. I’ll let you know the public reaction to their ribbon choices later this month.




Filed under Commentary, Quilt Shows

8 responses to “Lessons From Quilt Judges

  1. Rebecca

    I was surprised to learn from a Hoffman curator/judge? (many years ago) that the binding should be the same width on the back as the front. However, this is Houston-quality we’re talking about. There are so many excellent entries into the Hoffman challenge that it comes down to nit-picking.

    • Actually, I recall hearing that at the first quilt show judging I ever volunteered at. I realized I must have absorbed that unknowingly, as I compared my binding back with that of a fellow guild member at a sit and sew. I have to remember to make the back a titch wider for machine sewing my bindings down.

  2. I’m reasonably good at design and piecing. I’m pretty good at binding, too. But I’ll never do show-quality quilting. I do wonder, having seen pix and read things, if a “modern” show like QuiltCon uses different standards. Any inside knowledge on that?

  3. Dear me. It seems that worrying about all those details, when making a quilt, would suck the joy right out of it. But I’m sure your insights and tips will prove valuable to other readers! It must’ve been a fascinating conversation to eavesdrop on.

    • I guess it comes down to your reasons for making a quilt. Some quilters aim to win ribbons, so they choose projects to appeal to what judges look for. Other quilters make quilts as gifts and could care less about judging criteria. I won’t even try to justify why certain points about quilting are more important than others in judging. I think the criteria originated as an attempt to define the elements of a well crafted quilt. But a quilt can be well crafted and not be appealing.

  4. Judy

    One of the things I liked best about the judges in that show, aside from their incredible knowledge of all things quilty, was that it gave them real pain to see a lovely quilt… and then find some problem with it.

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