What the judges are judging?

August 7, 2012

August and September are traditional months for everything from butter cows to Ferris wheels at county and state fairs.Can you smell the corn dogs frying, hear the kids screaming on the roller coaster, and see the throngs of people wandering the hog barn in search of the biggest boar?

If you wander the fairgrounds for any length of time you’ll discover fierce competitions taking place over whose cinnamon roll is best, which ear of corn has the straightest rows of kernels, or who is the best fiddler (or “mom caller” or whistler or pie eater)! Quilters are not outside the competition arena. Thousands of us will enter our county or state fair in hopes of taking home a ribbon.

Judging quilts is not a science any more than judging whose raspberry jam is best. The process includes some commonalities to give judges a starting point, but beyond those first measuring sticks the process becomes subjective. Every competition, from figure skating to American Idol, has criteria for “technical execution”–did she land the triple salchow correctly or is he off key?Quilting criteria also provide means for comparing us to each other in measurable ways, reducing the impact of subjectivity and personal bias or preference.

At any given quilt show, the venue or sponsor may influence how the competition is judged. A show aimed at machine quilters will evaluate the machine quilting more strongly than the piecing. A show geared toward art quilting will focus on color, design and layout ahead of quilting stitches. A quilt could win grand prize at one show, and receive nothing but smiles from attendees at another. This should not hinder you from entering…it should inspire you to enter more shows!

Many shows are judged by “NQA Certified” judges. These men and women go through rigorous training, apprenticeships, and evaluations before receiving their certification.Other shows are judged by quilters who have a depth of knowledge inthe industry but may not be “certified”. Their experience level is their certification.In either case, judges need some common ground on which to evaluate quilts before injecting their opinions.

The quilt’s pattern design and elements like color, fabric and thread choices are more subjectively judged. If a quilt judge has a penchant for bright fabrics, she may respond more favorably toward a batik quilt over one with civil war reproduction fabric. Despite her best efforts to remain “impartial” it is difficult to maintain objectivity 100% of the time.

But some quilting aspects are clearly measurable, and would be recognizable no matter who looks at the quilt. Your family and friends will still love you no matter what the judge says about your quilt, and they will also tell you that they love your quilt and it’s the best…simply because YOU made it. They don’t care if you whacked off a star point or if the borders are wavy. They just want to snuggle under something that reminds them of you.

But you can use the opportunity to have a disinterested party provide input on how to improve your “technical” quilting skills.Use the comments you receive from the judging process to become a better quilter.

Here are some of the “measurable” criteria judges use to evaluate quilts in competition:

  • Are blocks square? Is the quilt square?
  • Are points in the piecing chopped off? Do the intersections line up?
  • Are borders straight?
  • Does the quilt edge wave or ripple?
  • Are piecing threads showing?
  • Do seams shadow through light fabric?
  • Are quilting lines straight?
  • If gridwork is used, is it parallel and straight?
  • Are curved stitching lines (or applique edges) smooth?
  • Can you see any starts and stops?
  • Can you feel any knots on the quilt back?
  • Is the tension generally balanced?
  • Is the stitch length consistent?
  • Is the quilting density balanced through the entire quilt design?
  • Is back-tracking done well?

Many of these skills you aspire to achieve, anyway. Why not enter the show and see what happens? Maybe you’ll be toting home a quilt with a bigole’ ribbon on it!