Finally, we aren’t talking about quilts as a group. We get to talk about individual quilts. The first quilt of the first category to be judged is held up. Finally we can talk about all those good quilt-y topics, like piecing and applique and quilting and bindings. Heaven surely knows, CJs love those bindings!
But all that stuff is the details. We are not ready for details yet. When I judge a quilt, I start by taking a few moments to do what I think of as reading the quilt. Yup, reading.
This is done with the quilt being held as close to vertical as the judging aides can manage, given space, size and height constraints. If at alI possible, and if the room lighting allows it, I also ask the aides to take a few steps forward or backward to get the quilt directly under the best lighting possible.
There is a sweet spot under most lighting where all of a sudden the quilting design pops out and you can clearly see it in relation to the entire top of the quilt. You’ll be able to see it later in more detail when the quilt is flat, but seeing the whole quilting design, spread across the whole top, is a view that should not be missed. After all, the entrant spent his or her time making quilting design decisions for the entire top. The least I can do is look at and appreciate it.
The rest of what I’m going to talk about has to happen pretty quickly. You will be reading about it a lot longer than it can actually take. The average time a judge has with a quilt, from first look to the decision to hold or release, is about 3 minutes. A lot has to happen in those 3 minutes and there are often circumstances that shorten that time.
Keep in mind that, while the quilt is vertical, the judge is probably not right up close to it. I’m not just seeing it vertical, I’m seeing it at a little bit of a distance. Judging, as previously mentioned, tends to be detail oriented. I’m too far away to see details, so what is going on during this important vertical view?
I know this sounds goofy, but I try to spend a moment standing in the quilt's presence. Actually, more like standing in the presence of the entrant’s efforts. The quilt isn’t just a thing, it is someone’s work. Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to put this quilt in front of me, and I’m going to look at it and try to put aside what I saw right before it, and the fact that there is probably someone in the judging room holding a stop watch, ready to call the 3 minute mark (You think I’m kidding???) and that there may be a lot of quilts still to go. I am going to try to let that quilt, that quilter, talk to me. I want to get to know it, without evaluation, at least for a few seconds. It’s a visual thing, so I call it reading.
What I am going to find when I look at the details of the quilt will generally either support or detract from what I see in my face-to-face with the quilt. Sometimes my initial impression has to be amended by the details, sometimes it’s reinforced. Either is fine. But as long as I don’t treat my impression like it was written in stone, I find it a helpful first step.
In real time it’s probably taken about 10 seconds. A very short time, but important.
So, with the warm and fuzzy part finished, what else can be seen vertically?
Now is the time to scan for major construction inaccuracies that would make the quilt hang poorly or not lay flat or cause any distortion. This is the first opportunity you have to determine the general condition of the quilt, although many other aspects of its condition may only be visible up close.
And of course, you can see the big kahunas: Color and Design.
Quilt Judging History break: When I first started attending judging days at my home guild, in the early ‘90s, a commonly heard color comment was something along the lines of “Lovely autumnal palette.” A design comment, if there was one, was something like “Pleasing arrangement of blocks.”
Those days are long gone. In the past few decades, the quilt market has taken off, providing us with more of everything related to quilting. The internet brings us anything we’re curious about, regarding quilting or any other visual art. We were getting to a point where our nice little quilt judging niche was getting a little shallow. It started to dawn on us that autumnal and pleasing weren’t getting the job done.
Other artists, working in other materials, commonly talked about all kinds of concepts when discussing their work: line, shape, movement, color value, visual weight, proportion, texture and on and on. On the whole, simple words like pleasing and autumnal weren't mentioned on the list of ideas being tossed around.
If we wanted to hold our own in the expanded world, we, quilters and judges alike, had to step up.
Next: Color and Design 101: the first of many.
Stacy Koehler, Secretary, NACQJ
NQA Certified Judge
Qualified to Evaluate MasterPiece Quilts
Stacy Koehler became an NQA Certified Judge in 2005. She is a current member of the National Association of Certified Quilt Judges and has served as the new organization's Secretary and Editor of the CJ newsletter. She loves quilts and quilters and believes that a well-judged quilt can be a positive influence in its maker's individual development and contribute to the continued growth of the art of quiltmaking.