Judging Improvisational Piecing
I belong to the Pittsburgh Modern Quilt Guild. After I moved to a new city, I checked out all the available guilds in the area and the only one that met at a time when I did not have commitments was PghMQG. Decision made!
I had to think about it for a while. I wasn’t sure about the whole judge thing in a modern group. (And it doesn’t matter whether you tell people right off or if you wait and let it trickle out on its own, eventually your very own pet elephant shoves its way into the room and is kind of in the way. The elephant comes with the job. Just accept it.) Turns out it works out just fine.
I had always been a fan of modern quilting, but the modern quilters I knew were all some other kind of quilter first and then leaned modern. All ‘old’ quilters. So this was my first modern group and my first contact with a whole bunch of quilters who were pretty much born and bred modern.
It’s very interesting. It’s fun. I’m learning a lot. (If you get through the certification program, you know a lot about quilts. Never be lulled into the illusion you know it all.) And if I was ever worried about what would happen to quilting as the average guild population grayed out, I truly believe that quilting will be just fine, thank you very much.
Have they changed my judging perspective? I’m not sure ‘changed’ is the right word; more like enriched. I can bring that enrichment to the judging floor. Here are some thoughts that are in the back of my mind when I judge improvisational piecing.
True improvisational piecing is an interactive process that starts when the first seam is sewn and doesn’t stop till the last seam is closed. It’s a conversation between the quilter, the materials and the evolving design. It’s not just random piecing, although there is a place for randomness in the process.
While improvisation is open to the ongoing development of the quilt, it is not aimless. Kind of a paradox, but true. Amanda Hancock, a quilter from PghMQG, refers to the process as ‘improvisation with intent.’ Chances are that the quilter had at least a vague idea of where they were headed with the piece when they started out. At least at the outset, there had to be something on which to base design decisions, fabric and color choices. The real trick, though, is being open to changing course based on what you see developing. And that, folks, is pretty hard.
Traditional quilters, especially if you work from a pattern as many of us do, pretty much know where they’re going with a quilt from the get-go. Many of those color and design decisions involved in making a quilt have already been made. And for ‘old’ quilters, letting go and trusting yourself and the process is a major challenge. (It can also be big fun. And engrossing. Seriously, when was the last time you used the word ‘engrossing’ to describe piecing?)
Improvisation can be personal and unique. Without a pattern, any idea that is expressed is directly connected to the quiltmaker’s art, thoughts and feelings. It’s their personal image, even if the idea comes from somewhere else. If the quiltmaker leans toward minimalism, it can be reduced to a very simple expression. Don’t confuse simple and easy.
Below is a quilt made by Amanda Hancock (Thank you, Amanda!) of West View, PA which she showed us during a presentation on improvisational piecing.
The blocks came from images and her experiences during one calendar year. All of them are straight up Amanda. Some of them are easy to figure out, for example, the four central seasonal tree blocks. Some are less so. Top row third from the left: a family portrait (Left to right: her husband, Amanda and their daughter.) Second row, first block on the left: daffodils in her yard. Second row first block on the right: birthday candles in the dark.
No one but Amanda could possibly have made this quilt. It is a unique and personal creation.
With all that said, how does this impact judging? All the usual criteria are in effect, plus some additional points, which probably have a lot in common with judging art quilts.
From a color and design perspective, is the piece cohesive or does it look like a bunch of stuff thrown together without direction or guidance? Is there a good balance of unity and contrast? How does your eye move through the quilt? What route does your visual exploration take? Does it feel complete?
Is the piecing well executed? Just because there’s no Feathered Star block, doesn’t mean there are not piecing challenges (Amanda’s roller coaster block, top left corner.) Does the piecing lay flat, is grain line handled well, is the piecing free of distortion? There can be a lot of bias edges and odd seam angles in improv.
If improvisation is included with other piecing methods, does it make sense that it’s there and is its use effective? Was it a good idea to use improvisation in the overall development of the quilt? Improvisational piecing may not be an all-or-nothing proposition in a quilt. It in not uncommon for it to be used with more tradtional techniques. How well is it integrated?
If fabrics that are not your garden variety quilting cottons were used, are they managed well? Do they make sense? What do they bring to the quilt?
And of course, at least for me, all the old standby points that address longevity of a quilt….durable edge finish, adequate quilting to stabilize the quilt, yada yada…. Perhaps the maker is not too worried about whether their quilt is around in 50 years. There is a lot to be said for the use-and-enjoy-now philosophy. But I care. I want people to be guessing what the blocks in Amanda’s quilt represent for a very long time.
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. 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.