Judges get asked a lot of different questions and one of the topics I get asked about most often is categories. When I’m hired, I sometimes get a list of categories from the guild and asked if the categories look OK. It’s almost as if there is an ideal category list out there somewhere and they don’t know if they’re in the ball park with the one they have created.
Let’s step all the way back and think about the 'why' of categories.
A simple, and very functional approach to the category question is to just not have any. A show full of quilts can be judged without the any category structure at all. Instead of category ribbons (1st, 2nd, 3rd and HM) the ribbons awarded recognize skills, topics, etc. For example: best hand applique, best pictorial, best edge finish and so on. Many shows with categories have special awards. In a show without categories, it is ALL special awards, and a lot of them. And it works very nicely, thank you.
So you can ditch categories altogether, if it’s overwhelming.
Most of us are used to categories and what they do. In a typical category, like is compared to like. Ex: small mixed technique wall hangings are competing against other small mixed technique wall hangings. In the initial judging round, the playing field is leveled. The first place category quilt should be the show’s best example of the category’s type. In the first round, apples are being compared to apples, and the oranges are somewhere else. Only the best apple has to face an orange, somewhere down the line. Category judging is often the easiest to explain and understand, and many shows stick with it.
If a group decides they want to stick with categories, remembering what they are for is a good place to start.
First and foremost, they should represent your interests, whether ‘you’ is a guild or an organizer with a special interest. If you are a guild, take a look at what kinds of work your members do and structure accordingly. I once judged a guild that contained a very strong special interest group that made crazy quilts. Along with the more usual selection, their show had 3 full categories of crazy quilt variations. Not your typical category list, but it showcased what was unique about that guild. Or consider the MQX shows, which highlight machine quilting. Their category structure reflects that. Set your categories up so they work for you.
Secondly, categories often provide an organizational structure for the show. They break a large, diverse, display into manageable bites. Keeping the apples with the apples, oranges with orange, grapes with…… isn’t just a judging issue. It’s how the quilts that are brought in for judging or display are kept in some kind of order. If you don’t use categories, you need another organizing principle to manage the quilts when you accept them and become responsible for them. Whatever organizing principle you use, it needs to carry through your paperwork, your correspondence, hanging, receiving and release. Yeah, I know. “Thank you, Captain Obvious.” Just sayin’……..
Finally, keep in mind that the categories are The Rules. When you set up categories you are setting up another section of the Rules of Entry. Three kinds of people will be bound by the category rules.
The first is the entrant. A quiltmaker who wants to make a quilt to enter in a show is not done when they put in the last stitch of the binding, the addition of a label or a final shot with the lint roller. The last thing a quilter can do for their quilt is enter it in the correct category. This is important because…..
The second person bound by the category rules is the judge. Before beginning a category, many judges will ask to have the category definition read to them. Sometimes the definition is pretty obvious (Bed Quilt, Pieced) and sometimes it is open to interpretation (Art Quilt, Youth Quilt, Modern Quilt etc.) The judge needs to know the definition so, when evaluating a quilt, they know if the quilt is in the right category or not, based on the category definitions. The guild wrote them and the judge is bound by them. A quilt that is not in the right category will be evaluated, judge’s comments will be recorded for the entrant, but the quilt will not be considered for a ribbon, as the entrant has not followed the rules of entry. (Remember that the last job of the quiltmaker is to enter their quilt in the correct category.)
The third group bound by the rules is the guild that wrote them.
Their initial responsibility is to make their category definitions as clear as possible. After you’ve written the definitions, walk around your house, look at the quilts in it and mentally pop them into a category. If it seems like a quilt could go in more than one category, check to see if the definitions are ambiguous. If they are, try to clarify them.
During receiving, set up some kind of verification process. What this means is that, when the quilt is brought in, someone other than the maker (who may be confused…) looks at the quilt and makes sure it’s going into a category where it meets the definition. (Yes, sometimes a quilt can meet the definition in more than one category, in which case it is the entrant’s choice where it will be judged. Their quilt, their choice.) If a quilt isn’t in the right category, changing its category can be discussed while they are still there, at receiving. By moving the quilt, you can put it into a category where it will be compared, like to like, with other quilts of its kind, and where it will be eligible for ribbon consideration (See “second person bound...” above.) If the maker is not available when this decision is to be made, they should be informed.
Depending on a variety of factors, a guild may find that the categories they published as part of their entry form may need to be changed. There may be too few quilts entered in a category and the guild may decide to eliminate it. Or there may be too many and the guild decides to split the category. Or any number of other circumstances.
Modifying the categories is completely within the guild’s rights, even as late as receiving, with one proviso. And that is, that the quilt/s moved must still meet the definition of the category they are being moved to. If the quilt does not meet the definition of its new category, the judge will not consider it for a ribbon, no matter how good it is. The entrant will have paid, though their judging fees, for an opportunity which has not been given to them, based on the actions of the guild. (Not a practice that the group wants to become known for.) The guild is bound by its own rules.
Stacy Koehler, Secretary, NACQJ
NQA Certified Judge
Qualified to Evaluate Master Piece 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.