It's a Competition
Quilt shows are a lot of different things, depending on your perspective: a chance to display and share your work, a vending opportunity, a fund raiser for your group….lots of things.
But as soon as a show hires a judge, it becomes something else: a contest. If a quiltmaker has entered a quilt to be judged, that quilt is in competition with other quilts.
Please notice that I did not say the quiltmaker is in a competition against other quiltmakers, at least from the judge’s point of view. The judge looks at the quilt, in the context of the other quilts entered into that particular show. The judge judges quilts, not people. I once had a sort-of-miffed quilter say something to me to the effect of “You’ll never judge me!” and she was right. I would only judge her quilt, and only if she entered it for judging.
I have gathered over the years that many quiltmakers are not terribly comfortable with the whole competition concept; at least not at first. Most quilters I know did not start quilting with an eye toward entering shows or winning ribbons. They started to make something personal for someone special, or honor a loved one, or mark a special occasion. They started quilting to personalize their environment. They started quilting to express themselves in a way that family, jobs and responsibilities do not address. They started quilting for a bit of peace, for therapy, for a kind of meditation.
And now they’re supposed to enter a judged show and go all competitive? So what’s the spoonful of sugar that’s supposed to make that go down?
I think competition usually tiptoes in slowly and sneaks up on you. Here’s how it happened to me.
I joined my first guild almost 30 years ago. I joined because one rainy weekend I went to a nearby quilt show with my 6 year old daughter. I had about as much time to study and appreciate the quilts as you might imagine, when viewing quilts with a 6 year old. One thing did slow her down, though: a guild challenge that seemed to feature a lot of Halloween themed quilts. While she was quasi-occupied, I got to chat with the extremely outgoing guild member who was white-gloving the exhibit. At some point I realized that she was wearing what I call deely boppers---you know, the headband with two springy bits sticking out with something on the ends that bounce around like deranged antennae. I think they were pumpkins.
This lady, who has been a quilting companion for nearly 30 years, says she has no memory at all about the deely boppers. She might be right---maybe it was a stress hallucination on my part.
Anyway, I figured that any group that sent out a representative in deely boppers (maybe) was worth joining.
Up until that time I had made a table runner (Which I had neglected to quilt. I didn’t see why it needed it.) but there I was, signing up as a new member of Undercover Quilters.
I’m a dyed-in-the-wool worker bee, so I volunteered to work on the next quilt show and became the registrar. Lots of quilts got entered. A few were For Display Only, but most of them were entered into categories (Huh?) for judging (Double Huh?) Somehow, during my previous quilt show fly-by with the 6 year old, I had completely missed this whole judge-winner-ribbon thing that seemed to be a big feature of the show. I know, clueless.....
Two years later, with all kinds of encouragement from my new quilting buddies, I entered a quilt for judging. It’ll be fun, they said. You’ll get comments back from the judges, they said. (Comments? Triple Huh?) I entered.
I still have the comment sheet. “Hand quilting will get better with practice.” It took me years to learn to speak Judge well enough to know that what this meant was that every last aspect of my hand quilting, was so lacking that there was absolutely nothing more positive that they could point out. They didn’t blast me. They were kind and encouraging and gave me a glimpse of a quilting future where my work didn’t stink quite so badly, although it took me a long time to stop being semi-puzzled and recognize their generosity.
Another comment was “All parts of a 9 Patch should be square.” (Square? Huh.) Corners were not mentioned. Sashing and long seams were left alone. There was no binding comment. Just a final “Keep working.” Again, nice women.
At that time I had never seen or heard anyone else’s comments, so I figured what I got back was normal. I went on my merry non-competitive way, kept quilting, not to win but for fun and camaraderie.
At our next show I volunteered in the judging room and saw how very closely the judges looked at our quilts. (OMG! They really looked! Up close!) I heard the comments that were given to quilts that even I could see were well done. And some little part of me decided that I wanted to have someone, some day, say something like that about my quilt.
And now a judging note: Often, before a judging begins, one of the things judges and show committees may iron out is how rigorous to be in the awarding of ribbons. Some guilds want the ribbon bar to be held high and ribbons awarded only if truly merited. It’s OK with them if there are left over ribbons at the end of the judging.
Others want all the ribbons given out no matter what. They have a large supply of ribbons. Their members like ribbons. Please award all the ribbons.
My guild was pretty solidly in the award-all-the-ribbons camp.
That year I won a third place ribbon in a category that had 3 quilts in it. Did my quilt really deserve that ribbon or was it just caught up in the general ribbon frenzy? I’m really not sure. But I know I liked seeing that ribbon on my quilt. And when my no-longer-6-year-old daughter saw the ribbon and got excited for me, I liked that too.
Six years after I made the unquilted table runner (which I still use in my classes as an example of what not to do), a competitor was born.
The judged portion of a quilt show is a competition. Some quilters never want to swim in those waters at all. Perfectly fine. Some quilters dip in a toe, pull it out, put their shoes back on and walk away. Also perfectly fine. Others dip a toe, then slide their foot in and keep easing their way into the deeper water. And some really competitive quilters have an eye on a ribbon from Quilting Day 1. Fine and fine!
If your personal comfort level allows and you choose to enter a quilt into competition, I hope your quilt is evaluated by certified judges who will be as realistic, but kind and hopeful in their comments, as mine were.
If you do, they’ll only judge your quilts, never you.
Next: Where Did You Get Those Standards?
Stacy Koehler, Secretary, NACQJ
NQA Certified Judge
Qualified to Evaluate MasterPiece Quilts
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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.