Winning Quilts

Just the right mix of art and technique


“Why did that quilt win?” I blurted, eyeing both the blue ribbon and the distinctly different character of the quilt before me. “Oh, you should never say that,” my companion chastised, “what if I had made that quilt?”

Well, she hadn’t, but this particular quilt was so very different, more “traditional” than anything else on display, that it raised a question I had never asked before: “How are quilts evaluated?” This is to say, are there judging criteria? What are they? Who judges?

The Las Colcheras Quilt Guild had a special show during the final weekend of the Southern New Mexico State Fair. There were 58 quilts entered in 12 lots, each specifying a different size, type or manner of creation, for example, Lot 5: Group Quilts; Lot 7: Art Quilts; or, Lot 8: Wall Quilts. The Guild submission process is designed to allow everyone to participate so there are no limits in the number of entries a quilter may submit. They idea is to have fun, show your work and maybe win a prize.

Different quilt shows have different categories.  For example, the Broward Quilt Expo in Miramar, Florida, divides their categories by single/multiple makers. In Vermont, they have Best Modern, Best Pictorial and Best Quilt Outside of the U.S.

Shows will often have special challenges. In the 2019 Las Colcheras show, the Guild president’s challenge was red or green.  Those accepting the challenge had to choose either the red batik or green batik provided and then could use only white, black and shades of gray to develop the pattern.

So, the complexion of shows varies from place to place and from sponsor to sponsor. With this wide diversity, judging is both an art and a science. Many shows employ judges who are certified by the National Association of Certified Quilt Judges and often the judges’ information is posted prominently on the show site. Judges generally use some type of evaluation form or scorecard. Quilts may be judged in their own merits or compared to others in the class.

There are eight specific criteria that cover the visual impact, design and workmanship. The quilts must be clean and well manicured, without any stray threads or pet hairs. The quilts should be the same width top, bottom and down the sides. Binding should be full with mitered corners sewn closed. Other criteria are quilt basics: sharp points, even stitching, good construction.

Design and visual impact are perhaps the two most important features, judging by the points available for these criteria across the various scorecards. Visual impact is about whether or not the quilt “grabs” you. Is it mesmerizing? Do you want to look at it endlessly? Do you want to take it home? Although there is a specific judging category for visual impact, the Viewer’s Choice Award also measures this impact and is the only award not decided by the judges. It is determined by all the votes that are cast by visitors to the show. There is a specific period during which votes are cast and counted. Once closed, the winning quilt is determined and the appropriate ribbon awarded for all to see.

Quilt design is crucial. The Association of Connecticut Fairs ( ACF) judging sheet lists the criteria as “has unity, rhythm and balance; proportional to quilt size; quilting design complements pattern. Originality.” The San Juan Quilt Guild entry form asks for the pattern, and if it was made from a kit. Las Colcheras asks whether the design is totally original, that is, not a pattern and not a derivative of someone else’s work. Designs based on traditional or commercial patterns, or inspired by a workshop, class or book, etc., must be credited in the quilt description.

The criterion that I found most surprising, since I never see it talked about, is the appropriateness of the quilting.  What we most hear about is stitch length and stitch consistency. And these are important because they affect the overall appearance of the quilt and speak to the quilter’s skill and attention to detail. Las Colcheras Quilt Guild’s most recent show had a separate category for quilts that that been professionally quilted, separating those quilts done by their makers and those that had had outside help but the ACF judging sheet asks specifically if the quilting design complements the pattern.

Having spent a good deal of time perusing quilting books, blogs and videos, I have seen an extensive collection of quilting motifs. While there is substantial attention to design and the beauty that results from various combinations of the patterns, people seldom talk about how appropriate one choice over another is for the quilt itself. Yet, the judging criteria ask: Is the quilting appropriate for the quilt? When I quilted Flowers in Burano for the “Say Yes To Kaffe Collective Challenge” in early 2021, I used a vertical wavelet pattern because Burano is an Island off the coast of Venice. Simulating the gentle waves in the bay seemed appropriate to the quilt that honored the little Island. I thought it was just a design choice that I was making.  It wasn’t until I started doing research for this article that I saw that it was more than just my simple design choice: Selection of a quilting pattern is a feature that the judges look for and use as a measure of the quilt’s quality. Consistent density is also evaluated. Experienced quilters know that intermixed dense and sparse areas of quilting will prevent the finished quilt from hanging straight, something that judges notice right away.

But what is not necessarily included in the official criteria is how appropriate the quilting is for how that quilt will be used. Dense quilting makes the quilt stiffer, less cuddly, where less dense quilting with more widely spaced lines and motifs make a quilt that is perfect for wrapping up with on chilly winter’s nights.

Mia Kalish lives in tiny San Miguel, NM. She began sewing couture clothing at 16, got away from it as life took over, and then became fascinated with the hugeness of quilting about 5 years ago. Her favorite projects are lap and pet quilts. She sews on her Bernina 475QE. Follow her on Instagram @Joe’sRoomQuilts.