TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Conversation With A Quilt Judge by Donna Hussain

Points don't match up.

A few weeks ago I had a “business” lunch with Jody Ohrt, a quilter and judge of many quilt shows in California, including the Pacific International Quilt Festival. I wanted to know how she became qualified to judge and the method she uses to evaluate quilts entered into a quilting competition.  I was prepared to challenge her with my dismissive attitude toward the fairness of judged quilt shows, but she disarmed me with her quilting knowledge, her informative responses, and her fair-minded approach to judging.

Jody began to quilt in 1995.  Six years later she took a course sponsored by the Northern California Quilt Council (NCQC) on judging quilts and wearable art. We were just beginning our conversation when Jody gave me an information sheet that she had written titled Preparing Your Quilt For Judging which outlines criteria for evaluating a quilt. Her worksheet is printed at the end of this article.  All quilters, even those who never enter judged quilt shows, will find the information useful.  I plan to use the worksheet to evaluate my own quilts when they are under construction to help me identify quilting skills that I need to improve. The pictures that accompany this article illustrate common problems in quilt making.

Not enough quilting.

In the mind of many quilters the word “Judge” means someone who is critical of their sewing skills and dismissive of their quilting passion, hard work, and beloved quilts. Jody is not that type of judge.  She considers herself a quilter’s advocate.  She believes that her role as a quilt show judge is to support quilt makers by noting and praising their strengths, and suggesting ways to enhance the quality of their handiwork. She takes care in choosing the wording of her written comments. Quilters, she says, need encouragement and specific advice, not negativity or generalizations like “Appliqué technique needs improvement.”  When I complained about comments regarding the back side of my quilts, (My exact words were, “After all, the back is the Back!”) Jody responded gently that the job of the judge is to evaluate the whole quilt, which includes the back, an integral part of a quilt.

Rounded corners.

Jody noted that many quilts she judges at quilt shows have rounded mitered corners instead of sharp ninety degree angles.  To correct this fault she recommends the following formula for cutting the strip of fabric used for the mitered binding. (The directions below are for quilters with knowledge and experience sewing mitered corners.)

  • X (desired strip width of the completed binding) times 6 plus 1/4 inch. The seam allowance when sewing this binding onto the quilt should also be the same width as X.   For example, to sew a mitered binding that is 3/8 inches wide when the quilt is completed, start with a strip of fabric: (3/8 inch times 6) plus ¼ inch = 2 ½ inches wide

  • When sewing this binding to the quilt the seam allowance should be 3/8 inch.
  • Before actually sewing the binding to the quilt, place a mark on the edge of the quilt 3/8 inch from each of the four corners.  This mark tells you when to stop sewing the binding to the quilt in order to make the miter fold.  To ensure a precise miter, remove the quilt from the sewing machine while you make the fold.  Then place the quilt back in the machine to sew a 3/8 inch seam to the next corner mark.  Repeat for all corners.
Jody assures me that these directions for cutting, folding, and sewing the binding strip will produce crisp right-angle mitered corners.

Another common problem in quilt making is that stretching sometimes occurs during the construction process, distorting the quilt.  Jody recommends that quilt makers wash and block their finished quilts to ensure that their quilts lie flat and that opposite sides have the same measurements.

Jody reminded me that there are no fixed standards for a blue ribbon. A blue ribbon merely signifies that a blue-ribbon quilt has been judged as the best quilt in its category. Keep in mind that some categories have few entries at a quilt show while other categories may have many. That explains why an outstanding quilt may fail to win a ribbon while its neighbor at a show, a quilt of lower quality, sports a ribbon.  Also, the visual impact of a quilt - its artistry, creativity, theme, and originality- is not all that is judged.  The sewing skill of the quilt maker, much less apparent without close scrutiny, is equal in weight in a judge’s mind.

Seams should meet.

My conversation with Jody gave me new respect for quilt show judges. They encourage quilters to strive for excellence and try to help quilters improve the quality of their workmanship.  I also learned that judging is hard work, given the number of quilts and limited time set aside for judging …usually three to five minutes per quilt.

A few days after my conversation with Jody I attended a local quilt show. After a quick overview of the quilts on display I decided to quietly assess some of the quilts as if I were a judge. I had just begun my subterfuge when I realized that my usual focus at quilt shows is presentation value.  Unless the sewing is atrocious, I seldom notice construction quality.  I now understand why my ribbon choices seldom match the choices of trained judges.

Preparing Your Quilt 
for Judging
Look at your quilt top design.  Is it balanced?
Does the arrangement of dark, light and medium values create the needed contrast?
How do your color choices work together?
Is the scale of the printed fabrics compatible with the block size?
Do all the parts of the quilt look like they belong together? Is the design unified?
Is the visual impact pleasing?

General Appearance
Is the quilt clean?
Does it have pet hairs on it?
Does it have an odor of smoke, mustiness or mildew?

Technical Aspects

Are your blocks square?
Do they meet squarely at the corners?
Do your blocks lie flat?
Are your points (triangles, squares, flying geese, Etc.) sharp?
Have you cut off any points when piecing?
Are your sashings straight?
Do the rows meet up in a straight line?
Are your corners square?
Is the size of your sashing relative to the block size?
Are your seams well sewn? Are they free of gaps or open places?
Do dark fabric seams shadow through light fabric?
Are your borders straight?
Is your border size compatible with the center field?

Thread Color:
Is your thread color distracting?
Is the thread color compatible with the quilt top?

Are your points sharp?
Are your curves smooth?
Are your inside edges smooth?  No frayed areas?
Does you appliqué thread match your appliqué or is it distracting?
Are your appliqué stitches small? Do the stitcheds attach the appliqué piece securely?

Quilting Techniques

Is the quilting evenly distributed over the quilt surface?

Has the quilting caused any distortion?
Are there any puckers, tucks, or pleats that should not be there?
Has quilting caused the borders or sashing to be crooked?

Hand Quilting:
Are your stitches the same length on the front and back of the quilt?
Is your thread tension consistent?
Are your start and stop knots buried?
If you have traveled your thread does it show on the quilt top?

Machine Quilting:
Are your stitches the same length on the front and back of the quilt?
Is your thread tension consistent?  Does it need adjustment?
Are your starts and stops distracting?

Marking Lines/Basting Thread:
Have you removed all marking lines?
Have you clipped all thread ends on the front and back of the quilt?
Have you removed all basting threads, including appliqué basting?

Is the width of the binding the same on the front and back of the quilt?
Is the binding securely attached with small even stitches?
Does the batting fill the binding?
Is the binding smooth and not twisted?
If you rounded the edges of the quilt is the binding smooth and not twisted?
Are your mitered corners 90 degree angles?

California quilter, Donna Hussain, has exhibited in major quilt shows around the country, authored books, and is a regular contributor to Fiber Focus. Click on her name to see all of her past articles.

The photo shows Donna with her husband, Pascha.



  1. Nice article Donna; it's helpful to appreciate what the judges are looking for in an award winning quilt. To my surprise, this article popped up on my Facebook Home page, posted by Rayela. I'm so happy she put it there; I went right to the article with one click... without her posting I wouldn't have even been aware. Thank you Donna, Rayela and Facebook.
    Kari Bauer

  2. Kari- Fiber Focus is streamlined to my personal page on facebook (Rachel Biel), to several fan pages: Rayela Art, TAFA and Afghan Tribal Arts. So, if it showed up in your news stream, you must be a fan of one of those pages or someone else included Fiber Focus in their stream. I didn't physically put it in your eyesight, but am glad that you saw it!


  3. This is all fine and dandy for those who want perfectly squared up pieces with neat stitching and presentation, but what about those of us who work intuitively and deliberately, using raw edges, odd shapes, uneven edges and big stitches? Who judges these? Not snarling by the way, truly curious!

  4. May we re-print this article for our local guild? Who owns the copyright to it?

  5. I'm glad I saw this - I just entered 2 quilts in a show so now I will have some idea of what they will be looking at.

  6. Hi Delta,
    The copyright of A Conversation With a Quit Judge belongs to me. Feel free to distribute my article to your guild. So many quilters have shared quilting information with me in the past. In writing quilting articles I hope to pass on that knowledge to others. Donna

  7. I came here via facebook as well. Excellent article! Although I'm still terrified to ever enter a quilt in a show. Now that some people have stitch regulators to make all their free-motion stitches identical, I'm self conscious that mine are not.

  8. Really great article; informative, good photos and loved the addition at the end.

  9. And how are art quilts judged? You know, the ones with ragged edges, purposely rounded edges, or mismatching seams? I'm curious which rules go out the window and which not....

  10. This is very valuable info...thanks Rayela for sharing Donna's view! I'm printing it off and will take it to my workshop and tack it someplace where I can find it when I need it.

  11. Great article! I often wondered about judging criteria for quilts. Thanks!


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“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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