Some Thoughts on Judging the Modern Quilt
“My Brothers’s Jeans” by Melissa Averinos (Photo source: Modern Quilt Guild website)

First, a disclaimer: I know nothing about judging quilts. Okay, I know that you’re supposed to check the binding to make sure it’s sewn on good and tight and plenty stuffed. But therein ends my knowledge. I do know something about judging in general, though, having judged several writing contests over the years, most recently the Scholastic Book Fairs’ Kids Are Authors competition. First of all, judging is hard work. Second, while it’s fairly easy to whittle entries down to the semi-finalists, it’s much more difficult to narrow the field down to the finalists, and almost impossible to pick a winner. Usually each of the finalists has hit all the marks: in writing contests this means plausible plots that move along at a good pace, well-developed characters, well-constructed sentences, and stories with heart. So how does one decide?

Well, you resist choosing the baseball story just because you like baseball, and you don’t hand over the big prize to the kid who wrote a tearjerker about a dog just because you’re a sucker for dog stories. You try to not let your own biases get in the way of making a fair choice. Oftentimes your final decision comes down to originality, personality and a certain je ne sais quoi.

Right now in the quilty world, there are those who are questioning the 2016 QuiltCon judges for selecting My Brother’s Jeans by Melissa Averinos for Best of Show. That there would be naysayers is a given. There are always naysayers. But in this case, what are the naysayers naying about and do they have a point?

From what I’ve heard, those who question the bestness of My Brother’s Jeans feel that it’s not a technically proficient quilt. Phrases like poor construction and indifferent workmanship have been bandied about. Many who criticize the choice feel the quilt got its BOS nod because of the story behind it—the jeans in question belonged to Averinos’ brother, who committed suicide in 2009. The quilt is a mourning quilt and it’s difficult not to be moved by it once you know the story.

Since I’ve only seen pictures of My Brother’s Jeans, I’m truly in no position to judge. I should say I do like it, very much so, but to really know a quilt you need to see it live and in person; photographs rarely tell the whole story. I will also say that I’m more than willing to give Averinos the benefit of the doubt–I assume any roughness in construction or design was intentional and for the purpose of evoking a particular emotional response.  But as I said, I’m really not in a position to judge.

On the other hand, BOS judges Scott Murkin, Cheryl Arkison, and Lisa Congdon were in a position to judge, and clearly they liked what they saw when they examined My Brother’s Jeans. So just what were they looking for? What are the criteria for an excellent modern quilt? How do they differ from the criteria for an excellent traditional quilt?

There are those who feel that the criteria for excellence in a quilt should be the same across genres. Whether a quilt is modern or traditional or some mix thereof, workmanship and design should be the primary measures of a quilt’s superiority. In a 2015 interview Murkin, a NAQ certified judge, did a marvelous job of outlining what excellent workmanship consists of. Workmanship, he told Mandy Lein of, “focuses primarily on the structural integrity of the quilt. Secure seams, straight lines (where intended), smooth curves (where intended), well-secured quilting stitches that hold the layers together securely without any excess fullness, straight edges (where intended), square corners and secure edge finishes are all part of this equation. While textiles are subject to the wear and tear of everyday use and cleaning, a well-made quilt should last a long time under general usage conditions. Workmanship that undermines the longevity of a quilt will be noted during the judging process.”

The parenthetical refrain of “where intended” is key to considering how one judges the modern quilt, in my opinion. Modern quilters don’t always have the same intentions as their traditional sisters and brothers. The problem of uneven stitching might recede in the face of an original design or a powerful message. A perfect point might matter, but not as much as the quilt’s emotional impact. Moreover, a less than perfect point might just be intentional, a way of causing friction in the viewer’s experience. In short, intangibles will be considered when considering a modern quilt.

It should be noted that of the three judges on this year’s panel, only Murkin is a certified quilt judge. One of the judges, Lisa Congdon, is not a quilter at all, but a painter and illustrator. Last year’s line-up was similar, sporting only one NAQ certified judge, Stevii Graves. 2015 judge Janine Vangool quilts but is better known as a  graphic designer and UPPERCASE magazine editor. In a post-QuiltCon blogpost, Vangool wrote that her favorite entries “had interesting and personal descriptions of how the quilt’s inspiration came into play … Quilts in which the personality of the maker shone through were the most pleasurable to look at—and the most memorable weeks later.”

I believe that by selecting judges who are not actually certified to judge, the Modern Quilt Guild is signaling that while having a securely attached binding may be important, it may not be paramount when judging the overall excellence of a quilt. Not that MQG is uninterested in workmanship. The entry rules state that, “QuiltCon reserves the right to reject any quilts that are in poor condition when received and seen in person. Examples include, but are not limited to, torn fabric, stained fabric, poor craftsmanship or an unfinished quilt.”

So it’s not that MQG doesn’t have standards. It’s not that workmanship isn’t important. But by using judges who either aren’t quilters or aren’t certified quilting judges, there is the suggestion that many factors will be considered when choosing the best of show quilts, not only workmanship and design. What these factors are may vary from quilt to quilt, show to show. The fact is, judging the modern quilt may be a more subjective process than many of us are comfortable with.

Let me end by saying this: I believe all honor and respect are due to the quilter who places a high value on technical excellence. Too often we dismiss her as a member of the quilt police, a little old anal lady caught up in enforcing rules and making the rest of us miserable. Why not think of her instead as the Olympic athlete of quilters, the fabric world’s Michael Phelps? We admire exceptional skill in athletes; why not in quilters?

Moreover, I think workmanship matters, and I think it should and does matter to modern quilters. In the same interview quoted above, Murkin goes onto say, “Modern quilters have to be careful that ‘breaking the rules’ doesn’t become an easy excuse for sloppy workmanship. Workmanship criteria that are no longer valid, i.e. no longer have an effect on the durability or longevity of our work can and should be abandoned when they no longer serve us and just become arbitrary rules. But many of those workmanship criteria have real, demonstrable effects on the presentation and life of our quilted creations and it makes sense to invest ourselves in making our work better.”

I believe that as Modern Quilting evolves we’ll see more and more quilts that are remarkable for their workmanship as well as their design and originality. I think we’re seeing them already. But I’m glad that modern quilters aren’t afraid to give big love to a quilt with a good story and a beating heart.


P.S. I haven’t yet listened to Annie Smith and Christa Watson’s discussion about this year’s QuiltCon, in which they talk about My Brother’s Jeans, but I plan to this afternoon. You can find it on Annie’s website, and on iTunes.

18 Replies to “Some Thoughts on Judging the Modern Quilt”

  1. Excellently written and very thoughtful. I think you are spot on when you suggest that the MQG are indicating that more comes into play than just technical excellence, and personally I’m glad to see that.

  2. Well put. The part about Olympic athletes particularly resonated with me. So often people leave traditional quilt shows feeling defeated because they think they can never reach those levels of skill.
    Instead, we should remember this; Michael Phelps is an amazing swimmer. I love to swim. I’m not going to never swim again, just because Michael Phelps exists. I’m going to swim my way, and I’m going to enjoy it.

  3. I have discussed, My Brothers Jeans”, in my head a bit today. Back and forth, up see-down see, and finally wound it around my head to form this opinion.
    What is the intent of her quilt…. to me her intent was to make a quilt that reminded her (others) how fragile our loves and lives on this planet can be. “Like life a Quilt …hangs on a thread” (original thought…Creative writing teach would have loved it!
    I think the Ist place prize was well deserved by this virture. My Mother taught me to always ponder the intent of an action or my reaction or interaction of an event or life moment. So I do…she was always worth the listen.

    I am a fiber sewist who sells in Art Galleries. I do wall quilts for galleries. I do not do shows…I am more motivated by money that ribbon! Too old for scarlet ribbons in my hair, Also I get a big bang out of someone wanting to look at something I created for a long length of time, course they could just be covering a hole in a wall! I was asked to enter a few “Art Quilts” in a Quilt show, to fill the walls I guess.
    Really excited about getting a review from a Well know Judge/ Art Quilter….she gave me a ribbon of second in my category along with some prize money….what has given me great amusement was the comment she made after the awards. “You had the most creative quilt, exceptional use of materials and colors,ya ya ya…but your BINDING stitches were a little irregular in spacing.” I have to laugh….I stitched the binding in the car while a friend drove me to drop the quilts off. Course it would have been just as wobbly and loose if I had done it at home.
    I like all kinds of foods, people and quilts. I have eaten, met and made all kinds of foods. people and fiber filled things. What ever I am eating is the best, who ever I am hanging with is goodness and what ever I am sewing (or pondering to sew) is the gona be the best yet. Poor Francis….I am sorry for my spelling, grammar and written structure must be driving you nutso. My sweet man in an editor and he sweats to read (so he can politely correct) my written words. Yes I am well edgecated….just did not pay attention in any grammar class from high school to college. Forgive or delete….

  4. My mom would say always do your best. Was this a best of show quilt, I think not. Was it a quilt which has a sad story attached to the making, yes. But does that make it qualify as the best quilt ever, no. Maybe I just don’t understand the modern quilt movement. I just finished a king sized quilt for my aunt and uncle made with a large variety of fabrics including some from my grandmother who died in the early 80s. Did it have a story attached, yes. We’re points cut off, no. Were the seams straight, yes. Was the free motion quilting good, yes. It was made of lots of small pieces, some finishing at 1″. It was made completely by me while I’m fighting stage 4 cancer. I will now go back to my sewing machine and create something beautiful.

  5. Very well said and thought provoking. We are at the beginning of the Modern Quilt movement and I think that it is still finding it’s feet. I did see the quilt in person and it is powerful in real life. I was moved by the story, but there were so many powerful, more traditionally-constructed quilts in the show, maybe this one stood out because it was so different.

    I could not shake the feeling as I looked at beautiful quilt after quilt at QuiltCon, that it was more like visiting an art show than a quilt show. So many of the quilts were very minimal in design and I had to remind myself to think about what they were trying to say with the piece, rather than admire the maker’s adeptness at making perfect points.

    I think the controversy itself is good for the movement. It will inform the shape and direction of where modern quilting goes in the future. Thanks for opening the conversation.

  6. I think that the story behind the quilt shouldn’t matter in the judging. Perhaps the techniques in a QuiltCon quilt shouldn’t matter as much either, but I think the visual impact of the quilt should be the most important. I think there were other quilts that had equal or better visual impact to the winner. I saw the winner in person and didn’t get the impression that it was particularly poorly constructed, but I do think it got lost in a sea of improvisational piecing, which leads me to believe that the story swayed the judges.

    I really liked the softness of the background. I didn’t like the crosses. I thought they were jarring and out of character for the quilt. Perhaps the judges had the same question, which is why they asked to hear the story for clarification Suicide is a jarring thing. We mostly likely don’t expect to be involved in a situation around suicide, so perhaps the crosses represent that feeling?

    All my opinion.

  7. “A well-made quilt should last a long time under general usage conditions.”

    But will this quilt be treated with general usage conditions? If she’s gone to the trouble of going in a dumpster to retrieve the jeans and made a memory quilt out of it, I think chances are it won’t be tossed into the washer with the kind of regularity that will wear on the construction.

    I enjoyed listening to you talking about this on the podcast, as well as hearing about your MQG meeting. I’m starting up an MQG in Munich this month and it gave me some food for thought. I’m going all Republican about it, as in “small government,” without as little administration as possible, but the one thing I’m going to have to insist on is inclusion. There will be no judging who is or isn’t a modern quilter,or even *what* is or isn’t modern quilting.

    1. Good luck on launching your new guild! Both modern guilds I am in are led with a lot of delegation so no one is overwhelmed with a lot of work and anyone who wants a leadership/contribution role can have it.

  8. Great post. I’m not sure the judging rubric was really clear, (at least to viewers and, I dare say, the people I know who entered quilts). (I didn’t have a quilt entered in this show; I don’t quilt for shows. Not why I quilt.) My reaction was similar to many I talked with – the prize was for the story, the sentiment, the impact. This can easily be addressed by adding a class for “story” quilts”, where the skill in putting the quilt together is secondary. But, without wanting to join the quilt police, I think the skillset is just as, if not more important, than a “story”. and even more important is being clear on the basis for judging. Before the quilts are submitted.

    I also think that any comments that the artist sends with the quilt should be ignored until all the judging is finished. I can just see the escalation in sad, horrible, happy (etc.) stories coming in next year.

    And while I’m here, I’ll also advocate for different classes for quilts that are completely made by one person, from quilts that are made by many. We should have a Piecing class, where if someone pieces their own quilt but has it quilted by someone else, can enter, to emphasize the piecing. Or vice versa. But why we ignore the fact that a lot of people only do one part of a quilt and then get a prize for the whole thing is over my head.

  9. Scott Murkin’s comments about Melissa’s quilt might be helpful in this context. It is also important to understand that many quilt shows do not use any certified judges at all. QuiltCon judge Scott Murkin says that Melissa shows an “extreme confidence” with her materials, adding that the peek of gold behind the more workaday denim is a “brilliant touch.”

    “She mixes materials that don’t obviously go together to create new visual harmonies,” Scott says. “She has mastered scale, value and rhythm to create a composition that keeps the viewer engaged as well as coming back to visit the piece again.”

  10. Similar debates occurred with the Art versus Traditional quilters in the late 80’s-early 90’s. I just see these as natural growing pains as Modern Quilts and quilters continue to define themselves. Until there is a substantial body of work to refer to issues like this will continue to rise. I agree that having non-quilter artists involved in the judging makes for a really unique perspective. Having scribed for Scott at another show judging I can also say he can hold his own and represent quilting well!

  11. Like you, Frances, I am not an NAQ certified quilt judge but have judged quilts and numerous other 4-H and open class projects at local and state fairs as well as youth robotics, science and speech competitions. Some of these have been on a panel while others have been a one-judge gig. You were spot-on in your assessment that the contenders become obvious pretty quickly but selecting the best of the best is a tedious task that often comes down to some sort of personal preference.

    When I was a young 4-H’er, my mother told me to remember that the ribbon I received was, “Just one judge’s opinion on one day.” This mantra has served me well as a competitor and as a judge. As I give talks to encourage quilters to participate in local judged shows and work with my young 4-H’ers, I use this often to encourage them to focus on meeting their personal goals in producing a product of which they are proud not necessarily in earning a particular ribbon.

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