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 Mandalei.com, “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, http://simplearts.com/blogs/ and on iTunes.