From A Judge's Perspective - QuiltCon 2016

QuiltCon is over, the winners announced, and I can finally talk about what it was like to judge the quilts. Phew. Keeping that secret was harder than waiting until the second trimester to announce a pregnancy.

Judging the quilts was an intense and overwhelming experience. Three days that were 10-11 hours long of doing nothing but looking at quilts. Not just looking at them, but touching them, examining stitches, evaluating colour and composition, and yes, comparing them. I've never been so absorbed in quilts before. Thank goodness I wasn't alone. As a team, I worked with Lisa Congdon and Scott Murkin.

The team aspect was fantastic. Lisa, Scott, and I got a long very well. Lisa is an artist and illustrator (and great teacher). Not a quilt expert, but with an amazing eye for colour and composition. Scott is a quilter in his own right and a certified quilt judge. He knows a lot about quilts. I've been quilting for 18 years now and I thought I knew a fair amount. I learned so much from both of them. I feel like, after our time together, we've bonded in a special way. We have private jokes and a shared experience. It was our time in the quilt trenches.

Except that it wasn't the trenches. The Modern Quilt Guild had show offices in this cool building in LA. A creative space full of concrete floors and minimalist design. The kind of space many of us dream about as a modern studio. There was nothing in our judging room other than paper wrapped tables, foam playmats to stand on, and a great window to hear the helicopters and sirens of the city. Not to mention the natural light. But we did spend long, long hours in there. Thankfully, as the judges we were engaged all the time and hardly noticed the passage of time. Towards the end of the day we would look up and boom! It was dark. 

So, what exactly did we do all day?

Simply put, we looked at each and every quilt submitted for judging at QuiltCon. It wasn't a free for all with a stack of quilts though, there was a very defined process that kept us on track and made it as fair as possible for the entrants. Here is the run down on the process, from my perspective. Keep in mind that we were judging quilts already juried in to the show and we did not have any role in the jury process.

- Each category was stacked on the tables, one category at a time. And we could only see the category we were working on, no others.

- The quilts for the entire category were fanned so we got a first look at each of them. This gave us an idea of the category as a whole and the quilts in comparison to the others.

- Each individual quilt was held up for viewing. We stood about 12 feet away. This way we got an idea of what it is like hung. You can see a lot in terms of design, composition, and colour when the quilt is hung and you view from a distance. (Not unlike how you would see it in a show.)

- As the quilt was held up the name of the quilt, and only the name, was said. We did not get descriptions or artists. This judging is blind so we had no idea who made what quilt. We could ask for descriptions, but we maybe asked about a dozen times over the 3 days - only if we were trying to determine whether the quilt was an original design or if the intent of the artist wasn't necessarily clear from the quilt alone.

- Then each quilt was laid down on the table for us to inspect it up close. We would look at everything - quilting stitches, construction techniques, edge finishing, pressing, whether the quilt edges were straight, fabric selection. Trust me, no one has ever looked at the quilts this closely!

- As we examined the quilts we were guided by category specifications that the MQG put together. These outlined the general and specific things to look at in the quilt - from overall design items to quality of the binding.

- Each quilt got at least 3 comments from the judges. We worked together to provide constructive criticism and compliments for each quilt. Scribes wrote down, by hand, our comments. Sometimes we would provide a little + next to one of the category specifications. This meant the work was done particularly well on that specification.

- As we went we would decide if a quilt should be held for an award or released. At the end of seeing all the quilts for a category the held ones would be placed back on the tables for us to see all together. Then began the process of determining winners. 

- Winners were determined by consensus among the judges. We would narrow down the field further, discuss a lot, and eventually get to the top ones in the category. Sometimes this took a lot of discussion and time, but it was always worth it to get to agreement.

(It should be noted that the winners for the Glitz challenge and EZ Triangle Challenge were chosen by Michael Miller and EZ Quilting, we only provided the top choices for them to pick from.)

- Best in Show was picked from the winners of each category.

Phew. Are you tired just reading that? It was both exhausting and exhilarating to do this. Overwhelming and inspiring. 

Judging is just that - judgement. It is subjective and critical. As I said, no one, even the maker, has likely looked at their quilts as close as we did. Call us the quilt police if you want - we did get nitpicky on things like quilting starts and stops and shadowing in seams - but that was our job! These quilts were there to be judged, so that's what we did. Our comments should be viewed as constructive because it was never our intent to make anyone feel bad about their quilt. We can all benefit from a critical eye and having aspects of our quiltmaking to improve upon.

The reason I went into detail about the room and the process is to remind everyone that those days were special. And the team was special. We worked really well together and I so enjoyed my time with Scott and Lisa. You could have put three different people together and likely had different outcomes. Judging, without a doubt, is still subjective. No matter what though, I am proud of the work we did and stand 100% behind the outcomes of our time together.

On a more personal note, I was quite surprised at my own reactions to this experience. I went in thinking I would be obsessive about the technical aspects more than anything, seeking perfection. Early on I realized that what I valued most - personally - was creativity and seeing the hand of the maker. These are, first and foremost, functional quilts, there aren't ever going to be perfect quilts. Once you realize that you start looking for the maker in the piece. You want to see that a person made it and the decisions they made had intent. Yes, you still want a technically proficient quilt that will wear well and not fall apart, but putting yourself in the quilt matters so much. 

It then became important to me to see the show itself hanging at QuiltCon. Because we judged blind and because I made a point of staying off of social media around QuiltCon deadlines I did not know who made the vast majority of the quilts. So I walked the show to see who made what quilts. One of the most exciting things was realizing how many quilters I did not know immediately or at all. (Of course, I can't know everyone.) What it really shows is the depth of the modern quilt world and the fantastic people out there making quilts.