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What Do Judges Look For?


You have just finished your latest piece of art — your quilt. You are proud of your accomplishment and want to show it off. You first share it with your family, then with your small quilting “bee” and finally take it to show and tell at your next guild meeting.

For some quilters, this is enough. For others, it is not.

Many quilters and fiber artists want to see how their work stacks up against the competition, whether that is hanging it in a local, non-judged show or entering it in a major juried and judged competition. In addition to gaining recognition for your quilts, you also educate other quilters and the general public about quilting and its standards. For local guild shows, this is often a primary reason for holding a show.

Additionally, if your quilt is entered in a judged show, you can set goals for improvement based on feedback from the judges or your own comparison with winning quilts. And, of course, you might just win a prize, either a ribbon, cash, or merchandise.

Judging impartiality

Impartiality in judging is important and one way this is done is through use of a panel of independent judges, usually three. Quilt judges may have been trained and certified by the National Association of Certified Quilt Judges, which was formed by certified judges from the National Quilting Association after it closed its doors. Judges can also be trained through experience. Regardless of how they come to judging, they all adhere to similar standards of judging. While impartiality is key, final results will be varied based on the individual judges.

Judging can take place either before or after the quilts are hung, and each method has advantages. Judging quilts after they are hung allows the visual impact of the quilt to be better appreciated. Judging quilts before they are hung is usually faster, but visual impact takes second place to the ability to view the workmanship.

Judges often use scorecards or evaluation forms and either a point system, an elimination system, or a combination of the two to evaluate the individual entries. The point system uses a predetermined maximum number of points to judge specific areas, for example, up to 20 points for the color and design, up to 20 points for construction, up to 15 points for finishing, etc., with the total equaling 100 points. Each quilt is judged on its own merits, and the quilt with the highest total number of points is awarded the first place.

The elimination system, on the other hand, allows each judge to evaluate a quilt, make comments on its technique and offer feedback for improvement. If the judge feels the quilt should be held for ribbon/award consideration, it is put aside. If not, it is released from the competition portion. After the quilts are judged in this preliminary fashion, the held quilts are compared to others in its category and the winners are determined.

Neither system is perfect. Regardless, judges evaluate quilts against the same standards. Here are just a few of the commonly held standards that quilt judges use:

General Appearance

  • The quilt makes an overall positive statement upon viewing
  • The quilt is clean and “ready to show,” i.e., no visible marks, no loose threads, no pet hair, no bearding, no offensive odors.
  • The quilt’s edges are not distorted. This is easier to gauge when the quilt is hung.

Design and Composition

  • All the individual design elements of the quilt – top, quilting, choice of fabric, sashes, borders, embellishments, finishing – are unified.
  • The design is in proportion and balanced.
  • Borders or other edge treatments enhance the quilt appearance.


  • Piecing is precise, corners match and points are sharp.
  • Seams, including those of sashing and borders, are secure, straight and flat.
  • Quilting stitches are straight where intended and curved where intended.

As noted, judges consider certain “standards” when evaluating quilts – and the list is really quite extensive – but how do they decide which quilts are the prizewinners? And what is more important, design or workmanship? In the end I think it comes down to design, the quilt with the greater visual impact. But even the quilt with the greatest visual impact cannot rescue poor workmanship.

ICAP offers three resources recommended for those in quilt judging programs. You can learn more about The Challenge of Judging by Jeannie Spears, Judging Quilts by Katy Christopherson, and a audio recording of a conversation on “The Judge’s Perspective” between Morna McEver Golletz and judges Jane Hall and Scott Murkin on the ICAP resources page. We also offer a package with all three of the resources. See the Resources for Judges page on our website.

It’s your turn!

Perhaps you have a different perspective about quilt shows and judging. And about judging art in general. All art will be judged against standards. It’s good if you know what they are. Your thoughts and experiences are always welcome. 


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3 Responses to “What Do Judges Look For?”

  1. Judy Martin said:

    Hi, Morna,

    I think you article makes some good points. I have been thinking about quilts and judging lately, myself.

    It seems to me that in recent years judges have been favoring machine quilting virtuosity above overall design impact. I, for one, do not care for quilting that is so close that the threads obscure the fabrics (and the quilt is too stiff to drape). While I admire the time and talent that goes into machine quilting the prizewinning entries, I think the more over-the-top quilting can overwhelm a quilt. I can understand these quilts winning at a machine quilting showcase or in a machine quilting category, but I still prefer a more balanced approach to judging quilts in general competition. With so many quilters hiring longarm artists to finish their quilts these days, it seems especially odd to place undue weight on the quilting.

    Am I alone in my thinking, or has anyone else noticed this?

  2. Pam Nourse said:

    A very nice summary. So many people attending shows don’t really understand all the things the judges look at in a quilt. I always encourage people who are curious about why certain quilts won ribbons and others didn’t to volunteer in the judging room at a show – it’s a great way to learn, and I know my quilting has improved because of what I’ve learned listening to judges over the years!

  3. Pam Jernigan said:

    I have noticed the same thing in judging at quilt shows. A landscape quilt has to be done in an entirely different way than a traditional quilt. I keep getting comments “it isn’t quilted properly”. What does that even mean? I quilt my own work and I quilted it the way I wanted it to look. I mostly enter art shows now where the design is the main point of judging. Workmanship still has to be well done, but not the most important factor.

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