What Makes a Great Quilt (or am I and My Quilt Ready for a Quilt Show?)

Quilts are made for many reasons.  Sometimes they’re a gift.  Sometimes they’re made to live on a bed, as physical hug for the person residing under the covers.  Sometimes they’re made for play or to simply cuddle under while watching TV or reading a book.  And some quilts are made for the sheer joy of creating.  I don’t know why you make your quilts.  I don’t know if you create because you’re in love with the process of making something functional and beautiful and you’re happy with this process.  I also have no idea if you’re constantly striving to become a better quilter and while you’re delighted with the creative process, you wonder what you could do to improve your skills and make stunning quilts.  Me – I fall somewhere between those two categories.  I love everything about making quilts (well…except for the whole cutting the thing out process).  I make quilts for all kinds of reasons, too.  However, I do make quilts to enter into quilt shows primarily because I want the judges’ critques.

Not my quilt, but isn’t it stunning?

Right now, I can almost picture my reading audience.  It’s suddenly divided into two camps – those who enjoy entering their quilts in shows and making quilts for this reason, and the second group who hate the idea of their quilts in any type of competition.   They may not mind showing their quilts at all, but don’t believe in competing against other quilters.  So, before I have a quilty war on my hands, let me say both camps are right.  There are no rules which state  you need to enter at least one quilt in a competition.  There are also no regulations stating quilt competitions are wrong.  Like most things concerning quilting, it all depends on what you like and what works best for you.

This blog will spear head two topics.  The first topic is how to make an award-winning quilt.  Yes, I have done this a few times.   I do have a few ribbons under my belt, so I can somewhat speak from the point of I-do-know-what-I’m-doing-most-of-the-time.  And even if you have no plans on entering any quilt show, you may get a few tips about what characteristics go into making stunning quilts – because at some point in your quilting career, you will want to make a special quilt for some occasion or person and will want that quilt to be super-extra-special.  The second topic deals with how to handle the competition – what to do, how to prepare, what’s expected, etc. 

Characteristics of Award-Winning Quilts 

  1.  Strong visual impact and use of color

For the last several blogs I’ve preached the use of lights, mediums, and darks.  All of those lessons should be taken into account when choosing fabric for a show quilt.  Before a judge touches your quilt, examines the stitches, or feels the binding, they will simply look at your quilt.  It needs to grab their attention right then because the judges only have a few minutes to spend with each quilt.    If it doesn’t, they’ll critique the quilt, but then it will be waved away from the holding table.  Also remember, most of the time quilts are judged on a flat surface, not hanging.

If I can give you one piece of advice at this point, take pictures of your quilt blocks on your design wall.  Take a picture with your cell phone, then flip the picture to black and white to make sure the contrasts are working for you.  Then lay them out on a flat surface and repeat the process.  Between the two photos, you will see what you may need to change.  And it’s a lot easier to change anything while you’re working with blocks than later when the entire top is assembled, and the borders are on.

  •  Almost Perfect Piecing

Be careful with your points.  Be sure they’re sharp and the points aren’t lopped off.   The seams and points should match up precisely and be sure the thread blends in with the piecing.  If you’re like most quilters, we tend to use a palette of neutrals when we piece – dark gray, light gray, beiges, white, and black.  If any of the thread colors stick out like a sore thumb, don’t be afraid to take a marker, Pigma pen, or Inktense pencil to the thread and make it match the fabric. 

Watch for shadowing – this is when the darker fabrics show through the lighter ones.  I realize most of the time we press our seams towards the darker fabrics.  However, there are times when we can’t.  If you are dealing with this issue, there’s a two-step process to work around it.  First shorten your stitch length a bit.  Then, once the seam is sewn, trim the dark fabric in the seam allowance from ¼-inch to an eighth of an inch.  If the thought of such a tiny seam allowance gives you the heebie-jeebies, back the lighter colored fabric with a thin muslin.  This is always my last resort, because no matter how thin the muslin is, it does add a bit of extra bulk in the seam allowance.  However, this method does work, the seam allowance is kept intact, and I haven’t experienced any real issues when I quilt the top. 

  •  Every Bit of Workmanship is Looked at Carefully

Remaining on the topic of piecing for a few more sentences, let me reiterate the following:

          Intersections should meet

          Points should be kept sharp

          Thread should match the fabric

          Avoid shadowing

Let me also add it’s important to watch your stitch size.  Every sewing machine comes with a default stitch length.  Many times this stitch length is too long for quilts.  My machine’s default stitch length is 2.5.  I lower it to 2.0 – 1.8, depending on the size of my block units. 

For applique (no matter if it’s by machine or hand), make sure the edges are secured and the curves are smooth.  Like pieced quilts, points should be sharp, no matter what applique method is used.  Thread should match the applique pieces, not the background fabric, and avoid shadowing by lining any light-colored applique fabric which rests on top of  a dark piece of fabric.

The quilting itself – whether by hand or machine – should consist of small, straight stitches.  It should be of a consistent density, not too heavy in some spots and then hardly there in others.  The stitch length should be even and if backtracking is needed, it should go directly over the previous stitching.  Some quilt judges go so far as to say there shouldn’t be any quilting on applique pieces.  I really beg to differ on this opinion.  Some applique quilts have large applique pieces.  Quilting can be used to add details to these units.  For instance, I’ve quilted in veins of leaves, details in petals and flower centers, and have given the illusion of fur on a bunny.  In all of these situations, the applique pieces have been large, and the quilting added to, not detracted from, the applique.    I will go so far as to say this:  I don’t think an edge-to-edge design is effective for an applique quilt destined for a quilt show.  It’s fine for other applique quilts, but not for show quilts.  However, I do think it’s perfectly okay for the quilting to showcase details in the applique elements. 

  •  Binding and Edge Treatments are Important

Once upon a time, several years ago, I had the awesome opportunity to assist a well-known quilt judge with a small exhibit of applique quilts.  This was several, several years ago and I didn’t know as much then about quilt judges and quilt judging as I do now.  The judge carefully looked over all the quilts, and the next thing they did was grab each quilt by the edges and feel the binding all the way down the sides.  After the judging was over, I asked why.  I was told all quilt judges will examine the binding.  This judge just did it as one of the first things off the list.  In short, I was told it’s important for the binding fill to the folded edge.  The binding shouldn’t be flat.

The corners also need to be 90 degrees and stitched shut on both the front and the back.  The thread needs to match the binding as closely as possible.

Most of the time, included with the examination of the binding, the borders also are assessed.  The edges of the quilt should hang straight.  This means you need to square up the quilt center before sewing on the borders, and all the borders should be cut on the same grain of fabric – either all width of fabric or length of fabric – don’t mix the two.  If cording, beading, or scallops are used, make sure they are well done and held securely in place. 

  •  The Back of the Quilt is Also Examined

One of the last items a quilt judge checks off is the back of the quilt.  The judge generally flips one corner of the quilt over so the edges meet near the right or left side and examines the quilt.  If the work is exceptionally good or there are questions, the quilt may be flipped so the entire back shows.  If the back is pieced, seam lines will be examined to see if they’re straight.  Quilting stitch length will also be noted.  The judge will also check to see if she can tell  where the quilting stopped and started again.  “Obvious starts and stops” is a frequent entry on many quilt critiques (including my own). It’s important to camouflage stops and starts as much as you can.  The easiest way to do this is use a busy quilt back.  A multi-colored print quilt back can cover a multitude of quilting sins – just sayin’. 

It’s also a good idea to make your quilt back interesting.  Add some kind of stand out feature, such as the use of left-over quilt blocks or an interesting label.  Both of those go a long way in impressing a quilt judge. 

  •  Make Sure Your Quilt is Show Ready

Make sure your quilt is clean.  If you need to wash the quilt to remove any marking, please do so.  After it dries, press it.  Make sure there is no pet hair anywhere on the quilt.  If you smoke, take the quilt somewhere for it to “air out” for a few days to rid it of any smokey smell.  Trim and bury any thread ends.  Examine the quilt top closely.  Make sure all applique pieces are securely stitched as well as any beading or embroidery.  Finally, if you are able, hang the quilt and make sure the borders aren’t wavy.  If the quilt label is securely attached, it’s ready to be entered in the quilt show. 

Now you’re ready to fill out your quilt show application and send the quilt to be judged.  There are several issues you need to be acutely aware of before surrendering your quilt to the quilt judging committee.

Know your competition audience

If the show is  primarily for applique quilts, don’t send in quilts which are exclusively pieced.  If it’s a modern quilt show, don’t send in a traditional quilt made with traditional calicoes.  If it showcases art quilts, don’t send in a miniature.  Be sure your quilt is compatible with the competition.  Which means…

Read the application, rules, and regulations thoroughly

Read them through, set them aside, then read them through again.  There are some things you need to be exceptionally aware of.  First, is it a juried show?  If it’s a juried show, the process is a bit more difficult.  A juried show means you can’t just willy-nilly fill out the application and send it in with the quilt.  Usually this means you must first submit pictures of the quilt to a group of quilt judges who will decide if your quilt meets the criteria for the show.  If your quilt is chosen, you’ll be notified and it’s at this point the quilt is sent into the show.  Normally, juried quilt shows are only for the super-large quilt shows such as the AQS and Mancuso quilt shows – not the smaller, local ones. 

However, for both juried and non-juried shows, it’s vitally important to read and understand the application.  Some shows require a separate registration form for each quilt and often there is a separate fee for each quilt.  Others may request pictures of the quilt to be turned in with the registration form regardless of whether it’s a juried show or not.  However the one item all registration forms have in common are deadlines, and you must respect those deadlines.  Putting on a quilt show is an enormous amount of work (I was in charge of a small, local three-day quilt show, so yes, I speak from experience), and the deadlines help bring order to chaos.  Note the deadlines.  If you need to mail in the registration, fees, and pictures be sure to drop them in the mail at least a week before the due date.  If you can’t drop your quilt off on quilt intake day or pick it up after the show, find someone to help you.  Don’t think it won’t matter if you’re an hour or two late.  Chances are the show helpers will have cleared out and gone to lunch by then. 

Quilt categories are another area which need special attention.  Somewhere on the registration sheet or with the information accompanying it, there will be a list of quilt categories.  It’s important to register your quilt in the category which best describes it.  For instance, there will probably be a category for wall hangings and one for art quilts.  If you have a quilt which fits the size for wall hanging, but is more of an art quilt, be sure to place it in the art quilt category.  Two groups which tend to give quilters problems are small quilts/miniatures and duets.  There is a difference between a small quilt and a miniature.  A small quilt is exactly that – a small quilt.  It can be a wall hanging, a table topper, or something similar.  A miniature is a scaled-down replica of a large quilt. Duets are quilts made by two quilters.  And while you may have pieced and/or appliqued the quilt entirely by yourself, if someone else quilted it, most quilt shows would place this quilt in the duet category.  There is some debate about this, especially if the quilter has paid for the quilting, but the best advice I can give you is to read the regulations carefully to determine what the show’s definition of a duet quilt is.  It’s important to register your quilt in the correct category.  In some larger shows, no matter how beautiful quilt may be, if it’s entered in the wrong category, it’s disqualified.  Smaller quilts shows are more flexible, and they may opt to move your quilt into the correct category. 

Also pay close attention about the hanging procedure.  Find out if a sleeve is required and if it is, what size it should be.  Will all everything be hung?  Are sleeves required for small wall quilts or miniatures (sometimes they are displayed on a flat surface).  What about quilted clothing?  Will those be hung on the pipes and drapes, or do you need to supply a clothes hanger? 

Lastly, the quilt intake day for judging, the day the quilts are judged, and the days of the show may be several days apart.  What will be the quilts’ “traffic pattern?”  Will you need to pick them up from each event and take them to the next or will they move from the judging back to you and then you take them to be hung at the show?  And most importantly, what is the security surrounding all the events?  Will the quilts always have quilt show folks around them?  If the quilts stay overnight at the show location, is it locked and off-limits until the show opens?  I never want to think of someone stooping so low as to steal a quilt, but the past few years have certainly shown us this is happening with an alarming frequency.

Now What?

Okay, you’ve bitten the bullet, filled out the forms, paid the fees, and your quilt is now in the process of being judged and then hung in a quilt show for everyone to see.  Now what should you expect?

First, let’s talk about what I consider the best thing that comes from a judged quilt show – the judges’ critiques.  Some folks look at “critique” as a dirty word.  It’s really not.  The judges aren’t criticizing everything about your quilt.  They will tell you the great things about your quilt, as well as what areas you need to work on. During the judging process, the judges spend only a few minutes with each quilt and dictate to someone (this person is called the judging scribe and they write everything down) what’s good and what’s not-so-good.  This lets you know what you need to work on.  I find this very, very helpful because I want each quilt I make to be better than the last one. However, let me also add this:  The critique will tell you what areas need work, but they won’t tell you how to fix it.  The judges can only spend a few minutes with each quilt.  It’s up to you to research and discover how to correct  any quilty areas which need help. 

Now allow me to be honest with you at this point.  The critiques are helpful to me.  They may not be helpful to you.  If you think reading though several “needs more” comments or not winning a ribbon will tarnish you love of quilting, you may want to steer clear of entering your quilts in shows.  I have quilty friends who are great quilters but they won’t enter shows for this reason.  They realize the process may dim their love of quilting.  Likewise if you’re one of those people who absolutely must come away with some kind of prize or ribbon, you may want to steer clear of shows.  You won’t win a ribbon at every show. You won’t take Best of Show at every show (especially if it’s your first quilt show entry). You just won’t.  If a lack-luster showing in a competition will alter how you feel about quilting, be very careful about what quilts you enter in a show and what shows you enter.  I want the critique.  If I get a ribbon, it’s a bonus. 

Finally realize all judging is subjective. Yes, there are certain quilt elements every quilt judge will look at – sharp points, seams that meet, even quilting, great contrast, etc., but a lot of it comes down to the judges’ likes and dislikes.  Some may like embroidery.  Some may not.  Some may have a preference for applique quilts.  Some may drool over great hand quilting.  When it comes down to the last half-point, it all may depend on the judges’ preference.  My quilting BFF won Judges Choice because she used a lot of blue in a quilt and the judge loved the color blue.  The use of this color broke the tie.


And let me add this here – although most quilts are judged horizontally, they’re shown vertically.  You will be surprised at the difference when viewing your quilt vertically rather than on a bed.  The results are stunning!

Not every quilt we make will be a show quilt.  Some of you may choose to never enter any of your quilts in a show.  Some of you will.  There are certain quilt elements every great quilt has regardless of its show status, and these are the essentials which turn a good quilt into a great quilt just perfect for special people or a special occasion.  I’d like this blog to serve two purposes.  First to encourage you to do your best work with every quilt – but always have fun in the process.  And second, enter a quilt show and get a critique if you’re inclined.  You will learn a great deal.  

Until next week, Remember the Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stitches,


4 replies on “What Makes a Great Quilt (or am I and My Quilt Ready for a Quilt Show?)”

Thanks so much for your wisdom about quilt shows, comments, and judging. One of my favorite places to get thoughtful judging is the state fair. For one thing, there are a lot of categories, and a lot of ribbons awarded. Secondly, I have saved my judging sheets, and have seen definite improvement over the years. Thirdly, even though judging is very subjective (as you pointed out), it helps me determine if it might be worth the entrance fee to try for a juried show.

You mentioned security at quilt shows. Even the best shows have had horrible things happen. In my opinion, it’s very important to have a quilt appraised before sending it off to a show. Yes, it is expensive to have a certified quilt appraiser do an appraisal. However, if anything should happen to your quilt, if it is insured, at least there would be some monetary compensation for all those hours and hours and hours of work.

Sherri, you may absolutely offer the suggestion of getting a quilt appraised before a show. It is certainly not an original idea on my part. By the way, I recently found your blog, and I like it a like. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: