The Loving Stitches Award: A Quilt Judging Story

quilt judging

Ever wonder what runs through a judge’s mind as they prepare and then judge a quilt show? Get a window into a judge’s perspective with Melinda Bula as she details her first quilt judging experience.

My First-Time Quilt Judging Experience

by Melinda Bula

When I judged my first quilt exhibition, I was a little scared to say the least. I have a lot of experience being judged, but to judge others is quite another thing. I was a member of the faculty at a retreat sponsored by Tennessee Quilts, a quilt shop in Jonesborough, Tennessee. I’m pretty sure the other faculty members, who were more seasoned than I, all said no when asked to judge. I became judge by default.

The first thing I did to prepare was Google “how to judge a quilt show.” Then I asked friends who have quilt judging experience for guidance. It really came down to my artistic opinion and eye. But how and what was I going to say?

Detail of “Little Farmer Boy”

Detail of “Little Farmer Boy”

Quilt Judging

Jonesborough is the oldest town in Tennessee and is the storytelling capital of the world. It was appropriate that I was there, since I’ve been told I’m full of it (stories, that is). The exhibition was called “Mountain Messages: Everything Old Is New Again.”

While I judged, I had the quilts all to myself. As I walked up to each one, I was reminded what judges said about my quilts in the past. Some critics are vague. Others point out flaws under the guise of offering advice for improvement. But to me, quilt judging is subjective. I always thoughtfully consider judges’ remarks but don’t let them stop me. I have had quilts full of mistakes win Best of Show, and quilts that were the best I could do technically come away with nothing as nobody saw the hard work I had done. So now I just do what thrills me and don’t worry about winning. However, to be on the quilt judging side is a little intimidating.

There weren’t many categories to judge in this show—Best of Show, Best Group, Best Machine, and Best Hand Workmanship. It took me about two hours to go through 38 quilts and find my winners. There was no going back. Did I pick the right ones? I don’t know. I just let my eye and heart guide me. But that was not the end.

quilt judging: “Little Farmer Boy” • 55" x 72" by Carolyn Lowe of Greenville, Tennessee

“Little Farmer Boy” • 55″ x 72″ by Carolyn Lowe of Greenville, Tennessee

The Gallery Talk and Walk

The next night was the Gallery Talk and Walk. Guess who was doing the talking? Yes, I was supposed to walk around to each quilt and comment on it. I had forgotten that part of my quilt judging contract. “What did I get myself into?” I wondered. The gallery was packed with people. They looked nice enough, but who knew?

I introduced myself and walked to the first quilt. People followed me. For a split second I thought, “What if I ran out the door right now; would they run after me?”

Then, as if by magic, I remembered all I had written about each quilt: how I thought the colors sparkled, the complexity of the design, how perfect the points were. I saw the faces in the crowd soften as I spoke. They had no idea who this crazy woman from California was judging their quilts. But I am an encourager. I was born that way and feel one makes a better impact with praise rather than harsh words. Plus I knew what the quiltmakers put into each one: the time they spent, the thoughts they worked out while working on the piece, and the love that went into each quilt. It was touching.

A Quilt I Will Never Forget

As the group followed me from quilt to quilt, I came to a quilt I will never forget called “Little Farmer Boy.” It’s hard to describe. It wasn’t as well executed as the others–far from it. It might have been her first quilt. Its sashing was quilted full of wrinkles. She had used puffy batting and it didn’t hang very straight. But I knew the love that went into it. The blocks featured Sunbonnet Sam in his overalls. She had lovingly made each sunbonnet boy out of fabric from her son’s baby clothes. There were overalls made with Bob the Builder, Oshkosh B’Gosh overalls, a John Deere tractor T-shirt, even a Wiggles T-shirt.

As I started to talk about this quilt, I looked up and there in front of me was a woman with her son who was about 7 years old. I knew right away it was the quiltmaker and her son, because they made their way to the front of the crowd.

As I looked at them, I got a lump in my throat. I knew this quilt was made with love. The boy looked adoringly at his mom as I said this quilt was made for someone very special. I mentioned how I thought of my son, now in the Marines. I told the group how much that quilt will mean one day when that small boy becomes a man. To me, I said, this was the most important quilt there, because I had also made a quilt for my son with love and no skill. It also had puffy batting, very big stitches, and more than one wrinkle in the sashing. But it is the best quilt I ever made, because my little boy, like hers, napped with it, cried on it, and was warmed by it.

I knew what this mom felt. I saw the pride in her eyes when her boy looked at her with love. How many mothers have made quilts out of love, not skill, just to say, “I love you and will always be there for you”?

Melinda Bula

quilt judging by Melinda Bula

Melinda’s Reflections

Quilt judging is a difficult job, but I enjoy the challenge and I think I look at it differently than most. I know how it feels on the other side.

So, for all you who have made quilts out of love, I give you, now that I am a real judge, the Loving Stitches Award. It’s a priceless award worth its weight in gold.


What have been your experiences with quilt judging? Have you ever judged a quilt show? Let me know in the comments!

Are you looking for more great stories from the quilting industry? Check out McCall’s Quilting Magazine. Looking for more judges’ insight? Try QuiltCon Magazine for stories from the modern quilt show floor.

Sew long,

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