I’ve entered a lot of judged quilt shows and I know that it can be a disappointment if you don’t earn a ribbon, or if you don’t get the ribbon you think your quilt deserved. There are infinite ways to try to console yourself, or your friends may try to console you. Maybe some of these statements sound familiar?
“It was an honor just to be accepted to that show.”
“Those judges are blind!”
“You got robbed!”
“Well, your quilt still looks beautiful hanging there.”
And so on, and so on, right?
I’ve been on all sides of the quilt show competition spectrum; a winner, a loser, and a judge. Being in all three of these roles has given me a unique perspective. I wanted to share this perspective on some of the issues and feelings that go along with quilt competitions.
First of all, let’s discuss being a “Winner”. Oh, the elation! To win a ribbon at a large quilt show is definitely getting harder and harder. The caliber of quilters in our country today is remarkable. Just take a look at the quilts in the National Quilt Museum, in Paducah, Kentucky. While they are timelessly beautiful, the techniques used to create them, although innovative at the time, may pale in comparison to quilting methods used nowadays. Some of the quilts that won that place of honor 20 years ago might not win today. The quality and technical difficulty of the quilts made today is mind-boggling. Quilting is evolving almost as fast as technology (and that’s fast!).
One of the hardest things to reconcile is that just because your quilt is a big winner at one show doesn’t mean it’s going to be a big winner (or a winner at all) at another show. I’ve had a quilt win a Best of Show at the AQS Lancaster show, and then win nothing at Houston or Road to California. It’s disappointing, but it really just proves that every show is different. Each show has different categories, different competition, and different judges. And because of these varying factors, it only makes sense that the outcome will be different for each show. Heck, even the lighting in the judging room can affect how your quilt places (or doesn’t place). Living through the ups and downs of quilt competition has made me realize that I must be extremely grateful when I do earn a prize, and not to expect it by any stretch of the imagination. When one expects to win, even the best quilts and quilters can be disappointed.
Something else that I’ve seen occur with “winning” quilts is that after a few years of being on the show circuit, judges may simply get tired of seeing the same quilt, show after show. I know that sounds harsh, but I’m trying to articulate that a judge will then look for a quilt that is more fresh and innovative or just simply something NEW! I know that this statement will raise eyebrows and ire, but I’ve seen it happen. It’s not a conscious decision; I just think it’s a natural human instinct to search out something new and exciting.
I would also like to share some of the emotions that go along with being a “loser” (and I’ve experienced that plenty!). I can’t speak for others, but when I enter a quilt at a large show, I try not to get my hopes up. I try to mentally block the date of the show (when the winners will be announced). But good luck with that! It still looms in the back of my mind. Occasionally I can forget about it for a week or so, but then I remember, and oh, the agony! Especially with a show like Houston that has your quilt for a month or so before they even judge. Then when the week of judging occurs, you subconsciously check your email more often, your phone, or even Facebook to see if others are sharing that they got that coveted call or email. The rest of us who don’t get a call have to lick our wounds in private ☹. One might even ask, “Why put yourself through that torment?” Well, all I can say is that the emotional rollercoaster of competitive quilting provides the ultimate highs and the lowest of lows. It’s an addictive thing, and those highs keep you going.
Having experienced those lowest of lows many times, my outlook has changed a bit (out of self-preservation I think). Now I really do just cherish the quilts I make. Sure, when I’m making them, I think about how certain aspects of that quilt will compete, but overall, I just love the quilt. So loving my quilts, no matter what, is a very good thing and it helps me deal well with rejection. For instance, one of my favorite quilts, “When the Aspens Turn”, didn’t do very well in the competition world. It won a few nice awards, but overall, it was a flop. But I don’t even care about that because I LOVE this quilt, and it hangs next to my sewing machine, and I enjoy it every day. For that reason, I truly believe it’s a winner!
I must say that if there are any quilters out there simply creating quilts with the expectation of making money with them, that formula may work for a while, but will it really provide them the joy that others derive from quilting? Sometimes I do get the impression that a few quilters fall into that category, and sure, the prize money must be wonderful, but it’s a little bit too clinical for my taste. Then again, maybe I’m just being a bit too pious about this. If I continually won prize after prize with a few key ingredients in my quilts, I would probably continue doing that. After all, money is a strong persuasion. And let’s not forget the glory that comes along with those prizes. It’s a potent inducement.
The last perspective on quilt competition I mentioned is being a quilt show judge. Judges have to be the most hated or adored people out there! Well, that’s probably an exaggeration, but they certainly get a large amount of criticism. I’ve had the pleasure of judging quite a few quilt shows. Some of them I’ve judged alone, and some of them I’ve co-judged with other well-known judges and quilters. There are very few people in the quilting world who have had the pleasure of being in a judging room and seeing the actual judging process. It’s a very enlightening place to be.
From what I’ve experienced, team judging can be the most interesting to observe and partake in because two or three judges working together make for a provocative outcome. When deciding the winners in a category (or overall winners for the show), there can be a lot of “give and take” or compromises made. It has to be this way because rarely do both or all of the judges completely agree on the winners. Common courtesy dictates that judges have to make compromises and come to a consensus on the winners, even though they may not all be in complete agreement with the entire outcome. It reminds me of governmental legislation; not everyone is going to get everything they want, but if each side gets some of the things it wants, but loses some other things, then the process was a success. Now the makers of the quilts being judged may not like the fact that this happens, and that perhaps it was her quilt that got “cut from the budget”, but the judges can’t just be stubborn and not give an inch when it comes to choosing the winners. They have to be willing to make some concessions on some quilts, and that’s simply the way it is. However, in most cases, I’ve observed that judges try to be objective in their evaluations, seeing each quilt and making a decision based upon design and workmanship.
If your quilt doesn’t win, that may be one of the reasons. Even quilts that have won many awards may not always win, and the dynamic amongst the judges in the judging room could be part of the reason. You just never know, so it’s best not to agonize over it. Sure, you can grumble to yourself and your best friends, but in the end, try to be gracious. After all, someone else did win, and that quilter is ecstatic over her award.
I hope my experiences may help give you some insight into what it feels like to be a quilt competition winner, loser, and judge. I hope you’ll add to the discussion by commenting below. It’s a great topic and one that I find fascinating.
Above all, remember that the next time your lovely quilt doesn’t get the award you think it deserves, try to be gracious and know that some other quilter did receive that award and that he or she is over the moon with happiness.