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What Are Certified Quilt Judges Looking For?

Posted by Brenda Wolfensberger on

What Are Quilting Judges Looking For?

The National Association of Certified Quilt Judges (NACQJ) is largely regarded as the gold-standard for quilt judging in America. NACQJ states that “certified judges believe in fairness, objectivity, a positive approach, and a broad and very deep knowledge of quilting techniques, color, design, and history.”

MQX Quilt Festivals, for example, have relied on National Quilting Association (NQA) certified judges since 2004. When NQA unfortunately dissolved, the NACQJ was formed in 2015 to continue the highest standards for qualifying judges.

We interviewed three NACQJ judges to learn more about this unique field and what the judges are looking for at shows.

Z” is for Zinnias, C is for Cosmos - quilt by Kathie Kerler

Above: Kathie Kerler's "Z" is for Zinnias, "C" is for Cosmos has won multiple awards and was featured in American Quilter. Photo:

Kathie Kerler

Kathie had already judged 27 shows before obtaining certification in the mid-2000s. “I should note my certification process passed quickly,” she tells us, “because I had been judging for several years and was well-prepared prior to applying. Candidates actually have five years to complete the process.” To date, she has judged nearly 14,000 quilts in about 100 shows.

Kathie encourages us to study design. “Quilters often refer to the 'quilt police' with the idea that show judges are looking for perfect piecing, perfect binding, etc.,” says Kathie, but evaluation of workmanship doesn't come into play until she stands back to determine if she's struck by the design.

“Pay attention to the importance of value,” she says. “Don’t use all medium values. I have taken several workshops with Nancy Crow who advises students to use a seven-value range: very light, light, medium-light, medium, medium-dark, dark, and very dark. Your work will be much more exciting.”

Kathie warns that if you submit your quilt to a show in the wrong category, you face the possibility of disqualification. “Read the quilt show entry instructions carefully to ensure you enter your quilt in the correct category,” Kathie explains. “If you are not certain, contact the show.”

Kathie cites some key problems in workmanship that quilters should avoid. “Sharp triangle points is a recurring problem. The points are either cut off by having been sewn into the seam or they don’t meet the seam and are left 'floating.' Another issue I see quilters struggle with from one show to the next is outside quilt edges. They should be straight without ripples or wobbles, and the outside corners should be ninety degrees. These problems are especially obvious on wall hangings which are meant to be displayed vertically.”

Bella quilt by Linda McCuean

Above: Bella by Linda McCuean won the $100,000 Quilting Challenge (2006) and the NQA Master award. It also appeared on The Today Show. Photo courtesy of Linda.

Linda McCuean

Linda became involved with judging for her guild in 2002. She then became certified in 2004 and estimates that she has judged more than 15,000 quilts.

“The certification process requires hard work and dedication,” she says. “Extensive study of design, color, and technique is needed.”

“As you make your quilt, do everything to the best of your ability. If you don't know how to do something, find some help from another quilter or online... Remember that it is your quilt - take the judging comments as helpful advice. If you are happy with your quilt, that is the most important thing.”

Linda points out that tension issues in machine quilting and bindings are among the most common issues she sees. And like Kathie, she emphasizes to read the competition literature and “enter your quilt in the correct category!”

Pineapple Patience - quilt by Pat Harrison

Above: Pat Harrison's Pineapple Patience has garnered many awards and is featured in  Karey Bresenhan's book 500 Traditional Quilts. Photo:

Pat Harrison

Pat became curious about the judging process at a local guild and found that not all judges were trained, much less certified. An educator with two master's degrees, Pat wanted to become a judge and was determined to take an academic approach. She applied in 2006 and became certified in 2008.

She explains that certification candidates are required to compose an “extensive research paper of the ethics, issues, and knowledge of quilting from design through construction techniques” which has been compared to a Master’s thesis. If this document passes, the candidate faces an extensive panel review with three certified judges prior to certification.

Pat tells us that problem areas in a quilt can really depend on the techniques associated with the category, but overall her concern for quilters is a lack of attention to detail with both design and construction.

She says a rushed quilt is obvious in the judging room. “Take the time to prepare your quilt for judging, making sure that it is show ready: hangs well, loose threads are removed, free of odor and pet hair, and securely finished at the edges.”

Pat also reminds us to "realize that the judge’s comments are meant to guide you to improving your work. Judging is anonymous. Judges evaluate what is in front of them without any knowledge of the quilt or its maker. Learn from the comments."

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