What the judges look for

Over the last few years, several questions have been put to me as the QuiltWest exhibition draws near. Questions such as:

  • Why does one quilt win a prize and not another;
  • Why does a quilt that appears beautiful to the average person go virtually unnoticed by the judges and
  • What makes a prizewinning quilt?

So how does one go about making an award-winning quilt and what are the specific areas at which the judges look. Hopefully you will find the answers to these questions and others you may have in the following article.

Another question I’ve often been asked is how do the judges pick the winners?

Initial visual impact is probably the factor that narrows the field down with quality workmanship and sound technique deciding the final outcome. Visual impact does not necessarily mean the brightest and most colourful quilt. It also involves the way the colour and design work together to create the impact

A prize-winning quilt will have that WOW factor that invites the observer to come in and have a closer look. It as though the quilt pulls you toward it saying “Look at me”.  You find yourself becoming involved in the ethos of that quilt.

Other considerations when looking at a quilt are:

  • Does the overall design make a statement;
  • Do the individual elements work together to create an effective unified piece;
  • How the colours work together; be they bright and bold or soft and subtle;
  • Will they bowl the judges over; and
  • Will the judges stand in awe of the workmanship.

The following areas of a quilt are examined during the judging process and will now be outlined to help you prepare your quilt for judging.

General Appearance

  • The quilt needs to be of fresh neat and clean appearance, free of stains, pet hair and odour.
  • When your quilt is completed, it is permissible to wash your quilt to remove markings, odours etc.
  • A lint roller is good for removing pet hairs and loose threads.
  • Remember to trim loose threads on both the top and back of your quilt, the judges examine both sides of the quilt
  • All pencil markings or other markings should be removed from both the front and back of the quilt.
  • Make sure the backing layer is flat and free from pleats.
  • The backing fabric should compliment the quilt.
  • The quilt should hang flat and not have a wavy or distorted look. You should measure the sides of the quilt to make sure the quilt is even. All sides should be same with a square quilt and the horizontal and vertical edges the same on an oblong quilt.


  • Elements of the design need to be in proportion to the piece and not dominate the quilt or be lost in the scale of the quilt. Ask is the quilt balanced, harmonious and unified? Is it a “safe” setting/design or is the design adventurous?
  • Use of colour. Colour choice should enhance the design of the quilt. Pleasing colours with high contrast and range of values should add excitement to the quilt. The colour should be eye catching and attractive. Likewise, careful choice of fabrics will enhance the design of a subtle quilt.
  • Fabrics. How have the fabrics been used? Is there a mix of large, medium and small? Care should be taken not to overpower some prints with others or have all the fabrics of a similar scale.
  • The quilt design should harmonise with the quilting and one should not overpower the other. Has the quilting design been carefully thought out adding texture to the quilt in the form of light and shadow?
  • Would any areas of the quilt benefit from more or less quilting?
  • Borders and sashing should frame the overall design without overpowering it. The border should be part of the design and not a careless afterthought! As much thought should be put into the border as the main quilt.


  • Care needs to be taken when piecing to ensure that corners and points meet exactly.
  • Select a thread colour that matches the pieces to be sewn. Stitching needs to be unobtrusive unless decorative.
  • Piecing lines should be straight. Pieced and appliqué curves should be smooth.
  • Identical pieces should be the same shape and size.
  • Seam allowances should be trimmed to ensure unnecessary shadowing. This often happens with a light background fabric when using dark fabrics for piecing. Press the seams away from the light fabric where possible to avoid this happening.
  • Appliqué pieces need to lie flat with no puckers or distortion.


  • Quilting stitches whether hand, domestic or longarm machine should be even.
  • Hand quilting stitches should show through on the back and be as even as on the top.
  • Machine tension needs to be spot on both on the back and front of the quilt. The stitching should cause no bunching or puckering of the quilt. There should be no loopy stitching evident unless it is a feature of the quilt.
  • Beginning and finishing stitches should not be evident.
  • Thread selection needs to compliment the quilt.  Stitching needs to go through all layers. Traveling stitches should not show.
  • Insufficient quilting may cause billowing in some areas of the quilt. Quilting needs to be consistently spaced to avoid distortion.
  • Don’t overdo the quilting either. Too much detailed machine quilting can overpower a quilt’s design and could cause the quilt to belly or waffle.
  • Even distribution of quilting will help the quilt lie flat.
  • Quilting need to harmonise with the quilts’ design elements and not overpower it.



  • Borders require accurate measurement to ensure the quilt lies flat and hangs straight. They should always be straight and even and not buckle or wave.
  • Border design and fabric need to compliment the quilt.
  • Border needs to have sufficient quilting which compliments the quilt.
  • Corners of the quilt border need to be square or smoothly curved depending on what is appropriate.
  •  Special edge treatments such as  a scalloped edge or added corded or beading to the binding will catch the judges eye.
  • Any special edge treatments need to be appropriate to the quilt and done properly.


  • Binding should be full and uniformly filled. This means that the three layers of the quilt, the top, wadding and backing should reach the outer edge of the folded edge of the binding. No areas of the binding should feel empty. Judges want to feel  the filling inside all of the binding.
  • Binding should be straight and of a consistent width.
  • Binding should be suitable to the design of the quilt, quilts with curved edges should be finished with bias binding. Turning the backing is generally the best way to finish quilts with decorative edges such as prairie points or hexagons.
  • Curved corners should flow smoothly without puckers or distortion.
  • Joins in bias binding or straight binding should be unobtrusive and not feel bulky.
  • The corners of the binding should be mitred or neatly turned.
  • Hand stitch mitred corner seams closed, this will give a crisp square corner.
  • The judges look at the stitches adhering the binding on the back of the quilt to make sure they are small, even,  unobtrusive, and attach the binding securely.
  • Decorative bindings need to well executed
  • Embellishment needs to compliment the overall design and be firmly attached.

Don’t be afraid to enter your quilts in an exhibition. Remember the judges are not there searching for all the mistakes and errors in a quilt in order to disqualify it. Judges are looking for what is right with a quilt to make it worthy of an award.

Finally remember it is often the very small details that make the difference in the judges’ decision when good quilts are compared with one another