Some of the Things You Want and Need to Know About Judging

Over the last decade, I have been involved in judging local, regional quilt shows as well as one national quilt show. I have seen well organized judging and I have seen and experienced the result of little or no planning or organization for judging. The reality is that as I return to a guild or show for judging, the committee that organized the last show may have left no notes or little information for those following. The new show committee reinvents the show organization and judging wheel. So as I return, I may have more history with the guild and their shows than with the committee organizing the event. The intention of this article is to inform and educate quilt show planners about how judging happens. It is an overview of what the show organizers need to do and what they can expect from the judges they hire.

Judging Philosophy

Judges can be found everywhere. Good judges are harder to find. What makes the difference? Some get into the judging for reasons far beyond a love of quilting and a desire to see quilters make better quilts. I have followed the 'rip and shred' judges far more frequently than anyone would imagine. The comments I hear are that after XYZ judged their show, they haven't had a judged show for 3,5,7,10 years. The group had such hurt, bitter and angry feelings, it was hard to get agreement for a judged show. I like to follow XYZ judges. The differences between my style and philosophy of judging and theirs is so diametrically opposed that having a successful judging day is almost guaranteed.

I sincerely believe that my job is to educate and encourage quilters of all skill levels. No one benefits from 'rip and shred' judging, where fault is found with everything and nothing positive is said. The quilter who has her/his work judged fairly and honestly will benefit from the experience and it will reflect in all her/his future work. The ribbons and awards are wonderful, but the encouragement to every quilter is the ultimate gift of a well-judged show.


Finding Judges

How do you find good judges? Most often, because we belong to more than one guild and attend many shows, we have exposure to judges. One guild hires ABC and the judging was successful and the guild was happy. Although the goal is not to make everyone happy, the guild should not be in full-scale rebellion after the show either. So the initial information on the judges may be acquired by word of mouth. This method also enables the sponsor to ask how the judging went. Was it successful, was the judge temperamental, difficult, late, or whatever. Word of mouth is one good way to find a good judge.

The internet is a vast information resource. Look for judges' web sites and read. Contact them for more information. Do a Google style search and see what you find. Always be sure to cross-check and read more than one site for information. Just because it is on the internet does not make it right.

A guild may seek out Certified Judges. The NACQJ is currently the only organization that certifies judges. The Certified Judges are certified to judge national level shows, but that does not mean that they cannot or will not judge your show. These judges have undergone extensive reading and study. They are exposed to all kinds and styles of quilts. They know what to look for in a quilt. Their range of knowledge is vast and most have judged thousands of quilts. Currently there are about 76 certified judges. Six of those judges reside in Texas.

There are also good, well-qualified non-Certified working judges who have studied and worked many shows. They may be shop owners, national teachers and major award winning quilt makers. They may be the county extension agent or local quilt teachers. The problem is how to find what you need for your show and how to contract their services.

As with many specialized areas, there is a relatively small circle of working judges. In the state of Texas, we tend to know or know of each other. Texas is blessed with many judged shows so the working judges have a good opportunity to judge and interact with each other. We know the strengths and specialties of each other and general working styles.

The search for judges should start as soon as your show has confirmed date and show location. It is not unusual to book a judging job a year or more in advance of the show. Tap into the judging network by talking to people who have had their shows judged. Ask how the judging went and how the judges worked. There are tales upon tales of judging nightmares and guilds are more than willing to share these stories. They will also share the stories of the good judges that worked their shows and how much the good judging benefited their guild. Ask, call, and talk to them. The internet is a vast information resource. Most working judges have a website with personal information as well as a résumé and philosophy of judging, classes, lectures, or appraising. Once you have a name or contact, contact the judge and request either more information, references, or offer a contract. Call the references. Check them out. If you have a chance to email visit or phone visit with a prospective judge, you may get a good idea of their personality and level of comfort with the nuts and bolts of show organization. If the judge you visit with cannot decide if your show date is available, they may also have an awful time trying to decide Best of Show.


Contracts, Fees, and Accommodations

Then comes the contract and fees. There is a reluctance or hesitancy to talk money with show judges. When guilds have speakers and workshops, these professionals are paid and the financial questions are usually handled within that guild committee. Very few of the regular guild members have any idea of the cost of speakers or workshops. It is very logical then that there is also no idea of how much to pay a quilt judge. Nor do most guild members have any broad experience with contracting judging services. While any working judge knows that she/he will not support even a thriving fabric habit with judging fees, it is reasonable to expect fair pay for services rendered.

It is typical to ballpark the fee paid to the judge by looking at the size of the show. I know that I can judge about 100 quilts in a day. If you target a cost of about $3-$4 per quilt, then a typical judging day would be an 8 hour and no more than 10 hour day at a rate of $300- $400 per day. The show is also responsible for housing, travel, and meals. This may seem like a lot of money especially when you have more than one judge. It is. You are not only asking for a long working day, but the show sponsors expect a vast working knowledge and competence from their judges. (For perspective, if you look at the fees of lecturers, they are currently booking at $300-$700 for a one hour lecture.) Yes, judging becomes a large expense on the budget sheet, but quality is never cheap. And what you want is quality for your show.

Along with almost every judge I know, I am willing to work with a guild that has limited resources. I have judged a show for lunch and a good conversation. But the laborer is worth his hire. If your organization has the resources, negotiate reasonable fees.

All too often, the judging story is like the wedding. Couples will spend tens of thousands of dollars on the reception and balk at $300 for the organist. Expect to pay and pay well for good judging and allow for that in your show budget.

Most working judges already have a contract in place that they use. If your guild or organization does not have a contract, ask the judge. Ask for them to send you a contract once the details have been worked out. It is typical to send two copies, both are signed and each party retains a copy.

When you make housing arrangements for your judges, ask if they are willing to share a room or prefer a room alone. There are many judges with whom I am more than happy to share a room. There are other judges from whom I'd prefer a separate room. You will not know this until you ask the judge. Also be considerate of the judge's safety. The older motels with rooms opening to the outside may be $20 cheaper than the interior opening facility, but the safety for your judge is much higher at the interior opening hotel. Judges can share horror stories of where organizations have put them for the night. Alfred Hitchcock's name is often mentioned in those stories. As a rule of thumb, if you would not put your favorite cousin in the hotel, don't book the judge there either. No judge will demand a suite at a high-end hotel, but the facility should be clean and safe. Facilities that include breakfast are appreciated. The judge can prepare for the day on her/his personal schedule. If the judge is there without a car, be even more considerate of personal needs. Especially with a multi-day show, a trip to Wal-Mart or CVS or Krogers may be needed. Do what you can to make the stay a good one. Generally, judges would also prefer not to stay in a guild member's home, just to avoid even the appearance of bias or impropriety.

As a side note, once the contract is signed and details are in place, months may pass until your show happens. Please, when you call or email your judge, give them good information to identify you. Calling and saying 'This is Betty and our show is moved' is not enough information to identify your particular show. Likewise emailing and leaving the subject line blank or Hi! will often land your email in the spam file. While your show is the most important show for you, the judge is contracted to multiple shows. So be specific when you make additional contacts. 'This is Betty Jones from Ocean Creek Village, Texas for the Garden Fancies Quilt Show is December 2010.' Then the judge can pull the file and be ready to discuss the business you need.


Judging Organization

If the only expectation of a quilt judge was to award the ribbons and Best of Show placements, a good judge could do this in not too long of a time. However, shows want, and need, their quilts critiqued and studied before the ribbon placements and awards are made. This takes time- more time than you might ever expect. In a typical show, a judge has about three minutes to judge a quilt. It can take longer to cook an egg that a judge is allowed for judging a quilt. All that work, design and beauty gets a precious short time for judging. That is the reality. If the show committee does the math of a 100 quilt show, then the actual judging time is at least 5-6 hours in front of the quilts. However, that is not real time. The real time is much longer. The real time of judging is determined by the organization of the show and the quickness and ability of the scribes.

The best-organized shows allow the judges to judge without stopping. (This excludes the necessary meals, rest stops, and cookie breaks.) There are some simple and effective means to this end. In fact, if you are organizing your show, ask the question, 'Does this make the judge slow or stop?' If the answer is yes, find another way to accomplish the task. If the answer is no, then go for it.

From the beginning, there should be good communication between the show hanging and the judging committees. It is no treat to find that you are looking all over the venue for quilts in a category. The quilts should be hung together by category and in order. There should be a master map of the categories and their locations. When the judge is working, she/he should not be spending valuable time looking for the entries. If it not possible to hang categories together, consider judging the show flat, before the quilts are hung. The time should be spent on the judging.

Then the judging should be organized. There should be a 'judging central'. All the master lists of entries (including the withdrawn and no show entries), forms and judging packets are located in one area with one person always on duty. There should be adequate supplies including mechanical pencils -never ink around the quilts-, extra erasers, clip boards and extra judging forms. Usually judges like to keep a copy of the form with them as they judge and may also want to keep a copy for their files. Each of the categories should have a folder of forms with one form for every quilt in the category in order as well as an extra one or two. The precise definition of the category should also be included in the packet or on a separate sheet. If your show has additional awards such as Best Hand Quilting, Best Machine Quilting, Best Design, Best….Whatever, a master list should be on each judge's clipboard. During the judging day, they judge can note which quilts they want to return and examine for hand or machine quilting or other awards.

Some guilds are computer savvy enough to generate their entry forms on-line or on the guild web site and create a database from the entries. Then the gallery cards, intake and check out cards can be printed from this database as well. The individualized judging form can also be printed and ready to go for judging. Not every guild has this capability, but as technology advances, this will become the rule and not the exception. For the future, it would be a tremendous asset to be able to judge on computer and print out the completed form at the judging central.

Every judged show has a form for the judging. It may be as simple as the best features and the areas that need improvement with space to write for both. It may be a list of ten or more criteria with a plus for Good, check for Satisfactory or minus for Needs Improvement as the evaluation marks. I developed a form that lists the comments made most often during the judging process. The scribe ticks off the comments. One side of the page is for the positive comments and the opposite is for the needs improvement. Even with the 60+ comments on the sheet, there is room for additional comments at the bottom. Guilds are welcome to use this form. I do request guilds contact me for the form and that when the form is used, the copyright remain at the bottom of the sheet.

During one show, I learned of an additional use for my judging form. They had one person at judging central who tallied all the comments. She had a master form and ticked the times each comment was made. So at the end of the day, the tally revealed both the strengths and areas needing improvement within their guild. They used my form as a report card for the guild. The tally revealed good design work but the areas that most needed improvement were the binding and corners. They took this information to the program committee that then booked more programs and workshops that would work on the technical skills needed.



I have worked with scribes that were a delight and joy. I have worked with scribes that slowed the judging process to a crawl. Ideally, a scribe should be prepared to work long hours, write quickly and legibly, be a good speller, say next to nothing and never repeat anything they heard during the judging day. Tall order. The confidentiality is critical, but the speed and accuracy of the scribe often determines how long the judging takes. The cream of the crop hit most of the criteria. The worst are slow and you spell out the simplest of words. This slows the judging process to a crawl.

One of the most effective methods for scribes assigns two scribes per judge. The scribes leap frog for scribing. So the first scribe works quilt #1 and when the judge moves to quilt #2, the second scribe begins. The first scribe finishes the form for #1 quilt and gets the form for quilt #3 ready to go. The second scribe moves to quilt #4. If there are questions or problems, the off-duty scribe can go to judging central for the answer or deliver the request. While there are many who want to serve as scribes, changing out scribes once during the judging day is adequate. It takes time for the judges and scribes to work in harmony. The more times the judge stops to restart with new scribes, the longer the judging takes. However, if the goal of the guild is to have many experience the scribing, then time needs to be allowed for the transition between teams and time for each team to coordinate and learn the system.

The first category judged is the slowest category of the show. This is the time that the judges, scribes and judging central team put the process of judging in motion. It takes time for that to happen. It takes time to work out the kinks. Once that first category is judged, the system meshes and the day progresses. My visual analogy of this is picturing how a locomotive train starts. It is slow.


Judging Flat vs Hung

There are two styles of show judging. Shows may be judged flat or hung. There are positives and negatives for both methods.

When a show is judged flat, time must be allowed to move quilts one extra time. Quilts are taken in and stacked by category. Using two sets of two large tables, a category is laid out flat on the tables. The quilts are examined and the critiques sheets are filled out. Aides move the quilts in and out of the judging area. Judges move to the next set of tables and keep judging. If there are time or financial constraints on the show venue, the quilts may be moved for judging, moved to a holding place and then moved into the show venue. The positive aspects of this method are that the judging can occur separate from the show setting and the entire quilt may be examined. The negatives are that the quilts are moved extra times and it is very difficult to find the 10-12 aides in the guild to keep the confidentiality of the judging room.

When quilts are judged hung, generally the judges follow the hanging team and judge as a category is hung. The judge walks the show floor multiple times with this method of judging. The number of aides required is much lower and it is easier to keep judging room information confidential. And the judge can see how flat the quilt is when it is hung. But the judge rarely sees the top two corners of the quilt.

Well organized judging whether flat or hung will move at a good pace throughout the judging day. Anything that stops the judging process whether flat or hung, slows the entire day.


Elimination vs. Point System

Most often, quilts are judged using the elimination system. Quilts are evaluated and the best of the category are awarded the ribbons.

What about point judging? The point system uses a scale of points for judging. I don't believe that the point system acknowledges some of the most important criteria for judging. There is something in a quilt that goes beyond the seams, points, colors and binding. The point system allows no place for the intangibles, the aesthetics of the quilt- that special something that adds spark and life to a quilt. A well made but uninteresting quilt will take the point count, but the lively, interesting quilt with technical flaws will score lower every time. Plus as the day progresses, the consistency in judging is harder to maintain with points. Finally, marking a sheet with 'binding needs improvement' or 'binding should be full, even and straight' conveys a lot more information than Binding- 6.


Judge's Decisions

And finally, the decisions of the judge are final. I never thought that was necessary to say or include in a contract. However, most rules, no matter how ridiculous they may seem, are not made unless there has been a problem. More often than I would even like to remember, ribbons have been changed. When it is an oversight, it can be understood. It is always late when the ribbons are hung. If the numbers are illegible or two identical quilts are side-by-side, mistakes can happen. But when the show is manipulated after the judge leaves, it is an awful thing. And usually this is seen or gets commented on or known throughout the organization. While it originally looks bad for the judge, it ultimately looks terrible for the organization. The judging world is small and this kind of news travels fast and far.

Take the information I’ve shared and use it freely. Use any idea that enables your organization to hold a wonderful quilt show. More information is available. Just call and ask. The most important thing to remember is that most judges want to do a good job for you. And you need to treat the judges right.