Appliqué Under the Magnifying Glass

Entering a competitive show can be intimidating.  Understand the judging process and learning just what judges look for when evaluating appliqué can help to eliminate our fears and apprehensions. It is important to remember that each show differs in their entry rules. The process of judging also differs from show to show. Quilts may be judged flat on tables or hung for the show.  Judges evaluate each entry according to the rules of each specific show. The number of judges for each show varies and their training and experience in judging also varies.

There are two basic methods for judging quilt shows – the point system and the elimination system. In each method, judges look at one category at a time and each quilt is judged separately according to its own strengths and weaknesses. In the point system, the judges are given a list of items to review for each quilt. Points are assigned for each item on the list. Place settings awards are determined by the total points given to each quilt. The quilt with the highest points in the category wins the first place award.

In the elimination system, comments are given by the judges regarding the strengths and weaknesses of each entry. I often think of the Miss America Pageant when I think of this system of judging. A series of elimination rounds occur in which the quilts are compared with one another. One-by-one, quilts are eliminated until the top entries are left and place setting awards are determined.

Usually there is a 1st, 2nd and 3rd place award in each category. Some shows also have honorable mention awards. They are the 4th place award. Some shows have one or two honorable mention awards per category. Other shows have a total set number of honorable mention awards and they leave it to the discretion of the judge to determine how many honorable mention awards will be given in a category. This seems to work better because sometimes a small category doesn’t have a 4th or 5th quilt that is worthy of an award while large categories in which the competition is stiff may have more than two quilts that deserve an honorable mention award.

Appliqué  quilts are generally put in their own category, separate from pieced quilts. Appliqué categories may further be sub-divided into smaller categories. These category titles often include machine appliqué, hand appliqué, appliqué quilts finished with hand quilting and those finished with machine quilting. There may also be separate categories for appliqué quilts made for a bed and appliqué quilts made for the wall. When entering any show, make sure you read the show rules carefully and enter your quilt in the correct category. When in doubt, call the show chairperson and ask which category your quilt should be entered.

You may be wondering if judges actually use a magnifying glass when looking at quilts. The answer is, “Yes, sometimes when they are comparing tiny details in appliqué and quilting stitches.”  When judges evaluate appliqué quilts, they often look at the following items and ask themselves the following questions.  This is by no means a comprehensive listing … just a basic list to help you to understand what questions are often asked under the careful inspection of today’s quilt show judges:

Overall Appearance

Is the quilt clean, free from odor and pet hairs? Does it lay flat? Are the blocks square? Are the sashing, border and edges straight or do they wobble? Are all threads clipped?

Design Elements

Are the elements of the quilt unified to create a visually pleasing quilt? Are the pieces in proportion to one another? Are there secondary designs that compliment the primary designs? Is the overall design balanced? Is the design original and creative? Does the quilt effectively represent a scene or theme?

Fabric & Color Choices

Do the colors and fabrics work well together and with the design? Is there a variety of color values used throughout the quilt? Do prints and patterns used for individual pieces add interest? Is there enough contrast between the appliqué pieces and the background?


Are the hand appliqué stitches uniform, small, tight, invisible and secure? Was matching thread used? Are the curves smooth and the inside and outside points sharp? Was care taken to prevent shadowing of darker fabrics behind light fabrics?  If the piece is machine appliquéd, how were the curves and points handled? Is there consistency in the machine stitching?


Do the quilting designs compliment and enhance the appliqué elements and overall design?  Are parallel design lines consistent in width?  Are the stitches smooth, even and consistent (both front and back)? Is the amount of quilting balanced and evenly dispersed over the surface of the quilt? Is the choice of thread appropriate or does it cause a visual problem?


Is the edge treatment well chosen for the piece? Are the corners precise? Are the stitches secure to hold the binding on the back? Is the back of the quilt smooth with straight seam lines?

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