Over the last few years, modern quilts have been seen in categories at MQX, AQS, Road to California, and have a dedicated show, QuiltCon. With its second show kicking off in a week, and an announcement that it will become a yearly event at different locations, it seemed to me as though modern quilts were finding their place. Recently, though, AQS decided to do away with the “Modern” category for many of its shows, and I thought it would be interesting to find out what this means for modern quilts and quilters. Can a modern quilt compete outside of its own category? I asked Scott Murkin, a certified Quilt Show Judge for NQA if he would be willing to do an interview, and he said yes!
Scott was so generous with his time to do this, and I am deeply grateful. He thinks deeply about quilts and quilt history, and uses that as a springboard for considering where quilting is going. This first part of the interview covers Scott’s background as a quilter, what it means to be a judge, and how judging works in a “traditional” show. Part 2 specifically covers modern quilts and their place in traditional shows. I hope you’ll join me for both interviews! I love good conversations, so please leave comments for Scott and for myself, and Scott can also be reached through email: smurkin at triad dot rr dot com.
[Mandy] I would love to have an introduction about you and your interests and work.
[Scott] I grew up in a family of quilters and crafters in Illinois. My grandmother, great aunt and aunt made quilts and many other handicrafts. When I was in high school I would help my grandma cut out quilt patterns as progressive arthritis made this challenging for her. In 1994 my grandma passed away, my wife was expecting our second child and our daughter was getting ready to move into her first twin bed. Neither my mother nor my wife sewed, so I felt emotionally compelled to make a quilt for my daughter. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was just familiar enough to fake my way through that first quilt, although it took much longer than I expected.
Working on that first piece started a generative process of further ideas to explore and it wasn’t long before I was obsessed with designing and making patchwork quilts. I have now made more than 450 quilts ranging from those no larger than a postcard to queen-sized bed quilts. I have tried nearly every technique and style at one time or another. My design work for magazines is primarily updated traditional, geometric patterns with strong secondary designs. I have done a tremendous amount of work with free-formed curved piecing. I am proficient in both hand and machine quilting and my ongoing passion is the interaction of the quilting stitch with the quilt top and how to determine which quilting motifs will best bring a design to life. The change in texture from a quilt top to a quilt is pure magic to me and the magic hasn’t worn off after more than 20 years of observing it in action.
Why and how do you become a judge?
While there are different pathways, most of my judging colleagues started off either exhibiting or teaching (or both) and got drawn into the world of judging when someone somewhere admired their work enough to ask them to judge a show. Many shows will only hire judges from their roster of teachers to conserve on travel expenses. When I was first asked, I jumped at the chance and then freaked a little wondering if I knew enough to do a good job. I gathered all the resources I could locate to prepare for that first show and have continued to learn over fifteen years of experience and continuing education.
The National Quilting Association (NQA) offers both a judging seminar and a judging certification program. The judging course has traditionally been offered at the annual show, but this is actively being broadened so that it will be available more widely. The certification program is a way for active judges to show their proficiency and have that acknowledged officially. Certification is not necessary to judge, but it is a way to show that this skill has been mastered. The Northern California Quilt Council sponsors the West Coast Quilt Judging Academy which offers a certificate for successful completion. The Canadian Quilters’ Association offers both workshops and a certification program as well.
Judging is very physically and mentally demanding. It has been intriguing to learn that many of my judging colleagues have backgrounds in education or healthcare, fields where they are accustomed to processing large volumes of information very quickly and making a strong assessment based on that information. Judging is fairly objective and a person has to be able to honestly turn off personal preferences. Judging has nothing to do with what the judge “likes”— unless, of course, the judge happens to “like” well-designed, well-made quilts.
What factors are involved in judging a quilt?
Judging is a balance between workmanship and design.
Workmanship focuses primarily on the structural integrity of the quilt. Secure seams, straight lines (where intended), smooth curves (where intended), well-secured quilting stitches that hold the layers together securely without any excess fullness, straight edges (where intended), square corners and secure edge finishes are all part of this equation. While textiles are subject to the wear and tear of everyday use and cleaning, a well-made quilt should last a long time under general usage conditions. Workmanship that undermines the longevity of a quilt will be noted during the judging process.
Traditionally, workmanship could come across more as one-upmanship with award going to whoever could make the most perfect points and the tiniest stitches. Many of the judging principles that seem arbitrary at first can be traced back to something that historically affected the durability of a quilt. When battings were carded from raw wool or cotton, having stitches super close together kept the batting from shifting, for example. As quilting continues to grow, we have to decide which standards of workmanship really affect the final outcome and which are merely holdovers from another time. A good general principle is that if you are going to violate a standard of workmanship, do it egregiously enough that it is obvious to the judges that it was intentional. If you don’t care if points match, cut off many or most of them, not just a couple. If you don’t think your design needs to be squared up, make the shape wonky enough that it’s clear that this was a design decision rather than a flaw in workmanship. And in the end, it’s your quilt and you get to decide the workmanship standards for each piece. But that doesn’t obligate the judges to cut you any slack in a competition.
Design seems more subjective, and perhaps it is to a degree, but there are objective standards of design that apply to all visual media that can be used to eliminate as much subjectivity as humanly possible. The elements of design (line, shape, texture, color, value) and the principles of design (balance, scale, proportion, rhythm, unity, variety, harmony) are assessed in each piece, with most of the design weight being a balance between unity and variety. Too much unity and the viewer is bored, but too much variety and the visuals become chaotic, often appearing if two or more designs were crammed into the same piece inadvertently. While any artist may decide to emphasize certain design elements or principles over others, or even ‘break’ the design rule, the judge’s role is to determine whether those decisions successfully contributed to the design statement.
It’s common for workmanship and design to be weighted fairly evenly in many shows, but this is extremely variable and continues to evolve. “Traditional” quilt shows historically focused on technical expertise and the workmanship tended to be weighted a little more heavily, often because the judges found these areas easier to discuss. Shows that are meant to highlight a specific skill such as appliqué or machine quilting may still weight more heavily toward technical expertise. A show that focuses exclusively on art quilts or studio quilts may advise the judges to weight design significantly more heavily and consider workmanship only to determine between two very closely ranked pieces. If show sponsors don’t give specific direction (which is still common), I tend to weight design about 60% and workmanship about 40%. A perfectly stitched quilt with poor design benefits no one, whereas a quilt of stunning design may be able to overcome some technical difficulties to a degree. Obviously good design and good workmanship combine the best of both worlds.
This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Please make sure to check out Part 2!