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My Experience at the Festival of Quilts

Have you ever wondered just how a massive show like the Festival of Quilts at the NEC in Birmingham, UK comes about? Wondered just how they decide who wins and who gets placed – after all have you always agreed with the judges’ choices?

This year I found out a lot of answers to those questions. My journey to seeing behind the scenes at the festival really started in 2019 when I completed a short course at that year’s festival. The course? A Taste of Judging. Which took us through the process of how quilts are judged at the Festival of Quilts. This appeared to be important – not every competition is judged in the same way.

So, once I’d got a taste of this judging lark, I really wanted to do the 2-year judging course, but working full-time as a teacher and trying to set up my own quilting business didn’t really lend itself to a university level course. How else was I to get experience of this other world?

Well, there are a group of people called ‘Angels’, who volunteer to help out during the set up. These volunteers assist the organisers by helping with office tasks, hanging the quilts and the judges. What a privilege it was to work with those committed to making the Festival of Quilts 2021 a fantastic event. I was one of those angels, starting in the office and moving on to the judging.

Empty hallways and setting up the Festival of Quilts at the NEC.

It all starts on the Monday, when the exhibit boards and competition rails are built. Tuesday sees the Judges’ Office being organised and the competition quilts being hung. As the Judges’ Office is out in the concourse, we only got a few small peaks at quilts close to the entrance.

Wednesday is judging day and to be honest, getting that first ever look at all the quilts in your category is exciting. There is a routine to the actual judging and it’s not judged by only one person. First, judges need to know and have firmly in place, in their minds, the requirements for the competition entries in their category. This will help highlight any quilts that are in the wrong category. Then a quick walk around to look at all of the quilts, a discussion about any discrepancies and where each judge will start in the quilt order (this last is mostly so each judge has room to make their own decisions). Judges, in all categories, have about 3 minutes to record their notes and scores for each quilt. Each quilt entry will get a copy of the notes.

But before that, the judging angels have to help correlate all this paperwork, so it is recorded centrally back at the Judges’ Office; keep their judge on time and make sure everything is running smoothly – there is a lot of walking about – I certainly got my steps in! Then the 2 or 3 judges for each section will discuss the quilts which scored the highest number of points and in which order they should be placed.

The eventual winner of the Quilt Creations category, Divided by Pauline Rogalska - MIMIC Art Studio, with judges discussing another entry in the background.

Surprisingly, this is the only time that those judges’ personal preference is considered. If, for instance, there are two quilts with the same number of points, the choice will come down to which has the overall WOW factor. You would think, that two quilts which were being considered for best in group would both have a lot of WOW factor. Not always. Sometimes the quilt is there because it is just technically perfect but maybe it doesn’t have the originality. When a quilter has a particular style and has competed for a long time with that style, the actual design itself might or might not be original, but the style is the same each year, which means the originality disappears.

The same could be said of using a kit or a pattern from a well known designer. The originality is not there. Now, that may not matter if you are putting your quilt into a competition for fun, feedback on your piecing, quilting or colour choice and not all judges write much, they may only write a few words, Without the originality a quilt is unlikely to win at this level. Although here, it was unlikely that the same judge would see both quilts as they were in different categories - Contemporary and Modern; each with a large number of entries. The two quilts shown below are beautifully pieced, stand out colourwise, were very well quilted but look almost identical.

Now having a similar design doesn't mean that it couldn't win in one category, whilst not achieving in another category. Two quilts, both alike in style, one Modern, one Contemporary. The design is in fact traditional, but the use of colour placement is very contemporary and the quilting style is modern. The contemporary entry won best in category, but the modern entry didn't - Why? This really is why knowing what category your quilt should go into makes a difference. Have a look - are they original designs? Emphatically no, but the contemporary category is about taking traditional and changing it up - colour, colour placement, design elements etc. Modern is often interpreted as being minimalist, clean, a feeling of space. You decide which fits which outline better.

On the left, the Contemporary winner, Repurposed by Sandra Newton. On the right, in the Modern category, Love of a Single Day - Ex Ponto by Sandra M Newton.

At the end of the day the two head judges will look at all the best in group/category quilts and choose the one they think is the best. The best in show can be quite controversial, as what pleases one person doesn’t, necessarily please another. It is a very subjective matter and the general public quite often disagree because they are looking at all the quilts and will have favourites that maybe haven’t made the grade for other reasons. Oddly, or possibly not considering what I have just written, the public’s favourite quilt has never been the best in show. Below is this year's public choice - it is the one I voted for - it had so much joy in it but then the public are voting for the one they liked the best, not the one they thought was executed perfectly.

Public Choice winner, Bead Seller by Chitra Mandanna.

While all that judging has been taking place, exhibitors have been setting up their stalls. Those putting on workshops and classes have been making sure all the machines and equipment is in place and working properly; electricians have been erecting lighting, putting in power sockets and internet access. In some ways while the judging takes place, you’re in your own little world, but the whole 4 exhibition halls are busy with people doing different jobs. It really did have a huge buzz of excitement, especially this year.

The only thing left to do is enjoy all that the Festival of Quilts show has to offer.

If you've enjoyed this blog post let me know and I will do one on the different quilt categories in competitions.

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