Art Quilts and Traditional Quilt Shows

Some art quilters hold resentment toward traditional quilt shows, typically because they feel their work is being judged by unfair standards. This is a sentiment I've gleaned from talking to art quilters in person and from reading online social forums. Here's one example from Facebook:

Facebook quote from disgruntled art quilter

Disgruntled comments like the one above are often accompanied by advice from other art quilters to give up on "quilt" shows and instead exhibit at "art" shows. Here are two replies that were posted in response to the above comment:

Facebook reply 1

Facebook reply 2

I understand the unhappiness that comes from feeling my art has been unfairly judged. But as someone who has exhibited my own fabric art and quilts in both traditional quilt shows and gallery/fine art shows, I personally feel that traditional quilt shows are still very worthwhile venues for art quilters.

I started making artwork out of fabric before learning about quilting. Once I was introduced to the world of art quilts, I had a decision to make. I could either forego traditional quilt shows and focus on entering my work into art shows, or I could embrace the quilt world and focus on submitting my art to traditional quilt shows. This is a choice you, too, will face. Both decisions come with their own sets of pros and cons that are worth considering before you answer this question for yourself.

Let's take a look at what I think are the two biggest topics that should be considered in this context: The rules and the judges.

The Rules

Every show, be it art-themed or quilt-themed, is going to have rules. Traditional quilt shows have two rules in particular that are the most common sources of vexation for art quilters. These rules concern the definition of "a quilt" and "false backs". Here are screenshots of the rules in question, taken from Quilts, Inc's website for the International Quilt Festival judged competition:

Definition of a quilt

Definition of a false back

What's the issue with these two rules?

The first rule limits creativity. Requiring a quilt to be made from three layers of material that have been stitched together greatly limits the possibilities of what kinds of art can be created out of fabric, or even other types of textiles.

The second rule requires a bit of explanation. Quilt show judges look at the back of quilts to assess the tension in the thread. Machine quilting uses two threads: a top thread (visible on the top or front of a quilt) and a back thread (this thread goes in the bobbin and is only visible from the back of the quilt). These two threads loop together every stitch, and if the tension of the sewing machine is set correctly, that loop will be hidden in the middle of the quilt's layers. If the tension is set incorrectly, the top thread could be pulled to the back of the quilt, making it visible on the back, or vice versa. This is what a judge would look for when assessing the back of a quilt.

Some art quilters are resentful of having to show the quilting on the backs of their art, for any number of reasons. Art quilters are generally more liberal in their use of experimental materials, and sometimes those materials can't be hidden in the layers the way normal thread would be. Some art quilters like to add an extra layer of material after the quilt has been finished to make it stiffer. Others may be more focused on the overall art as a whole and consequently don't pay as much attention to the tension of their machines. There are many reasons but the end result is that this rule further limits the possibilities of what art quilters can create.

In order to enter my quilts into traditional quilt shows, I have to follow the rules of the show, including those rules (like the two above) that may limit my creativity. That's the way it is.

What's the alternative?

The alternative would be to enter my quilts into an open-media show, like a gallery exhibition or other fine art show. An open-media show won't care if a "quilt" is made from three layers of material or whether it has a false back. Other than having to meet size hanging requirements, a regular art show is going to be much more accepting of fiber art that may not meet the traditional definition of a quilt. That's perfect, right? Not so fast.

Fabric is not a traditionally recognized fine art medium. That could mean it's more difficult to get juried into art shows. In addition, most art show judges are not going to have experience working with fabric in art. Therefore, art show judges may not recognize or understand the effort that went into making an art quilt. This leads us into the next point of contention: The judges.

The Judges

Quilt show judges, sometimes unfavorably referred to as "quilt police", are trained to recognize quality in traditional quilts. (Note: "Quilt police" can also refer to any individual gatekeeping "the art of the quilt".) They are not trained to understand art, yet they are judging the art quilts...which, other than being made from textiles, sometimes hold little resemblance to their traditional counterparts.

Art quilters exhibiting outside of quilt shows will not have to put up with a traditional quilt show judge's critical eye. An art quilt in an art show will not be judged on the quality of its stitching, frayed edges, technique, etc; it is only going to be judged on its surface-level design (composition, color, meaning, etc.) The trade-off is that not being judged on technique eliminates a factor that could differentiate the art quilt from other work it's being judged against. A judge who doesn't understand a medium cannot assess the artist's technical mastery of that medium, and that lack of appreciation for quilting as an artform could lead to a bias toward other mediums getting recognized.

Quilt shows, on the other hand, are full of quilts. Every quilt on display has a common denominator: It’s made from fabric. Furthermore, quilt show judges can appreciate the effort quilters put into their work because they’re intimately familiar with fabric as a medium. The trade-off is quilt show judges are going to be critical of things like tension and line straightness and frayed edges, because they understand those aspects of the medium.

Judging Sheets

A second point of contention regarding the judging of art quilts are the judging sheets. A "judging sheet", for those of you who may not be in the loop, is a sheet of paper provided by most traditional quilt shows that typically has a list of judging criteria, a given quilt's score in each category, and comments from the judge(s) who reviewed the quilt in question. It's the comments on these sheets that are sometimes not well-recieved by the art quilt creators, especially if those comments are critical in nature. (The words in quotations in the first Facebook comment I posted above were most likely written on that artist's judging sheet.)

As someone who came from the fine art world, judging sheets were quite the surprise to me. I have recieved my fair share of less-than-complimentary comments about my quilts that left me unsatisfied, to say the least. Here's one of the first judging sheets I ever recieved:

Early judging sheet

This quilt did win a Judge's Recognition award, but it still recieved a few critical comments, notably "some minor fraying in applique noted" and "quilting stitch length should be even".

But here's the thing — artists exhibiting in art shows don’t get judging sheets...period. That means we exhibitors don’t get a look inside the judge’s head to know why we may or may not have won an award. We may not agree with the judge's comments, but at least we know what the comments are. That knowledge is not shared at all in art shows. Getting a judging sheet is a serious benefit to exhibiting in a quilt show, and it’s worth noting that window to the judge’s opinion won’t be available in any other exhibition.

Non-traditional fiber shows

Although the body of this post was intended to discuss the pros and cons of traditional quilt shows vs open-media art shows, it'd be remiss of me to not discuss non-traditional fiber shows or dedicated art quilt shows. Some examples of exhibitions that fall into this category are Quilt National, Art Quilt Elements, Fiber Art International, and SAQA's exhibitions.

The advantages to shows like these are that they do not have the traditional definition of a quilt – the three layers held together by stitching — which greatly opens up the creative opportunities. Furthermore, all entries in shows like this will be made from textiles and the judges will be familiar with textiles. Consequently, shows like this may be an excellent compromise for those art quilters who want to exhibit their work and explore beyond the boundaries of the traditional quilt.

What is the right answer?

Whether it makes more sense for you to enter your work in art shows, fiber shows, or traditional quilt shows is something you will have to decide for yourself. The answer may depend in large part on what you want to get out of your art, or what you want your art to accomplish. Do you just want to show, or do you want to bring home a ribbon? Do you want to exhibit locally or at international exhibitions? Do you care about who sees your art?

For me, I found the answer to be around a 80/10/10 split between traditional shows, non-traditional fiber shows, and open-media art shows. I have found it far easier to adapt my artistic process to address the critical comments on my judging sheets than try to forge ahead in the world of fine art where judges don’t understand fabric, so I primarily enter traditional quilt shows. To date, these shows are where I have found the most success, so they make up the majority of my competitive entries each year.

I also enter some non-traditional fiber shows because I think my work is unique in the world of art quilting — even though it leans more toward the traditional side of the quilt spectrum — and I would like to see the art of illustration in quilting better represented in the field.

Last but not least, I continue to enter fine art shows here and there because it's important to me to broaden the perspectives of traditional artists who may have never considered fabric as a fine art.

So far this is what has been the best choice for me and my work, but I recognize that my path is not right for everyone. Do some self-analysis and figure out what makes sense for you. Regardless of what direction you choose to go, I wish you the best of luck.