The Free Motion Quilting Project: Quilting for Show

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Quilting for Show

Tonight I attended the preview party and awards giving for my local Foothills Quilters Guild show. It is a spectacular show and if you know anyone in NC, you really should beg, bully, or beat them into attending.

It was a really special night for me because I was awarded with my very first Best in Show award for Release Your Light!

I've gotta say, it's one of the most amazing experiences to enter shows and win ribbons, and I love helping other quilters learn how to quilt show winning quilts.

But one question many quilters ask is:

What is the difference between a quilt that wins awards and one that doesn't?

In truth the answer to this question isn't easy, and I don't pretend for a second to know exactly what judges are looking for in ever show.

But here's what I do know: a show winning quilt is one that has been QUILTED for show.

While this may seem really obvious, look where I put the emphasis - right on your quilting!

Most American quilters piece. That's not a judgment or a criticism, that's just a plain Jane fact. We developed quilting in a patchwork style and piecing remains the #1 way to create a quilt top.

So most quilters spend the largest amount of time focusing on 2 aspects of their quilts: fabric choice and piecing arrangement.

But you can have the most stellar, intricately pieced, amazing quilt, and still lose your shirt at a quilt show because your quilting design stinks.

The judges for our show shared the following criticism of the show as a whole (and I'm paraphrasing here from memory):

"There are too many all-over quilting patterns used on the quilts that have nothing to do with the design as a whole. Also, the quilts need more quilting."

Okay, so what does this mean?

The first sentence is easy to explain. Most quilters will use an all-over pattern, like a large scale meandering to fill a big quilt quickly.

This style of quilting is perfectly fine if your quilt is a bed quilt, meaning you intend to snuggle with it and find it particularly cozy and comfortable.

But large scale meandering is not show quilting!

First off, large scale meandering completely ignores the piecing design. You spend all that time piecing your blocks together and creating this masterpiece design of color and shape, only to slap a giant leaf shape over the whole thing.

What the heck does a leaf shape have to do with a monkey wrench block? Nothing!

Instead of slapping any old pattern over those blocks, stop and look at your quilt for a minute. What can you draw attention to? What can you add in texture that hasn't been added in color or shape?

This leads perfectly into explaining the second sentence. Show quilts require more quilting.

You need more quilting stitches, and much less space between your stitching lines, in order to be competitive.

If you look closely at most of the filler designs created in this project, my standard distance between quilting lines is slightly larger than 1/8 inch. This means that whatever parts of my quilt that are not filled with puffy quilting motifs, those are filled with dense filler stitching.

Of course, if you want a bed quilt that's going to be warm and snugly, stitching this densely is not the way to go!

This level of quilting results in a quilt that has both the texture and feel of cardboard. Not all judges like this level of quilting either! Many have a problem with machine "overquilting" because it's absolutely not something that traditional hand quilters would ever have done.

But this level of quilting is very hard to ignore because it's so dramatic.

So next time you decide to quilt a quilt for show, hang your quilt on the wall for a few days (or weeks) and look at it.

Literally sit and stare at your quilt. Look at how the piecing design works and think about ways to add or subtract from that design. Try sketching the quilt on graph paper or even taking a photo and printing a picture in black and white color and sketch the quilting design on the image.

Ideally you should take just as long planning and quilting your quilt as you did picking the fabric and piecing it.

And of course, all this goes without saying that after piecing and quilting a quilt for show, you will take the time to bind it, tag it and attach a sleeve perfectly.

Quilting for show is not for everyone and please don't feel pressure to quilt in a way that you don't like. If you love making bed quilts - make bed quilts!

But if you crave ribbons and the thrill of competition, start spending a bit more time on the quilting process and I promise your efforts will pay off!

Let's go Quilt!

Leah Day


  1. I found your site and have been enjoying seeing all the different designs you do in free motion. I quilt for fun and my own pleasure, I would never enter one if it was based on my sewing expertise;)


  2. Excellent perspective. Thanks for sharing.


  3. You go girl!
    I know we'll be reading about you for years to come.. you are very creative and talented.
    Don't forget to thank your husband everyday
    for picking up all that he does so you can
    explore your wonderful gift!
    Congratulations on your win Leah.

    Happy Sewing

  4. I hope some of the others who were there last night got the message about the all over pattern. I worried that I did not explain it better, but you knew what I was talking about.

  5. I didn´t see the other quilts but I think your´s is fantastic. Congratulations! And thanks for all the tips and for share your experience with the world. *(^O^)*

  6. Congratulations on your win. That is awesome!

  7. Like all your posts, this is very generous, helpful, and informative. It raises lots of questions though about quilting in general. Do you think the great emphasis on very heavy quilting is a temporary thing, due perhaps to the availability of long arm quilting? (I know yours is not long arm.) Is it possible the pendulum will swing back? Is very heavy quilting appropriate to every quilt? Couldn't it be similar to the poorly conceived all over design? I don't disagree with your ideas, and I was glad to read this advice. I'm just raising some other issues to think about.

    Thanks for your wonderful blog. I'm a fairly poor free motion quilter, but I find your ideas inspiring.

  8. Congrats and thanks for this post! I've recently discovered your blog and it's wonderful. You're right that so much of the focus out there is on piecing and it's refreshing to read a blog that focused on quilting! So thanks!

  9. Hi Kay - Ah! Pendulum swings, you gotta love um!

    I know exactly what you mean and yes, I agree with you. I don't think the emphasis is so much on DENSITY of quilting, but development of the design.

    Take a quilt with 9 patch blocks. Yes, these are easy blocks to piece, but if you quilt a big meandering pattern over them, you're not adding to the design. You're just adding a basic design over a basic design.

    Take the same 9 patch quilt and stitch a unique, trapunto quilting motif over each block and fill in the background areas with filler stitching.

    In this situation, judges see that you've taken the extra step to do trapunto, add unique designs, AND fill the space. It makes them stop in their tracks and say "damn!" which is exactly what you WANT them to say!

    Standing out from the crowd is the best way to win quilting awards. This is why, if you really want to win, you'll make a wholecloth.

    With very few quilters ever trying wholecloths, you're sure to win something!

    And to answer your second question, NO! Dense filler stitching is NOT necessary for every quilt.

    If you want a quilt that's warm and comfortable and drapes nicely over your bed the last thing you want to do is stitch it to hell and back again!

    It will feel like you're laying under a piece of cardboard, which, while pretty, can't be very comfortable.

    Here's how I look at it: there's quilting for comfort and there's quilting for show and the two are completely different animals and should be treated (and quilted) as such.

    I hope all that makes sense!

    Let's go sleep!

    Leah Day

  10. Like you, I love to quilt for show. I've had some winners and some losers but all of them have been invaluable to my growth as a quilter.

    I started show quilting in 2005 when a friend of mine who was a Founders Award winner in Houston told me "The only difference from my quilts and yours is that I enter and you don't."

    I can honestly say that my skills have grown exponentially with every show quilt. Why? Because judges will usually give you a score sheet. Some are just a few sentences and some are quite detailed with an extensive score sheet. I live for those score sheets. I have found that quilting teachers try to encourage you by not being too critical. Judges tell it like it is.

    Now a lot of what judges say is subjective and I discount those comments. But when they give me a technical criticism like uneven tensions, problems with binding, etc , I take notice and do better next time.

    Not everyone is going to make it to Houston, but a great place to start is your local county fair. Just be sure to enter judged shows and not ones with just viewer's choice awards. Yes, you are putting your work out there for all to see, and that can be scary. But, believe me, there is no greater thrill than seeing your quilt hung in a show with proper lighting and display. It's most addictive and I recommend that everyone try it just once.

    Geri Ford

  11. GREAT quilt, great blog...I found your blog thru another blog...I am in the baby stages of learning free motion...I have the basic loopied loo down...timing on finding this blog couldn't have been more perfect. Thanks for sharing all the info you do!!

  12. Hi Leah

    You have made some very important points in this post and follow-up comments. Thank you!!


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