Questions and Opinions on QuiltCon West 2016

Patrons examine “My Brothers Jeans,” a quilt Melissa Averinos made from jeans worn by her brother, who committed suicide. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

This is purely my opinion. I realize some of my opinions will not be popular and it is completely okay to disagree with me – I encourage you to comment below with why you believe differently! This post is intended to garner discussion in the community. 

I’ll begin this opinionated post by stating my qualifications are few.  I’ve only been quilting for six years. I have developed a few patterns, taught quilting classes and taken several classes myself.  I have one AQS award winning quilt (which I’ll talk about later) but a majority of my quilts have not been entered into juried shows. I consider myself more of a modern quilter than anything else.  I am a member of the Tampa Modern Quilt Guild and have been since it’s inception.  I don’t have a large string of ribbons to display, I’ve never published a magazine pattern or even a block in the 100 blocks quarterly.

And because this seems to be pertinent with the judging my personal qualifications…. politically I lean libertarian.  I’m an atheist. I’m newly divorced.  I am child-free. I battle depression and anxiety on a daily basis. I’ve had several suicidal episodes. I’m bisexual.

When I got the e-mail stating that the QuiltCon 2016 winners had been announced I was extremely excited.  I loved the shows in Austin from afar and always got a thrill seeing the e-mails with entries and winners come to my inbox. I poured over Instagram looking at the quilts in their different categories oohing and ahhhing over different ones. This year though when I clicked through my first reaction to Best of Show was…. huh?  I had to read the caption quite a few times to make sure I was reading the correct category.

“My Brothers Jeans” by Melissa Averinos

“My Brothers Jeans” by Melissa Averinos won Best of Show. Here’s the description in her own words: “The denim in this quilt is from my brother Michael’s work jeans, which I rescued from the dumpster after his suicide in 2009. I improvisationally pieced the crosses, which resemble a variation on the traditional nine patch. The pale ground includes subtle gold and white crosses. Grid quilting creates echoes of the cross motif, as well as references my brother’s work as a tile installer. I tucked vintage gold ribbon behind some of the tears in the denim. This quilt was a joy to work on, as I love worn materials and find beauty in forgotten and discarded things.”

The description of the quilt was not in the website posting and I hadn’t ever stumbled across it on my Instagram travels. Someone else told me the basic story behind the quilt. I still was scratching my head wondering why this won Best of Show.  Almost a week later I’ll admit I just don’t get it.

I’m going to attribute some of this to the fact that QuiltCon used the photographs submitted by creators for the winning quilt photos instead of having them professionally photographed.  I do hope in the future they will have the budget to properly photograph the quilts because I’m sure we are losing a lot of the artistry of the quilt in a poorly lit photograph.  You can see it in several photos – the quilting just doesn’t show up that great and I feel like I’m missing out on a special part of an award winning quilt. The texture is completely gone in some of them.

Until I knew the story behind the BOS quilt I just didn’t care about it. I didn’t scratch my head wondering how it was made or want to linger over the photo finding new and interesting details. It read “my first quilt” to me and made me wonder even more what was it about this quilt?  Why was this one better than every other quilt entered at QuiltCon Pasadena?

Scrolling through the other entries there were some interesting ones and a lot of quilts that I felt I’d seen before. Several had political statements and the Los Angeles Times even wrote an article about it.  A QuiltCon attendee explained that during the judging the judges were given the backstory to the quilt. This is not standard in quilt show judging.  Judges usually go in blind not knowing a backstory, the name or the maker of the quilt.

I’ve been in a sort of black hole the last two years dealing with marital issues and a divorce so I haven’t followed all the up and coming modern quilt stars. I didn’t know anything about Melissa and only know a little bit now doing research for this blog post. Now I know she’s a designer and has placed in previous QuiltCon shows. She’s not a first time quilter like the Best of Show quilt gives me the impression of.

I’m forced to think about it which makes me pause to consider a quilt I normally wouldn’t give a second glance to. Maybe Melissa made it the way she did for a reason.  One attendee said: “you can see dark threads behind the light fabrics and the denim wasn’t trimmed away for underneath either — it’s ragged. Mental illness isn’t pretty inside. A lot of people hide it and have a constant internal battle with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Oftentimes there are cracks on the surface showing a tiny piece of what might be going on underneath. A person with depression is vulnerable to a lot of things. Teetering on the edge of making it day by day. Holding on by their fingernails. Not everyone makes it. In a lot of ways I don’t think this world is equipped to understand suicidal people and what can drive someone to make that choice for themselves.

I’ve stared down that dark abyss and had those conversations with myself of just ending things. Twice in my life I came very close. Thinking about the quilt from that perspective I can understand designing a threadbare, imperfect quilt. It almost make sense. The quilt is vulnerable.  I don’t know that I agree with it being Best of Show material but it is certainly thought provoking and has elicited a lot of discussion due to the topic of the quilt and the workmanship.

While thinking about this topic a lot of questions popped into my brain:

Is The Modern Quilt Guild becoming more focused on art quilts and less on functional quilts? 

To me a functional quilt (part of the official definition from MQG) is a quilt intended to survive a lot of use and several washings. It is meant to be used. Obviously there is a large offshoot of modern mini art quilts (I’ve been known to make a few myself) but mostly it seems MQG wants to see a larger quilt. As a functional quilt though I would hope workmanship would be important. My first quilt gets rarely washed because my seams were not perfect, the fabric was not quilt shop quality and my quilting left much to be desired.  But this has always been my beef with modern quilting as a whole… sometimes I see it used as an excuse for poor workmanship. I think it is possible to be a modern quilter and still want to achieve improvement and show technically good quilting skill.

If we didn’t see a backstory to a quilt would we still find it interesting, moving, or award winning?

Good art as a whole is opinion. I love this quote from Mona Lisa Smile: “What is art? What makes it bad or good and who decides?”  To add to that… do we need a backstory to fall in love with a piece of art? Why are quilts different?  I think the backstory matters but I don’t know if I’d say it matters more than the piece of art itself. I feel like a piece of art should move me on it’s own and make me want to know the story behind it.

If QuiltCon is going to include backstory in judging why have a small panel of judges at all? Why not judge the show democratically? 

Most quilt shows have certified judges look at the quilts that were selected for entry and the judges decide based on a variety of technical aspects which quilts deserve awards. I recommend watching the documentary “Stitched” about the 2011 Houston International Quilt Festival.  It shows behind the scenes of judging and is interesting to watch.

I do wonder though if a quilt show is going to primarly use artists as judges instead of “quilt judges” should we just allow members of the guild in attendance to vote for what they think is the best one for each category? That would be difficult logistically I know, but perhaps a representative of the guild itself might be an interesting way to judge a show? Or maybe the same outcome would occur. Who knows. Every show has quilts like this where people felt one should have placed over another – even at Houston. Perhaps that is part of the fun in going to a show.

Mr. Swirl E. Bones Pieced by Victoria Findlay Wolfe, quilted by Shelly Pagliai

Why Viewers Choice Always Interests Me The Most

I love looking at Viewers Choice immediately after seeing Best of Show.  Oftentimes these are two different quilts and sometimes its a quilt that didn’t place in any other category including Judges Choice. This year’s QuiltCon Viewers Choice was a fun, whimsical Halloween quilt named Mr Swirl E Bones by Victoria Findlay Wolfe.  It also won Judges Choice from the NQA certified judge Scott Merkin.  To me this quilt has a lot to look at and I wish I could see the quilting up close because there seems to be a lot of detail in it.

I won viewers choice in Charlotte, NC back in 2014 at an AQS show for my Corgi Fairytale quilt. It was a complete surprise as my quilt wasn’t even juried – it was included in a Modern Quilt exhibit that was traveling around with the AQS Quiltweek show that year. I don’t know that I’ll ever try to enter juried shows but this ribbon means a lot to me knowing a lot of people liked my quilt at that show and for some reason it stood out to them.  I’m glad that quilt shows still include Viewers Choice as a category and that it is still a big deal.

My Favorite Quilt Out of the 2016 Winners

Out of all of the winners this one made me smile and I immediately fell in love with it. I love Kawaii style items and this sort of reminds me of that. I think the rounded edges of the quilt were a great design choice too.

Rainy Day Quilt Pieced by Lindsey Neill Quilted by Sarah Wilson from Crinklelove

A Final Thought

I love that modern quilting is being used to tackle heavy subjects and highlight important, controversial events (traditional quilting has too but I don’t think as often). Quilts are a historical item that can carry through time and keep people talking about things they might not even be aware existed or occurred. The basic quilt is used to comfort, hold in warmth, lend beauty, and hold memories. Maybe modern quilting can being used to spark discussion about difficult topics and be a catalyst for change.


  1. What a deep blogpost. I totally agree with you! I love VFW’s quilt, and Rainy Day is super cute!
    I’m glad the stories are included with the quilts, and I’m with you when you say it should not influence if a quilt is a winner or not. It’s not that I don’t like the quilt, but at first look there is nothing special about it. I wonder what it’s like in person…
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I haven’t evem looked at the winning quilts as I was happy to have Quiltcon out of my instagram feed… It was a bit too much.

  2. Very Lazy Daisy says:

    I can’t say I really disagree with anything you said here, Katie. While this quilt may not be one I would have picked if I were a judge, I do like it. A lot. Perhaps not seeing it up close, I like it more than I would have in person. From a distance, I can’t be distracted by crooked seams or ragged edges, and my imagination sort of fills in how I would have made something similar. I loved the overall aesthetic before I even read the backstory.

    To me, what’s interesting about this getting BoS is that it sets an example to new quilters who may not yet have the skill set I do after 17 years of practise, or someone else does after 30. I’ve overheard people at traditional quilt shows like Festival in Houston say things like “oh I give up” after viewing a best of show there. Those people need to know there is a place for them at the level they are.. That they have a voice and something to say as they are learning along the way. Or even if they never progress to perfect seams, they still have a place in the quilting world. The fact that quilters like Sharon Schamber exist should never keep someone from trying it their way.

    Houston International is not Quilt Con, and it’s not meant to be. Just as a celebrity may wear a certain style dress to the VMAs that wouldn’t work for the Oscars, the quilts at QuiltCon have a place in the quilting community, and they speak to some people, and not others. I don’t think they’re less than, they’re just a different thing. Apples and oranges, I suppose.

    It’s easier to embrace “inferior” workmanship if we know that it was a design choice to convey a certain feeling, rather than a lack of attention to detail, but with a medium like fabric and a technique like sewing, that can be a really difficult line to draw, or know when it’s been crossed. “I meant to do that”

    I’d like to see Modern Quilting evolve in a way that holds on to that special freedom while simultaneously encouraging us to always keep learning and improving. As modern quilting is really in its infancy, it will be interesting to watch these quilt makers over the next several years and how their journey progresses while also seeing how their voice shapes and changes the industry.

  3. Very Lazy Daisy says:

    Another thought I forgot to add.. I think this is a very important quilt for the simple fact that it has sparked so much interesting conversation. Maybe that will look different from the other side of this.. In a couple years people will remember this quilt, and all the hype about it has become bigger than the quilt itself.

  4. Valeriekat says:

    Totally agree with you that a quilt shouldn’t need a back story to make it a winner.
    How do the judges separate their sympathy from their judgement?

  5. I agree with you and Valeriekat – a quilt shouldn’t need a back story to make it a winner. A quilt should be a winner on its own merit simply by the way it looks (the fabric and design) and is quilted (the stitching).
    Adding the “back story” is introducing another element to judging that is manipulating people’s emotions to use empathy and sympathy to win an award.

  6. I admit I don’t get it. I mean, I saw the quilt and just figured there was something about it that spoke to the judges to declare it a winner. I like the Viewer’s Choice one, but at the same time not sure it could have been a BoS contender. Hard to say really.

    Still a hard choice to make. I kind of wonder what came second or third.

  7. I have a huge amount of appreciation for the art elem t of these quilts, which I suppose the backstory lends too. However, this is exactly the part of “modern quilting” that I feel is pushing me out of the modern quilting community. In our MQG, during show and tell we now have to explain the story of the quilt and specifically what makes it modern. For someone like me who makes a lot of quilts from patterns (which seems to be looked down on more and more I modern quilting), and who only designs quilts based on “hey, these shapes and colors are pretty!”, it’s hard to feel that what I do is artsy enough to be called modern quilting.

  8. Thanks for adding to the conversation! I recently spoke with one of the other top winners (not BOS). This winner said she asked the judges about the whole reading the backstory thing and they said, not they usually don’t unless they need clarification – they want the quilt to stand on it’s own. However, I do agree that they are probably focused more on originality of design and artistry rather than technical skill. Anything that gets us talking about quilts is a good thing – right?

    • I do love that this group of winners has encouraged the community to discuss modern quilting some more. I think it’ll always be a mystery much like what makes modern modern…. everyone has their own opinion on that too. And thanks for the info about how the story behind the quilt was used by the judges. That is certainly interesting.

  9. I was at Quilt Con 2016 for the better part of all 4 days, it was my first Quilt Con to attend in person, so I was honestly trying to reserve judgement and just absorb what I was.
    You are not alone with what you felt, there was a number of people saying much what you just said. At first I just thought is was sour grapes, but the more I think about it, I would say you and they have some very valid points.
    For me the best quilts were the guild charity quilts, and the quilts in another smaller building where the smaller quilts, and Gwen Marston’s quilts were displayed.
    It was a great event, but yes, wondering what the judges were thinking.

  10. You wrote:”If we didn’t see a backstory to a quilt would we still find it interesting, moving, or award winning?” I do not find this quilt special. It embarrasses me to admit that since the story is so sad. I am appalled that the judges got the story to consider in their judging.

    • I am not sure I understand how the story of why a quilt was made could provide clarification. That being said, I don’t know much, if anything, about the judging process.

  11. I have lots of thoughts going in both directions on this issue. As a quilter, the story is part of the quilt so how do you separate the two? At the same time if I have to explain the story to someone viewing my quilt in order for them to “see” it, does it make it less impressive/valued etc? Does it make it less. Do we want our opinion of a quilt be masked by a story. good or bad. Does it cloud what we could see, say or take away?

    I think the consistency in what the judging criteria is more important than the how. If a story is important for one, then it needs to be so for the rest.

    Great post Katie

  12. Interesting post. I too wondered about the BOS quilt. I saw many others that I thought were more deserving. I was at the first two QuiltCon shows. The first had many quilts that I considered of very sub-par quality. The design might have been there (questionable in many) but the piecing and quilting were not show-worthy. The second had many more quilts of quality – both in design and in skills. I’ve been quilting for years and have been to traditional shows including the Houston show. I do enjoy the new, fresher qualities that the modern movement have brought to quilting and have included many in my quilts. I do not think the story of the quilt should be considered in the judging of a quilt – the story is important but not in the judging.
    The one thing I’ve learned in the quilt world is that each “new” movement evolves into something that was not foreseen when it started. And many times, as skills evolve, the quilts become more complicated and artsy.

  13. Best in Show at any quilt show is going to have a little controversy, it’s a given. I feel like I should clarify that with QuiltCon, the Best in Show is selected from ONLY the first place winners in each category. Also the quilt description is not read unless the judges require some sort of clarification or ask for it to be read. Never at any time is the makers name revealed. In general, the quilt number is read with the title, that’s it. The quilt description for My Brother’s Jeans was never read at judging until after the quilt was selected as the BOS winner. It’s important to know that the quilt was selected based solely on what they saw that day in the judging room, nothing else. You may not agree with it, which is ok, we are all entitled to our own opinion, it is just a part of what makes the modern quilting world a great thing.

  14. Loved this post, Katie! I think your insight that “this quilt is vulnerable” is brilliant. I sensed that, too, even before I knew the backstory.

    You raise so many important questions. You know I’m a story lover, and so I like the idea that a quilt’s story makes a difference to how we view a quilt. It certainly adds layers of meaning. I’m coming around to the idea, though, that when judging a quilt for a prize, a quilt’s story shouldn’t be a consideration. My understanding is that while it was first reported the judges did know the story behind “My Brother’s Jeans,” it turns out they didn’t. So in this case, story isn’t an issue.

    However, functionality is. I’m really interested in the issue of functionality. As you point out, this quilt is vulnerable. How many washings will it last through? I’m betting that within a few year’s time functionality will not be central to the definition of what makes a modern quilt.

    I also love viewers’ choice picks, and I’m so glad they exist. It gives everyone a chance to weigh in on what they think is best of show.

    Finally, I so appreciate your honesty. Thanks for bringing your own experience into this post!


  15. I have thought about your post for a few days. I have come to the conclusion that the way in which quilt shows are run and judged are out of date to the times we live in. We are not making quilts for utilitarian purposes only anymore. Fabric quality, machines to piece and quilt are so advanced, patterns so easy to design on computer software, along with modern quilt artists no longer wanting to follow the archaic rules of what makes a “best in show” quilt that were set out in days of old.

    As for my personal preference for a winner – it would not have been this quilt. Looking at it from a photo (which by no means tells you everything you want to know about the construction of this quilt), and without the “story” to go with it – to me it looks like X marks the spot for the next bombing raid in the desert.

    I prefer most all of the other quilt photos you posted better than this one.

  16. I think Lauren accurately reviews the state of quilt shows today.
    She NAILED IT in her description: “Looking at it from a photo (which by no means tells you everything you want to know about the construction of this quilt), and without the “story” to go with it – to me it looks like X marks the spot for the next bombing raid in the desert.”

  17. Just wanted to offer a perspective from a non-quilter. A couple of months ago, I came across a photo of “My Brother’s Jeans” on a garment sewing blog and was immediately struck by the image. I found it completely haunting and so uniquely different from any other quilt I had seen before. I had not heard the backstory to the quilt at this time, so that was absolutely not a factor in the way I perceived it. I know nothing about quilting and prior to seeing Melissa’s work, had never even had an interest in quilts. In fact, I find most modern quilts to be rather tacky (clashing bright colors, childish prints, constrained patterns). Say what you will about her lack of technique, but I believe the judges recognized “My Brother’s Jeans” not for its backstory but because it is a work of art. Unlike any of the other examples you are praising in this post, Melissa’s quilt transcends the medium and speaks to people outside of the quilting circle.

    • @ Taylor :

      YES, YES and YES. Quite frankly, the image the blogger posted of the clouds and rain quilt is so generic from a design perspective. The judges never read the backstory for My Brother’s Jeans Quilt. Check out their judging process in a video posted on QuiltCon’s Facebook page.

    • I agree and I am a long time quilter and a member of my local MQG. I didn’t attend QuiltCon this year but have attended all of the prior ones. I hadn’t read the backstory but loved the quilt and actually thought, “Hallelujah, the MQG is evolving past just ultra simple designs with lots of negative space and are embracing more complex designs.”

      The backstory made it more poignant but didn’t enter into my assessment at all as I didn’t know it.

  18. I see that others have mentioned that judges didn’t read the artist statements on the quilts, so they saw something else in this quilt. There’s a lot to see that doesn’t show up in the photos. With that said, it wouldn’t have been my choice and that’s okay. Judging is totally subjective and three different judges would have shown up with completely different winners. I like that they always include a non-quilter in the judging, I like the perspective that brings to the process.
    But really I am commenting because your personal story really resonates with me. I’m also an atheist, I’m childless, in the middle of a long-term relationship (11 years, but unmarried) that seems to be heading towards an end, deal with anxiety and depression and am somewhere above a 2 on the Kinsey scale. Going to go follow your blog now. 🙂

  19. Jennie Wallick says:

    I’m not sure that photos show the nuances of color or quilting. Armchair judging is not a fair way to judge the judges.. Whether they had a backstory or not is unimportant as long as they had one from all the quilts. Art depends on taste. This is obviously not some peoples taste. In honestly it’s not my taste, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the winning quilt.

  20. Katie,
    I love this very thoughtful post. The comments are intelligent and well stated. I don’t think I would have chosen that quilt, although that is usually the case with me and a lot of things that are judged. I appreciate you being willing to put your opinion “out there”.

  21. QuiltCon16 was my first QuiltCon. I have been to Houston and Paducah. I recognise the amazing technical and artistic skill required to make the winning quilts at these latter events but I feel they are very laborious and ticking lots of technique boxes to the point of deadness in some cases. I have found the Modern Quilt world to be a breath of fresh air with newer younger women exploring our craft from a standing position but making quilts out of their own ideas rather than a book or picking up on piecing ideas on the internet and using fresh modern fabrics to make them. I have noticed a tendency for the quilts to move off beds onto walls and for people to bring a high level of skill to the making. Please don’t make the QuiltCon judging a matter of squareness and binding corners – let quilts be about our life as women in this world today. Setting the back story of the BOS aside this quilt had resonance because of the worn and recycled materials, it’s restraint and it’s size. The rain and cloud quilt had graphic impact because of its directness and simplicity but one would soon cease to look at it while the BOS quilt would yield new things for years to come (stray threads and all) and respond to touch as well – definitely one for the bed. It stood apart from the rest. I like the fact that non quilters but with other takes on the visual world are included in the judging as they are less likely to be l distracted by technical details but see the quilt as a whole. I liked the fact QuiltCon is a celebration of the modern quilt movement as a whole; I’m sure many excluded quilts were technically better than those that got in. But let not all the entries aspire to one thing, technical excellence, box ticking and catching the eye of the judges. Let them be quilts we have made because we wanted to and needed to regardless. And I loved the VC quilt too and thought the maker’s talk was great. So both approaches got recognition.

  22. Just a related thought. I’m taking a class from an experienced art quilter on finding your inner muse and direction in art quilting. A couple of days before listening to your podcast on this we did this exercise where the teacher gave us 50 note cards with pictures of different quilts on them. The task was to pretend I was curating a show and choose the 10-12 I wanted in my show.

    I was the third person to go through the exercise, and when I was finished, not a single quilt had been picked for all three shows. There was one the first two people both picked that I did not, and two that the second person picked the same as I did. The first person and I had zero quilts in common. The point of it was to illustrate how just because your quilt doesn’t get picked for a particular show, don’t give up. You never know why or what that judge was thinking. Your experience with this show echoed that but on the other end of the spectrum. You never can tel what a judge or group of judges is thinking when they choose the best in a show, either.