Many longarm machines, some domestic machines, give quilters the option of quilting with a stitch regulator, if they so desire. “Wonderful, but how can we compare that to real quilting?” Some machines can also stitch a completely computer-controlled pattern. “Amazing, but is that fair?” These questions can be heard at almost every quilt show these days. As a quilter and a judge, I can easily put myself on both sides of this question.
I’ve been quilting by hand for more than fifty years. For me, it’s relaxing and the most beautiful work I can ever think of doing. I’ve been quilting with my sewing machine for about thirty-five years. It’s fast work, sturdy enough for grandchildren and it helps me feel I might actually be able to use up some of my stash. Over the past fifteen years, I’ve been quilting on a Gammill longarm with a Statler Stitcher. This machine seems to me to be a miracle of modern quilting.
Working first on the computer, I can open a quilting design and make it any size I want, limited only by the working space between the rollers. I can set a pattern to fill a block of any dimension, to follow a vertical line, a horizontal line, or rotate it to any angle or any position. The computer will repeat patterns to fill a calculated space, so that borders or pantographs come out even. I can choose from thousands of available designs or use a CAD program to create my own. And yes, it does have a stitch regulator for free-motion quilting, when I choose to work that way.
And so, the questions come, “Is it fair to have computer guided quilting in the same category or the same show as other quilts?” This sounds like the same argument we have answered before about hand quilting vs. machine quilting, domestic machine vs. longarm, stitch regulated or not. Instead of fair or not, the question in a judged competition should be “Is it well done or not?”
Computerized machines are amazing, but can they do the quilting all by themselves? I have invited several people to come and try my machine. If I say, as we stand in front of it, “Go ahead and quilt whatever you like” of course they say they don’t know how. So then, why would anyone think that using a machine of any kind will guarantee perfect results? Knowledge, practice, and experience are necessary to help every quilter improve his or her skills no matter what technique or style of quilting. And when a quilter reaches that point of perfection, that’s when the ribbons are awarded.
It seems surprising that I would find myself in the position of defending a computerized longarm quilting machine, when it is as far away from my traditional hand quilting roots as anything could be. But, as judges, we have to separate ourselves from our own style of work and look for the “best of the best” regardless of how it was done.
When judges evaluate any type of quilting, what do they look for? Even stitches, balanced tension, clean starts and stops, good design, no distortion in the quilt top or back, straight lines and/or smooth curves would be on the list. Those things can be done well with computerized quilting, or they can still be a problem. It depends on the skill and knowledge of the quilter. I am happy to see that most quiltmakers and quilt show organizers have accepted computerized quilting just as they have all other forms of work. And judges will do their job, as always, looking beyond “how” the quilt was made and concentrating on “how well” the work was done.