How to Judge the Quality of a Hand Embroidered Piece

Last week I listed a hand embroidered runner that had some extremely even stitching, but used a full 6 strand thread instead of a more delicate 2 strand.

Hand Embroidered and Hand Hemmed Table Runner/Dresser Scarf

Hand Embroidered and Hand Hemmed Table Runner/Dresser Scarf

I remembered entering an early piece of my own embroidery at a local fair as a child and wondering how pieces were judged. So I looked up judging standards for embroidery pieces to see how embroidery is judged today. I think that these would also be indicators of the quality of the work when you are considering purchasing a vintage hand embroidered item. So here’s an excellent article about judging standards for hand embroidered work from Nordic Needle.

“The following article was written by Debi Feyh of Nordic Needle and published in their weekly e-mail newsletter. Permission was granted by Nordic Needle to share this article in Rose’s Buttons blog. For information on subscribing to their weekly e-mail newsletter, visit A free mail-order catalog is available to you upon request if you live in the USA or Canada.”

Judging Needlework

One newsletter you have been asking for is what judges look for when scoring needlework. With summer coming up, more people are thinking about entering their local fairs and guild events, so we decided this would be a good time to address the question…

What’s the Judge Looking For?

First let me make this disclaimer: The comments made in this newsletter are general suggestions for what you should or should not do when preparing your needlework for show. These guidelines have been compiled from many sources, listed throughout the newsletter. However, many organizations have specific requirements so be sure to check your show guidelines as you prepare your piece for judging.

The format for this newsletter will be different to best accommodate the information under each heading. I have tried to compile the guidelines under specific headings. Your show may not have all these categories, or perhaps call it something else.


This should be the only time the judge’s personal opinion is considered. The piece is evaluated as a whole, rating the aesthetic effect and appeal beyond the mere technical proficiency. If this is part of the judging criteria, it is usually the least weighted measurement.


Whether you are designing a piece or using a published pattern, here are some things to consider before you even begin to stitch.

  • Is the design pleasing to look at?
  • The design should have a balance to it, with a focal point for the eye to stop.
  • Both sides of the design have an equal visual weight. Large items should be balanced and towards the center. Heavier elements should be towards the bottom. If not, visually your piece will seem to tilt.
  • The design is not divided exactly into one-half or one-third parts.
  • If there is a repetition of shapes or colors it draws your eye around the piece.
  • There is a harmony among the objects in the design.
  • Colors should not influence the judging. However, the color should harmonize with the design and fabric if applicable.
  • The size and shape of the design should suit its use whether it is framed, finished as a pillow, or used as an accessory.
  • The fabric and materials used are appropriate for the design.
  • Design stitched on grain of fabric unless intentionally meant to be stitched on a slant..
  • Many of the judging criteria have points available for the originality of design, innovative use of new ideas and fresh interpretations of traditional designs and/or techniques. If you designed the piece, and your show allows you to acknowledge that, please be sure to note this with as much detail as allowed. Name your design!


Many shows offer different levels of expertise such as beginner, advanced, amateur, or professional. The complexity requirements will increase as the level of expertise increases. Some of these areas are:

  • Difficulty of materials used as metallic fibers, silks, and ribbon work are more complex to work with than floss.
  • The difficulty to execute stitches and techniques can impact your score if executed properly.
  • If your design has a variety of elements, techniques, and stitches it can increase your score. However, a word of advice from Lynne De’ath, a judging friend of mine from England. “Be creative, but don’t feel you have to use twenty different stitches where five or so would do. Quality beats quantity every time.”
  • The scope of project (size versus detail).
  • Materials, time, and money spent in marking article is justified by its beauty, usefulness, and durability.


Lynne had some excellent thoughts to share with you on workmanship! She tells it like it is, so here are her suggestions in her own words.

  • “Keep a nice even tension throughout, but not too tight or you will have very visible holes at the corners of your stitches, and your fabric could pucker.
  • Do check for missed/unfinished stitches – a judge will spot them a mile away! You’d be surprised just how noticeable they can be!
  • Don’t carry thread across the back of the work for more than a couple stitches, and even then, pass the floss behind existing stitches. Why? Because a) it can make the fabric pucker/lumpy, and b) the back of the work will resemble a plate of spaghetti (assuming there is an “unframed” category, but the judge will spot it anyway!) If you think I’m joking, you should see some of the unframed entries I have had the misfortune to look at!
  • Also, NO KNOTS!!!! This means starting and finishing a thread. Judges may well pick up a framed piece and look horizontally across the surface to check for lumps and knots – I do! I don’t want to see meatballs in the spaghetti either!!”

Some additional thoughts from other sources:

  • Starts and stops have even tension and blend in with the other stitches.
  • Uniformity in stitches (density, stitched length, tension).
  • No frayed ends on fabric surface unless deliberately used.
  • Tacking stitches invisible.
  • Dimensions are accurate.
  • Be sure that your pattern marking lines are not seen when your piece is finished.


I included this as a separate category because all of your hard work should not be overshadowed by being dirty. Again, a word of advice from Lynn. “Always try to carefully wash your work before framing/exhibiting. There’s nothing as off-putting to judges than seeing grubby hoop/frame marks, fingerprints. Even if you wash your hands before stitching, the natural oils in your skin come off onto the fabric, and over time will go darker and darker. (I discovered this the hard way, many years ago!)”

Something I personally struggle with is those little specialty fibers that get in my stitching. I have two black cats, one gray cat, and one yellow dog so no matter what colors I am stitching with the specialty fibers show up. I often will stitch with a clean sheet over my lap and stitching area; however, one or more of my four-legged kids stop by to inspect my work and leave a contribution. It is critical to carefully inspect your work under a magnifying glass and remove those hairs. Don’t wait until you are completely done because you have probably stitched them into the project and pulling them out can mess up your threads. Even when I think I have found them all, there seems to be a stray one that someone else sees.


Several organizations strive for techniques that were authentic to the period being portrayed, for example the Renaissance period, Civil War, Mountain man and Pioneer. Be sure to check with your organization if you are entering items in their events. When I reviewed various organizations, some were very detailed in how many points would be award in these categories. For example, the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) had some of the most detailed descriptions. Here are two concerning authenticity and documentation:

  • Special effort to achieve period effect by using period design, materials, tools, techniques, etc.
  • The best documentation will cover what they did in period, what the creator did in the project, and why the difference, if any. If will explain any conscious compromises made, and provide footnotes, illustrations, and references as well as any original research or experimentation as it applies to the project.


This category is usually no more than 10% of your score unless it is part of the design element itself, such as a box. If it is entered as finished then the article should be ready to use. As stated above, be sure you clean your work if possible before finishing.

Framed Work:

    • No puckers on the front of the piece.
    • Fabric grain lines are perpendicular and square with the frame.

Mat and frame colors should harmonize with the piece.

  • Borders are equal on sides and top with the bottom edge just a little wider.


  • Gathered ruffles are appropriate size for the pillow
  • Corners smooth and not cupped
  • Closure should be neatly finished.

Flat Work:

  • Blocked to a uniform shape.
  • Lies flat with no puckering
  • Edges finished appropriately.

Cathy Studer wrote a series of articles in 2004 for the newsletter of the Needles Arts Guild of Toledo called Evaluating your Embroidery covering several of the areas above.

Here are some additional guidelines for specific techniques.


Brazilian Dimensional Embroidery International Guild, Inc. uses this scoring method (.pdf):

  • Impact 0-5 points
  • Workmanship 0-40 points
  • Cleanliness 0-10 points
  • Finishing 0-10 points
  • Design 0-20 points

One source said that the back of Brazilian Embroidery is not judged!


  • Quarter, half and three quarters stitches are properly executed.
  • Full, even, non-twisted stitches with the top cross going the same direction.
  • Stitches started at the lower left of a vertical thread if the ground fabric is linen or an even weave fabric.
  • Watch for even coverage and thickness of thread. No visible wearing or fuzziness of thread, smooth surface, no shadowing of darker threads through light.
  • Blocked and matted straight.


  • Neat, even stitches except for special effects.
  • Even tension because stitching on smooth fabrics can so easily pucker and pull.
  • Do try not to let your pattern transfer show.
  • Use a waste knot for starting or finishing so no knot “bumps” show.


  • The worst “sin” in Lynne’s book is leaving lots of little stitch-ends showing where the Kloster Blocks have been cut, and fabric ends around the edges of the work. Lynne shared that “Yes, I have been guilty of that myself and have been marked down accordingly! It’s worth taking a long time over your cutting, even if it does prolong the nerve-jangling ‘Will I cut the wrong thread?’ fears.”
  • Tension is always important. There are places for holes to show, e.g. eyelets, and places they should not, like around satin stitch motifs.

The Nordic Needle 2010 Award Winning Hardanger Embroidery Design Contest has closed and the winners have been chosen. Here is the criterion Roz and Sue use: Overall beauty and attractiveness (35 points), technique and workmanship (40 points), and originality of design (25 points). The winners are published in a book which will be available in July. Start designing now for the 2011 Hardanger Embroidery Design contest! Read the 2011 official Rules and entry information!

Here are a couple of organizations that have outlined judging criteria. Isn’t it interesting how each group looks at different things?

Washington State University Extension has a 4H Creative Arts Score card. I don’t know if this is the same for all 4H Creative Arts or not. They created a score card with 4 rankings of excellent, good, fair, no placing for each category. You can purchase a pad of the scorecards here.

  • Appearance-visually attractive (0-10)
  • Display – clean, neat, suitable accessories, (1-10)
  • Design – appropriate use of elements of design (0-10)
  • Creativity (0-10)
  • Originality (0-10)
  • Suitability of materials to each other and to the design and use of the object (0-10)
  • Craftsmanship – appropriate technique used (0-15)
  • Control of materials used in technique (0-15)
  • Precision in construction or finishing (0-10)

The Middle Kingdom Arts and Sciences Faire (SCA) judging criteria is very specific covering many techniques and interpretations. This website will link you to all the categories. It is quite interesting to see how specific they get.


If you are interested in becoming a judge, here are a couple organizations where you can get certified to judge:

The American Needlepoint Guild, Inc.

The Judging Certification Program (JCP) was established in 1987 to certify qualified evaluators for needlework exhibitions, and to oversee a standard of excellence in the development of needlework through professional judging. Those who satisfactorily complete the program are certified to serve as judges or jurors for needlework shows and exhibits.

The Embroiderer’s Guild of America has two judging programs:

Certified Network Judges (CNJ) Program: This program guides and assists prospective judges in developing and refining their ability to evaluate needlework. CNJ apprentices learn standards of excellence in color, design, techniques, materials, and finishing; and they learn the ethical standards of judging exemplified by our certified needlework judges. They do practice and actual judging, exhibit their own work, pass a series of written examinations, and meet with members of the CNJ committee for an exit interview. The program, designed to be completed within two years from the date of enrollment, requires attendance at two CNJ-sponsored classes

Master Needlework Judges (MNJ) Program: EGA Certified Needlework Judges may enter the Master Judges Program (MNJ), a five year course of judging, exhibiting, and study. MNJ candidates study needlework techniques, design, color, judging procedures, and methods for planning and presenting exhibits. This program is designed to build on the basic knowledge accrued while working on the Certified Needlework Judges Program and to refine the knowledge and ability of our judges.

I hope you were able to pick up a couple of tips. After compiling this newsletter, I wondered if I would ever venture out to display my needlework again. However, Lynn has these closing words of encouragement: “Whatever your needlework specialty – go for it! The judges may not like your stitchery, you may not even get an Honorable Mention, but you did it! There will be hundreds/thousands of people seeing your work and wishing to high heaven that they could have done half as well as you did, if at all, so be proud of what you achieved!”

We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!

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