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Inside Threadcakes, America’s Craftiest Cake Competition

threadcakes-communist-party-wired-design Most people say creativity can’t be reduced to a recipe. But Chris Cardinal, a web developer and founder of cake-decorating competition Threadcakes, has done just that….

Most people say creativity can’t be reduced to a recipe. But Chris Cardinal, a web developer and founder of cake-decorating competition Threadcakes, has done just that.

The rules are simple: pick a design from Threadless, the crowdsourced T-shirt shop, and turn it into a cake. The results are stunning. The deadline for the 2012 competition was yesterday and winners will soon be announced.

Inside Threadcakes, America's Craftiest Cake Competition

Designers need to translate a 2-D design into and edible 3-D creation.

It all started with Cardinal’s Threadless fan blog (now defunct). Back in 2007, he was writing about new shirts, designers, and crowdsourcing and became friends with the social media team at the Chicago-based company. Then one late night, he came up with “this crazy idea to create a Threadless-themed cake-baking competition.” He asked his readers to send in cake photos, not knowing whether or not they’d take the challenge.

Bake they did. The first year generated over a hundred entries, competing for a mere $100 in prizes. The competition was featured on Digg (Remember when “Digging” was a thing!?) and received 45,000 visits in one day.

Inside Threadcakes, America's Craftiest Cake Competition

The striped and scalloped lettering of this “You’re the Best” confection is a painstaking exercise in sugar craft.

The attention caught Cardinal by surprise. All of a sudden his email inbox was jammed with cake photos. “I looked through 900 pictures of cake and decided I wasn’t doing that again.” He named a winner, but had no plans to continue.

But Threadless wanted another helping, and reached out to Cardinal, asking him to rerun the competition. They even created a special award for him in their “Bestees” ceremony (the Oscars for the Threadless community), and ponied up some shwag for prizes. By 2010, the competition had ballooned to 28,000 submitted pics, and has grown steadily since.

“Most of these winners are dramatically better than cakes I’ve seen on TV shows and at professional bakeries,” Cardinal says. Entrants typically spend 20-60 hours on their frosted feats, and are both hobbyists and professionals trying to make a name for themselves. Cardinal says some contestants are just looking for an excuse to experiment with fondant, others do it as a family activity, and one couple whose first date was spent baking a Threadcake have since gone on to get married.

The design of the competition is also interesting. Cardinal has had to think about game mechanics and how the system will encourage entries, but give awards to the most deserving. For example entrants have to show at least five photos of their creation, including pics of the cake being baked, so sneaks can’t pass sculpted Styrofoam off as cake.

Inside Threadcakes, America's Craftiest Cake Competition

The most sensational inspirational celebrational Muppetational cake we’ve ever seen.

Cardinal’s biggest problem now is that the entries are so exceptional, they intimidate those who are just getting started. After the first two competitions were won by the same baker, he started creating random prizes to keep people engaged. He’s also keen to stress that Threadcakes is not a popularity contest. There is no Facebook voting. Every entry is reviewed by a panel of judges. Cardinal says “if you spend 4 hours on a cake, you deserve to have it reviewed.”

When will we see Threadcakes on the Food Network? Cardinal has broached the idea, but isn’t in any hurry. His bakers’ don’t need added incentive, he says. They’re already churning out expert confections for the very modest grand prize of $500. “It’s the best contest ever,” he says. “Even if you lose, you get to eat cake.”

Inside Threadcakes, America's Craftiest Cake Competition

It may look like the Twitter mascot, but social media has no bearing on this competition.

All photos courtesy of Threadcakes & Illustrations Courtesy of Threadless

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