See Inside Megan Manwaring’s Studio
Although Megan Manwaring enjoys working in her dedicated studio, she is equally happy to stitch in other parts of her home to be near her family. We visit her in Sydney to see how this approach supports her creative life.
By Erica Spinks
Megan has converted what was once an upstairs open verandah at the front of her 100-year-old home into a dedicated creative space. As she views the room’s original features, including the old fuse box and rough-cast walls, she visualises how it may have originally been used. “I like to imagine that the original owner of the house, a widowed woman in her 60s, might have sewn or embroidered on this verandah while watching the activity on the street.”
No such leisurely activity takes place there now, as Megan uses the room as both a study and sewing area and regularly rearranges the furniture to suit her current projects. “I have rejigged the space a number of times and have added furniture as the opportunity has arisen, using either second-hand or repurposed pieces plus some functional IKEA pieces,” she says. “Until I bought my Bernina 720, I had my sewing machine on an old Singer treadle sewing table and I sat on an old Bluebird sewing chair, which was complete with a drawer under the seat for storing a sewing kit.”
While Megan’s path to quiltmaking “… was definitely not an artistic one”, it’s obvious from her quilts that she has an eye for colour and pattern. Her mother taught her to sew and guided her as she chose fabrics to make clothes, and Megan also earned Girl Guide badges for creative skills such as knitting, crocheting, cooking and woodwork.
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“My mum made beautiful tapestries and could sew, knit and crochet, and my dad had a very steady hand and would help us with our projects for school and Guides,” she recalls. “Both my grandmothers were also makers and I feel blessed that I have a cross stitch made by my grandma hanging in my studio.”
Following an academic path, Megan studied law at university and worked for 10 years as a corporate lawyer. “It was only before having our first child that I bought my own sewing machine and started sewing again,” she says. When her daughter was a few months old, Megan started her first quilt after her interest was piqued by a quilt on display in Catherine Butterworth’s shop in Chatswood.
“I asked the often-asked question in a quilt shop, ‘Can I buy that quilt?’ The reply was, ‘No, but we can sell you a kit to make it.’” She promptly purchased a kit to get started. “It took a couple of years to finish it — including making some smaller cot quilts between — but by then I was drawn into the appeal of making quilts,” she says. “It was nice to be able to close the loop on that story a couple of years ago by relaying it to Catherine.”
Megan’s interest in quiltmaking blossomed as she purchased quilt magazines and spent time sewing with a couple of women she had met through a mothers’ group. An advertisement in one of the magazines led her to visit Material Obsession, where she discovered a large range of contemporary fabrics and classes.
While still working part-time as a lawyer and raising two children, Megan enrolled in an evening class with Kathy Doughty at Material Obsession, where she made friends with other women who had common interests. “Our group continues to keep in contact and watch each other’s quilting progress. Instagram has also become a way for us to keep updated between sewing days.”
The process of making is as important to Megan as the completion of a quilt. “I find it very relaxing and I enjoy the mental stimulation of working out how to make something,” she says. “My husband and children have become good critics, willing to give considered opinions. I was really chuffed when my daughter started making hexagons over the summer holidays; we must have made quite a sight, both stitching on the plane!”
Passing on her love of quiltmaking to others has led Megan to teach at Material Obsession and make projects for magazine publications. “Perhaps it was my background as a lawyer, but I really enjoy the challenge of writing instructions to assemble a quilt top and also calculating fabric requirements,” she explains.
This experience led to Megan teaching a beginner’s class using a sampler in the bright Kaffe Fassett fabrics she enjoys. “I now also teach an appliqué class focused on needleturn or hand appliqué, as well as a ‘step-up’ class that grew from the beginner’s class,” she adds. “I teach a mix of traditional and modern techniques, aided by the array of rulers and products available today.”
Megan joined QuiltNSW about six years ago so she could enter a quilt in the Sydney Quilt Show.
Since then, she has become more involved and is currently the QuiltNSW Treasurer and enjoys being part of the management committee of the Guild. “QuiltNSW is a progressive guild with a not-insignificant number of activities,” Megan says. “It is definitely true that the more you involve yourself in something, the more rewarding it is.”
She participates in many of the Guild’s activities. Her quilt, What Colour Makes Brown, Try a Colour Collision, was the winner of the 2015 Suitcase Challenge. “I’ve also been lucky to win two second prizes in the Sydney Quilt Show — one for my appliqué and another for my red and white quilt,” she says. “There is a good mix of styles at the Sydney Quilt Show — from traditional to modern.”
Although she has a dedicated studio for work, Megan also takes advantage of waiting time while her children attend after-school activities. “My favourite technique is definitely hand appliqué because I love choosing fabrics and working with strong and clear contrast,” she says. “I always ensure I have hand sewing ready to fill the time and I also like to sew when we’re on holiday. Needleturn appliqué is great for this because I can prepare blocks in my studio and then have them ready for when I am on the go.”
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The mindfulness of appliqué appeals to Megan. She has recently completed Balance, a one-block pieced quilt with hand-appliquéd circles. “Preparing the circles had a number of steps, each in themselves quite mindful. Once I’d made the blocks, I could simply stitch the circles.”
Describing her quilts as “grounded in tradition”, Megan prefers to use bright, contemporary fabrics. As a teacher, she also enjoys assisting students to make their own versions of her designs. “This is gratifying but also very inspiring as there are so many possibilities and clever quilters out there. It’s a privilege to introduce students to quiltmaking and to help them develop their own skills. It also helps inform my own work.”
Megan’s current projects include appliqué and string-piecing techniques and she is hand quilting an appliquéd quilt. Having a dedicated studio allows her to be more productive. “I can leave projects set up and nip in and make progress between helping our children with their schoolwork and keeping our house running,” she explains. “I’m always thinking about how I could change around my studio space; my husband laughs each time I regularly ask him to help me move furniture and then he helps!
If I could change anything, it would be to modify my desk so that the sewing bed of my Bernina 720 would sit flat on my desktop. I imagine cutting a hole in the desktop and replacing the drawers with a shelf to hold the machine so I could still access the bobbin. I love the idea but I don’t think I’ll try it as a weekend DIY project!”
Her studio offers views of the district with glimpses of the harbour in the distance. “There are three large windows around the room, leaving just enough wall space for my grandma’s cross stitch, a painting by my daughter when she was at preschool and a noticeboard filled with inspiration and travel mementos.” There is also room for a design wall made from a piece of batting hanging from a curtain rod. “It isn’t ideal because it moves in the breeze but it hides a door to extra storage space — or a hiding spot for my children’s games of hide and seek.”
Learn how to modernise traditional quilt blocks led by Leanne Harvey
With a pegboard for rulers, an IKEA trolley for notions, some fabric close to her cutting table and the ironing board permanently set up next to her sewing table, Megan has ensured that everything she needs for a project is at hand. Most fabric is stored in existing built-in units and the cupboard doors are decorated with mini quilts.
“I do most of my work in this space, although I will always find other nooks around the house when I have hand work, especially on weekends, so I’m around my family,” she says. “I also have an armchair, which our Cavoodle loves to settle on while I’m working.” With such a flexible arrangement, it’s no wonder Megan’s quiltmaking is thriving. “My goal is to continue what I’m doing and to get better at it. I count myself very fortunate.”
Megan’s patterns are available for purchase at Material Obsession and you can follow her work on Instagram