In the Studio with traditional quilter Maree St Clair
Maree St Clair is a traditional quilter with a flair for colour and pattern and a particular love of needleturn appliqué. Here we find out more about her studio and her latest works. By Caroline Adams
Maree St Clair believes she would have started her stitching career at around five years old. She learned to sew mostly from her grandmother, first by hand and then when she could reach the plate on the treadle sewing machine. “My mother and my grandmother both knitted and crocheted and did embroidery, so I learnt those skills from them as well,” Maree explains. She continued to sew and used to make a lot of her own clothes, also making all of her three children’s clothes.
With the arrival of her fourth son, Maree began patchwork and quilting and made fewer garments. “I have tried many crafts, but I found patchwork and quilting in 1995 just prior to the birth of my son, Andrew. I started off with machine piecing and was mostly self-taught.”
In 1997, her family made the move to the United States for three months for her husband’s work. She spent a lot of that time gaining more knowledge of the art of patchwork and quilting. Upon their return to Australia, she started teaching a simple sampler quilt in the family room of her home. “A couple of the blocks were appliqué and my love for it grew from there. In the 16 years that the group ran, many friendships were established that continue today,” explains Maree.
She describes herself as a traditional quilter. “Having said that, I love reproduction fabrics but try to use them in bright and cheerful combinations. I have a special love of 1930s reproductions; I love and admire antique appliqué quilts, but like to draw my own designs from scratch. I am always looking at interesting things for inspiration. Floral images can be found in many unusual places,” says Maree.
She also draws inspiration directly from fabric itself and says there are so many beautiful fabrics that she is spoilt for choice when it comes to deciding what to pick for her online store. Even when Maree has completed quilts by other designers, she always adds her own personal touches to the quilts and she encourages her students to do the same.
When asked about her creative process, Maree admits that “sometimes it can look really messy! I rarely plan a quilt from start to finish. My workroom seldom looks as pristine and neat and tidy as you see it here. I can have piles of fabric pulled from my stash to see if they will work and then I draw and redraw appliqué designs so have bits and pieces everywhere.”
In order to start a project, Maree says that sometimes she begins with just a block and then the quilt will grow from there. Or sometimes she is simply inspired by a piece of fabric. “I have a fondness for border prints and the different ways I can use them in a quilt,” she reveals. “My appliqué is sometimes inspired by designs within fabrics. I think we all change our styles as we move through our quilting life. New fabrics, new patterns, new styles all make impacts on our work. I have changed with all of those things but I am still fundamentally a traditional quilter. I love symmetry and order. I love to use colour in unusual ways.”
Needleturn appliqué would have to be Maree’s most-used technique and it’s rare that she designs a quilt without it — usually combining both appliqué and pieced blocks. “I enjoy accurate machine piecing and recently discovered traditional hand piecing. We have a company called RezaLaser, which makes acrylic templates, and I am finding this method to be both accurate and also very portable, and surprisingly quick, especially for intricate pieces,” explains Maree.
Along with using only quilting cottons for appliqué and hand piecing, Maree uses tools such as Milliners Needles size 9, 50wt cotton thread matched to the appliqué or piecing, thimble, good-quality scissors that cut right to the tip, marking pens and mechanical pencils, light box, templates, her trusty sewing machine, and she also loves her Oliso iron and Best Press.
So what is it about needleturn appliqué that Maree loves so much? “I love being able to build a picture with appliqué. I get excited as the different layers are added to give almost a three-dimensional look and feel to the piece. I love to relax by stitching and find it very soothing. Some of my students cringe when I say that, but it is true.”
Every quilter has a stash, and Maree says that in hers you would find many metres of fabric that she hasn’t a hope of using. There would be a great proportion of it that is Reproduction, both 18th century but also 1930s. And with the arrival of her grandchildren there is a growing number of contemporary kids’ prints.
“I love fabrics designed by Jo Morton, Betsy Chutchian, Minick and Simpson, Barbara Brackman, Judie Rothermel and American Jane, to name just a few. For appliqué I love to have a large range of small-scale prints on hand, but love big florals and border prints as well,” says Maree.
She lives in Strathfieldsaye, which is just outside Bendigo in Central Victoria. “When we moved here in 1990 it was a quiet rural area but has now become a suburb with many housing developments. We live on two-thirds of an acre right in the centre, but are surrounded by creeks and trees.
In 2003, the family renovated their home and as part of that renovation Maree gained a dedicated sewing space. With this new space, Maree also purchased her first long arm and was teaching classes at home. “That room is currently my workroom that holds the updated quilting machine. As the boys have left home I have taken over more room. Where my sewing machines are now was originally a son’s bedroom — he left home and we took the wall out the very next weekend!”
Maree designed the space with lots of bench space, lots of light and plenty of storage. What was her son’s wardrobe is now storage for the stash, with the doors covered in foam core board and light wadding to act as Maree’s design wall.
“I am spoilt,” admits Maree. “I have a dedicated area for my domestic machines and overlocker. There is also a pressing surface in easy reach of my machine. I have storage in here for my threads and notions and templates within easy reach. I have a computerised long arm quilting machine and lots of bench space for cutting and laying out my quilts. At the present moment I only quilt for myself but will be taking customer quilts again in the near future as time allows.”
Maree says that she will be re-establishing a teaching area so that she can teach more often and also offer “sit and stitch” sessions. Storage is important in her studio. Her online fabric shop specialises in Reproduction fabrics, plus all of her favourite notions, patterns and the full range of RezaLaser templates and papers for English Paper Piecing. Her stock is growing all the time and takes up more space in the studio.
“Good lighting in the workroom is essential to me, both for piecing and appliqué, but also for the long arm quilting. We have tri-phosphorous lights in the workroom, both down the middle and above the benches. The new classroom remodel includes an update on lighting as well, but I adore the large windows that face north. They let in lots of light and also provide a view to the garden outside. My husband would tell you that I could live in there if I wanted to! It opens off the kitchen and has its own bathroom facilities. There is even an empty bedroom now that another son has left home.” The RezaLaser business operates out the garage in a dedicated workspace, freeing up space in the house for Maree’s classes.
Maree has decorated her studio simply. It has a very neutral palette and for the most part there are small quilts as permanent features. What is on the design wall changes often. The rest of her house is full of quilts.
A typical day for Maree has changed recently following her husband’s retirement. She loves to spend at least a large portion of the day stitching, designing or quilting, and rarely sits at night without stitching in her hands. As part of retirement, Maree and her husband hope to travel extensively both in Australia and overseas, teaching quilting as they travel.
“I have a number of projects underway at the moment — in fact I’d hate to admit how many! There are a couple of appliqué quilts that I will be submitting to Quilters Companion and I am working on some hand-pieced projects using our templates,” explains Maree. “We are currently building up a range of templates in RezaLaser that you can use to both rotary cut for machine and English paper piecing, but which can also be used to mark an accurate stitching line for hand piecing. I am building designs to use these templates.”
Right now Maree is focusing on teaching workshops. She teaches a number of them and has built up a repertoire, including teaching for some years for Attic Crafts in Bendigo. “We are currently establishing a new teaching room here at home to use on a regular basis. We have joined together with a group of friends to present workshops under the name of the Stitchin’ Sisters Collective. We run weekend workshops but also intend to run retreats.”
Maree loves to inspire her students to develop their own style, and believes the most satisfying experience is a student who has always had an interest in doing something crafty but never had the opportunity. “They arrive saying ‘I won’t be able to learn to sew’ and leave loving patchwork and quilting,” says Maree. “That is the best compliment I can get, knowing I am responsible for yet another patchwork-addicted person. I especially love inspiring young quilters — they are our future!”
Website: www.mareestclairquilts.com.au; www.rezalaser.com.au
Facebook: Maree St Clair Quilt Designs ; RezaLaser
Instagram: @mareestclairquilts ; @rezalasercutting