Art & Design by Neroli Henderson

Interview series: Textile Artist, Susan Mathews

Every week I will be publishing an interview I’ve done with a talented Quilter or Textile Artist. First up is an Australian textile artist from Victoria, Susan Mathews. Please follow the blog or check back each week for our next interview.

Susan Mathews is a multi-award winning Quilt Artist and Tutor renowned for her stunning botanical works and patient and inspiring mode of teaching. Her many major awards include 3 Best of Show at Victorian and NSW state quilting guilds and an honorable mention at AQA in Paducah.

  1. How long have you been quilting and what first drew you to it?  
I learned to weave and spin when I was 14 and was so passionate about that I went on to a secondary school teaching 4 year diploma, majoring in weaving. After my course I was “woven out” so when my brother turned 21 later that year I decided to make him a personalised appliqued quiltPatchwork fabrics were non-existent in those days so I used bright coloured large squares and appliqued a birthday cake, his business trademark and his birthdate. I wrote (in satin stitch) a birthday message. These days it seems pretty rough, Vliesofix had not been invented, free motion stitch did not occur to me (even though we had done free motion embroidery at college) and I sought out the fattest wadding I could find. Anyway, after making that I was hooked. My brother must have been pleased as he commissioned me to make a quilt for his girlfriend’s 21st. 

  2. How would you describe your style now?  

I would describe my style now as art centred.

Through my Window’ 2000 130 x 134cm (51×53″)  $1200 (click quilt to enlarge)
Abstract depiction of the view from Susan’s studio. Hand dyed fabrics, free motion quilting, improvisational machine piecing with prints taken from the actual Eucalypt leaves.
Awards: Highly commended – Vic Quilters Showcase Exhibition 2000
1st prize – Professional Innovative small Quilt, NSW Quilt Guild 2000
1st prize – Australian Cotton Fibre Expo 2001 (patchwork and quilting section) 

  3.  How has your style evolved?  
When started quilting I made my own original, simple machine applique designs using plain cotton fabrics and satin stitch applique. I then fell in love with traditional quilts and scrap quilts. I started using squares and triangles only and log cabins and then over the years probably tried most techniques. At one point I was in love with Baltimore quilts and made quite a bit in that style (but only one finished quilt). I played around with more original variations of traditional patterns but didn’t really understand how to break out of the traditional mould. I began making medallion quilts and found that this gave me an opportunity to use traditional elements but to design and put my stamp on it as I went. In 1997 I did a class with Nancy Crowe, I learnt how to  cut and piece without a prior plan and that revolutionised my quiltmaking. 

I have dabbled with dyeing and surface design since I was a young teenager and my work today generally uses hand dyed and/or painted fabrics. I use a variety of printing techniques: linocut, silk screen printing, collagraph etc. My current work always has intense free motion quilting or machine embroidery.

One Day in France’ 2009 48x48cm (19×19″)  $395 (click quilt to enlarge)
Cotton and synthetic fabric, polyester and cotton threads.
Fabric painting, transfer printing,hand dyeing, free motion machine stitching, decorative machine stitching.
This piece is one of  a still growing  body of work inspired by wonderful scenes and memories of this special place. Two prints on sheer fabric made using transfer dyes were layered onto a background created with various hand painted panels.


Portals to the Past’ 2009 51x51cm (20×20″)  $395 (click quilt to enlarge)
Cotton fabric, metallic, cotton and polyester threads, fabric paint, acrylic paint, sheer polyester fabrics.
Linocut block printing, fabric dyeing, monotype, fabric painting, free motion stitching.
Various coloured sheer fabrics were printed with a lino block I had made of a decorative symbol from our French travels, these were then laid on another background creating overlaps and nice colour variations. The pictorial panels are two monoprints I did on fabric which I had painted with acrylic paint.

  4. Apart from quilting what else to you do within the industry?  
I do a lot of teaching, but had cut it down for a short while as I wanted to travel with my husband. Then I didn’t want to be away a lot teaching because I need to spend time in my studio and get frustrated when that is broken up into little bits and pieces. Occasionally I venture into showing in art galleries but I find textile work can often be slow to move in fine art venues. Unfortunately textile oriented galleries seem to be few and far between these days.

From time to time I am asked to judge an exhibition, and am on different art related committees such as a Public Art committee here in Yarrawonga where I live. I am also on the advisory committee that set up the Wangaratta Contemporary Textile Award.

Plumage pattern II’ 2008 40x40cm (16×16″)  $400 (click quilt to enlarge)
Selected for exhibition in Marvellous Miniatures, held in conjunction with Victorian Quilters contemporary quilt exhibition, One Step Further at Box Hill Art Gallery 2008.
Cotton and synthetic fabrics, linocut printing, raw edge cutback applique, free motion stitching

  5. What’ the best advice you could give someone who wants to try quilting or textile art for the first time?  
It really depends what you want to get out of it. The main thing is to do what you find satisfying. Also, I don’t think that you HAVE TO finish everything you start. Doing samples is NOT wasted time, nor is experimenting. With textile art my major piece of advice is to learn to draw. It is an important way of stimulating original work. Go and sign up to an art class somewhere, it doesn’t matter what the medium is, it all helps with your design skills, generation of ideas and understanding of art principles which apply to textiles just the same as they do to painting, drawing, printmaking etc.

  6. Do you exhibit your work?  
I don’t tend to exhibit my work in the state guild exhibitions as much any more, mostly as I have other commitments such as putting together travelling exhibitions with my friends June Brown and Yvonne Voss (we are known as ZigZag). These quilts take time to produce and the fact that they are touring means that they are tied up for a couple of years and then aren’t eligible for some exhibitions as they are too old. We are completing the production of our fourth travelling exhibition currently which will be available to groups or galleries for hire. It is called “Snapshots“.  Anyone interested in hosting these exhibitions can contact me. ZigZag will be exhibiting at Milawa Mustards Gallery (just out of Wangaratta) around June / July.

I also often submit work to various art quilt exhibitions such as One Step Further run by Vic Quilters.

Wangaratta Exhibitions Gallery has a textile collection and has a few great textile exhibitions planned for July including a textile forum on July 3rd. An upcoming theme is “Warming Up” (global warming) with submissions due in June. They will hold several textile classes in the days following, one of which I’ll be teaching. A wonderful initiative of the Wangaratta Exhibitions gallery is the Wangaratta Contemporary Textile Award which was held for the first time last year. There was  a great and varied selection of cutting edge textile work exhibited. I was thrilled to be selected from a very large field, I was the only representative of this area and one of two quilts (the other was from the iconic Barbara Macey)

‘Grevillea VI’ 2003 34cm x 44cm (13 x 17″) $350

Cotton fabrics, small amount of polyester sheer fabric, fabric paint, metallic, rayon and cotton threads. Fabric painting, silk screen printing, raw edge applique, free motion stitching, free form rotary cutting and machine piecing. Part of a large body of work focusing on Australian native flora.

  7. How do you go about finding and selecting exhibitions / galleries / buyers?  
I am particularly bad at marketing myself and I just stumble into things. Basically I have works that I wish to sell but don’t have the outlets to do so. I guess I could try harder but it seems there is not a huge market for  textiles in the $1,000 plus range. I once sold a quilt for what to me and probably a lot of people is a huge amount (I think it was well worth it) but it was pure serendipity that it happened. It can pay to have friends with wealthy friends!

  8. Do you belong to any quilt associations? If so why did you join these ones?  
Victorian Quilters, I’ve been a member since it began. It was a major source of information and networking at that time for me. I served on the committee for 2 1/2 years and that was a very valuable experience. Would recommend it to anyone. I’m also a member of the Ozquilt network an Australian Art Quilt organisation, a source of news and networking for many years, it has recently launched into holding exhibitions. I recently joined Studio Art Quilt Associates which has a great online gallery and many resources.

  9. What would you recommend people do who want to seriously get into textile art?  
Do an art course, any course, learn design principles, and as I said before, learn to draw. It IS something you can learn just like you  can learn to drive, play a musical instrument, learn mathematics or learn a language. It is a skill that takes practise and improves with it. Get together with a group of like minded friends and challenge yourself to do a drawing a day. You need other people to spur you on when your enthusiasm flags. I belong to an online group and several members get together regularly to show what they are doing and keep the momentum going.

  10. What inspires you?  
Drawing, nature, travelling (especially France) and shape, line and colour.

‘Connections I’  2008 90.5cm x 101cm  (35 x 40″) $1200
Original batik panels in rich blues. Silk fabric dyed with procion dyes and free motion stitched intensely. The panels are connected with free motion machine embroidery done on water soluble fabric.

  11. What sewing machine / threads etc do you use?  
I have several Bernina’s and they will always be close to my heart. I have also been using a Pfaff which I have enjoyed for many reasons. I use all sorts of threads. Some thicker threads such as variegated King Tuts (long staple Egyptian cotton), Signature, Wonderfil (cotton and also polyester), Aurifil 28wt cotton. I also use a lot of normal weight threads at the moment, I buy large cones of polyester  thread from the Embroidery Source in Fairfield as I use heaps when I machine embroider-very cost effective and good quality thread.

  13. Do you have any formal art training? Do you think it’s necessary?  
Apart from my teaching diploma I have done art subjects at TAFE many times over the years. I’ve just completed a Diploma of Visual Art. I think it can make a big difference.

  14. What’s the most rewarding thing about your career?  
Doing what I love and what i have to do.

  15. How did you learn the techniques you use?  
Most techniques I use I learnt from books or experimenting. Some from courses such as TAFE.

  16. What are your favorite / least favorite parts of the quilting process?  
Only because I have dodgy thumb joints and neck – hand sewing bindings and rod pockets

  17. What is your favorite quilt?  
Caesia Cascade (Sold). It measures 180cm x 180cm, is totally pieced and made using commercial batik fabrics and my own hand dyed / painted fabrics. The background fabric is a mullti-coloured hand dye that I then painted with metallic gold fabric paint allowing some of the colours to show through – I think it works really well. It depicts a branch of the Australian native Eucalyptus Caesia. Australian native flora has been a focus of my work for many years but not so much at the moment. This quilt won Best of Show at the Victorian Quilters Showcase exhibition (2002) and toured the big Australian shows for a year with the Best of Australia quilts. It won Best of Country (Australia) at the World Quilt and Textile exhibition 2004.

  18. Where can people do a class with you in the near future?   
Waverley Patchworkers  Class TBA June 26 / 27  Lecture June 28
Wangaratta Exhibitions Gallery (Free Machine Embroidery) July (date TBA)
In mid August my husband and I are going to France for three months and I’m hoping to catch a couple of European textile events and much more, please contact me if you want to run a class.

If you have any questions or comments on any part of the interview please add them to the comments section of this post, to inquire about classes or purchasing work please email Susan direct by clicking here.


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