Margaret Mew can’t remember a time when she hasn’t made ‘fine little things.’ As a teenager she made her own clothes, then she sewed and knitted for her children … as mothers often used to do. Then, in 1992, she went to a patchwork class and her world dramatically changed. Today, thanks to her incredible work captured in her stunning book, Quilts from the Colonies, Margaret and her Elphinstone based business, Quilt Station, are recognised across the world by quilters.
Why patchwork I ask? Margaret barely pauses to answer. ‘I loved that it had unlimited possibilities of pattern, of colour and prints of fabric,’ she explains. And over twenty years later it appears that she is still mesmerised. ‘Fabric to me is the motivation every day. It still excites me sewing two pieces of fabric together and see how they look.’
Like all artisans Margaret has dedicated years to learning her craft and the journey has been an interesting one. With her newfound passion fuelled by continuing patchwork classes and as a founding member of Goldfields Quilters; she started working part-time at a patchwork shop in Castlemaine. ‘Some days I just got paid in fabric,’ she admits with a wry smile. She then started taking inhouse classes at the shop which helped attract more buyers of fabric much to the owner’s delight.
After a ten-year ‘apprenticeship’ in quilting Margaret also started producing her own patterns, with an emphasis on traditional antique American styles that she particularly loves, selling them inhouse and through the shop’s website. In what can be quite a long process, she begins by making the quilt, then works out all the technical instructions and produces it as a physical pattern for other quilters to purchase. ‘In the early days I literally drew the diagrams with handwritten instructions and photocopied them,’ she explains. ‘The early ones looked pretty basic but slowly and surely I’ve gained more computer skills and now I’m using a graphic designer and producing them with a bit more of an edge.’ Her most recent pattern was printed in full colour and retails for $32.
According to Margaret things first got really exciting around 2010 when a quilting shop in the Netherlands started buying her patterns wholesale. Suddenly Margaret’s name started appearing in European quilting circles and, in 2011, she was contacted by France based magazine and book publisher Quiltmania who were visiting Australia for a Sydney event. Carol the publisher, and Guy their photographer, travelled to Elphinstone, artfully ‘threw’ quilts around Margaret’s house, and took beautiful photographs. Over the next few years Quiltmania featured Margaret in articles and published some of her patterns.
It was clearly time for Margaret to capitalise on this world-wide recognition, only enjoyed by a handful of Australian quilters. She left her part time job and purchased a long arm quilt machine business that she could operate from home. Not only did this unique piece of machinery assist her to finish her own quilts, it enabled her to take on work from hobby quilters in the region, providing a small but steady income. Her first task was to write to the previous owner’s customers introducing herself. Quilt Station in the tiny central Victorian township of Elphinstone was born!
2017 was another significant milestone when Quilt Mania published Quilts from the Colonies by Margaret Mew with text in both English and French. Margaret enjoyed an all-expenses paid trip to France to attend the launch. ‘I sat and signed books for four days followed by a lovely holiday,’ she smiles. She also travelled to the United States, promoting the book and teaching even more obsessed quilters in what is reputedly a $3.7 billion annual industry according to figures published by the International Quilt Market.
Despite this incredible publicity on the world arena, it has still been up to Margaret to generate her own local marketing and publicity to keep a steady flow of income. With a creative eye she maintains her own website. ‘I am very particular about how everything looks and am constantly changing my website,’ she admits. She is also an avid blogger and has recently embraced Instagram already enjoying a huge following. An online course has encouraged her to update her profile and better connect with potential customers. ‘I don’t think I could have built my business without social media,’ she admits. ‘All quilters are on Instagram which is so good for creatives because they are so visual.’
With experience Margaret is becoming more strategic in converting followers to customers. ‘You need to let people in, connect with them and build a relationship by offering something for free,’ Margaret explains. ‘By guiding them to my blog where I talk more in-depth, they are then on my website with access to my shopping page.
While the long arm quilting machine was a big part of her initial business, it has recently been surpassed by her more favoured activities; speaking and teaching, both of which help promote sales of her book, patterns and templates. A glance at her online calendar reveals that she is a regular guest speaker at guild events across Victoria and interstate, in addition to her own fortnightly inhouse classes. It is something that Margaret clearly enjoys and helps fund another of her passions, overseas travel! In October 2018 she is off on another quilting adventure spanning the Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom.
What surprises me most is that Margaret rarely sells a quilt, instead keeping them for teaching purposes. Quilts are only sold when her cupboards get too full and then, usually to friends and for only a fraction of the cost that it takes to produce them. As an accredited appraiser who volunteers at guild events to enable quilt owners to apply for insurance cover, she clearly understands their value. ‘It’s not unusual for a handmade quilt to be valued at $5,000 or even $8,000,’ she says, ‘but that doesn’t mean that someone will pay that.’
Likewise, Margaret has a large collection of old fabrics that are exceeding storage space and is next year looking at selling them through a booth in the United Kingdom. This is a strategic decision that will help gain new customers for her patterns and teaching classes, not to mention help fund another overseas trip!
One of the biggest challenges of being a home-based business, especially one that grew from a hobby, is friends not understanding that she has work to do. ‘Every day is a work day when you work for yourself,’ acknowledges Margaret who is busy producing new works for patterns and hopefully a second book.
Choosing not to analyse her personal worth and business too in-depth, Margaret is following guild and council standards when she speaks and charges fees that she is comfortable with. She also maintains the books for her husband’s business, Art Station, based in the outbuildings at their home. Although the two businesses are kept separate in an online accounting system, Margaret is grateful that they come under the one partnership requiring only one BAS to be completed for taxation purposes. She is also under no illusion.
‘As a business Quilt Station is not our main source of income,’ Margaret admits, ‘but the bottom line is that I will always make quilts because it’s what I love to do. It also gives me amazing opportunities.’
KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE