The It Girl of the Quilting World
By Anna Faller | March 3, 2018
There’s a clean-cut, slate gray colonial in the sleepy, Lake Michigan resort town of Arcadia. It sits, unassumingly, on a motionless side street lined mostly with now-vacant summer homes. And you’d never know it from the outside, but this is a house where magic lives.
It’s the home of Sally Manke: retired home economics and sewing teacher, avid hiker and preservationist, and most recently, nationally recognized fiber artist. To put it simply, Manke makes quilts. But calling her a “quilter” would be an extraordinary understatement and patently incorrect. On the contrary, Manke is nothing short of an artist — a painter, really. But in place of more rudimentary media — pastels, watercolor, and the like — Manke’s chosen medium is fabric. Baggies, shelves, and piles full of fabric. So much fabric, in fact, that her sprawling home studio has expanded to overtake most of her second floor: three bright blonde-wood bedrooms, all reserved for nothing but creation.
Manke first gained recognition for her confetti quilt technique, a tireless process, through which she arranges countless tiny pieces of batik fabric “confetti” on a piece of quilt batting, before securing each one in place with a tulle overlay and then quilting over the completed design. In this manner, Manke creates mind-bogglingly realistic quilt “paintings,” often depicting, in intricate detail, the natural wonders and historic landmarks that surround her hometown. Since the inception of her illustrious second career, Manke’s work has been featured time and time again at juried art quilt shows throughout the U.S. and has been chosen for display at the International Quilt Festival in Chicago; Long Beach, California; and Houston, Texas. Her innumerable awards include a blue ribbon at QuiltWeek in Paducah, Kentucky — ostensibly the Red Carpet of quilt guild shows — and a nod from Traverse Magazine’s Red Hot Best awards as Northern Michigan’s Best Visual Artist in 2016.
Busy, as always, with new designs, assignments, and projects, Manke set aside an afternoon to answer a few questions from the Northern Express:
How did you first get your start as a fiber artist?
My work with fibers and fabrics began when I was probably six or seven years old. I had a great aunt who was like a grandmother, and she was a tailor and seamstress. I spent a lot of time with her, and she used to let me sew on her little Singer Featherweight before I could even reach the foot pedal to make it go! And I remember one day, I was about eight years old, and she said, “Why don’t you make a shirt?” And I thought, ‘What?’ You could go buy a pattern, but she never did. So we got some newspaper, and we did measurements and made a pattern. This shirt was the simplest thing ever: a round neckline, two seams, round sleeves, two more seams, and a hem. Super simple, but I wore it all the time. I can remember people saying, ‘Oh my gosh, she can sew! She’s only eight, and she made a garment!’ All through high school and junior high, I made everything I ever wore. I sewed many of my kids’ clothes — I have just always sewn. But I never made quilts. The things I made before were much more functional. Now, they really aren’t; there’s no function to an art quilt other than beauty or filling your wall. When I was teaching and raising a family, I just didn’t have time or energy for creating.
Where would you say you draw most inspiration for your work?
My inspiration for confetti quilts come from either the area here or where we travel: we walk the beaches here during all four seasons, and I frequently visit the Arcadia Dunes Preserve and lead hikes there, as well. There’s so much nature here that’s beautiful, and I just think, ‘Oh, look at the colors in that! It would be lovely as an art quilt!’ Much of my inspiration comes from right here in our own little piece of the world. I’ve created confetti quilts of a local barn, sunsets, and various woodland scenes. We also travel a lot. Rather than just put the photos in an album when we return home, I create art quilts from the photos: the colorful buildings in Manarola, Italy; flowering trees after a spring rain in Manhattan’s Central Park; and hollyhocks growing around an abandoned building in France all became art quilts.
Do you have a typical process that you follow when beginning a new piece?
I start with a lot of photos, and then I start pulling colors out of my stash, and just seeing which colors work best with what’s in the photos. Then, I loosely sketch the design on a piece of batting. I use the cut-up fabrics, the “confetti,” as my medium, or paint, and just start applying it to my canvas, which is the batting. When I teach, that’s what I tell people - you start with the background and work towards the foreground, and the last thing you do is the details. It’s very similar to painting -watercolor, acrylics, or whatever medium you’re working in. The steps are the same; you’re just not using a brush. The final level is adding texture, detail, and depth through the actual quilting process.
How does your work as a quilter and fiber artist fit in with the rest of your day?
I truly enjoy the process. It is a part of my day. I’m not like a hermit, or anything — I go to classes and hike with groups. I still spend time with friends, but I enjoy my creative time. There really isn’t a specific time of day that I like to work — just whenever seems to fit. If I’m on deadline for a major quilt show, then I’m up in my studio quite a bit — I have a tendency not to start real early [laughs].
So, it sounds like your quilting really began as a personal hobby. Did you intend for it to become a second career?
No, I had no idea. I was creating quilts, and you can only put so many of them on your sofa or use as gifts, or whatever. I needed to make more space so I could keep working, so I opened my Etsy shop, and did on the online thing, and traveled to quilt shows, where people have their quilts on display. That was when I decided I might enter some of my quilts in quilt shows as another avenue to make more room, thinking perhaps some people would even purchase a few. But then, I started winning national prizes at quilt shows, which gave me more recognition, and people started to tell me I was doing something nobody else was doing. All of a sudden, people were saying, “hey, we want you to come to our guild and teach this!” I did that locally for a while, and then won a blue ribbon at Paducah. After that, I started getting invites to speak and teach at quilt guilds throughout the U.S. and at national quilt shows. Since then, the audience on my Facebook business page has grown to over 6,000 followers, which has offered me even more opportunities to present and increased sales for the patterns I create. When I retired as a teacher, there was finally time to create the ideas that were always running around in my head.
Do you have any advice for people, retirees or young adults, looking to turn something they’re passionate about into a career?
I just think that we should all approach life as lifelong learners, and anything you have a curiosity about, to give it a try. If you don’t like it, you don’t ever have to do it again, but then you’ve experienced it. And if you enjoy it, there are so many things to do! I’m a kayaker, for example, and in the summer, I’m in a kayak group, and one of the other women in the group is a paddle-boarder. One day, we paddled out and had lunch on the south shore of Michigan. She’s the only one with a paddleboard, so she asks if anyone wants to give it a try. I think, “I know I can’t do this,” but when else am I going to have the opportunity to try? So, she got me up on the board, and I’m like, “Wow, I’m standing!” She tells me that I’m ready for the paddle, and in my mind, I need that paddle. So, I leaned over to grab the paddle from her, and into the water I go! In front of all these women, of course, and everyone was laughing, after they realized I hadn’t drowned. So, I get up, looking like a total wet dog, and she asks, “What do you think?” I said, “I think I need to get back on there, because if I don’t, this will be the memory I have of paddle-boarding: that I fell off.” So, I got back up, and paddled out into lake Michigan and back. Now I know I can try it again without fear. Don’t be afraid to try something new! Just don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself.