Joanne Hillestad – Fat Quarter Gypsy

Joanne Hillestad Photo by Bonnie McCaffery.

Joanne Hillestad
Photo by Bonnie McCaffery.

Joanne Hillestad, of Fat Quarter Gypsy, has a motto: “Life is too short not to have chickens.”

Eleven years ago, Joanne was diagnosed with breast cancer. After undergoing surgery and chemo, she says, “Something like that impacts your life. No way around it. It took me a few years, but I finally stopped worrying about how long I was going to live and started focusing on enjoying life, my family and all the happy things around me. In 2013, I woke up on my birthday and my first thought was to follow my dreams! I called my husband, Mike, and told him I was going to start designing quilts! He said GREAT!”

So , what do chickens have to do with designing quilts? Joanne always wanted chickens. She yearned for chickens! She felt like her life was not complete without chickens. But, even though they live on acreage in the country — her husband was not on board with the whole chicken thing. Shortly after Jo’s “follow my dreams” epiphany, Mike went out of town. That usually meant Jo would paint a room or dig up another section of the yard for a new garden. But, this time , she contacted a young man who was looking for a home for chickens from his 4-H project. When Mike got home, Joanne calmly introduced him to Phyllis, Bob Ross, Buffy and Jane.

Joanne and Mike have been married for 24 years, and they have two sons, Ryan (21) and Nick (19). They live in Stacy, Minnesota on 55 acres of mostly swamp. “It is a little heavy in the mosquito department . . . but we love it.” Besides Jo’s beloved chickens, they also have Bugsy, their faithful golden retriever, and two cats — Sam and Barney.

Joanne worked as a database/business analyst for 22 years, but her creativity impacted her life every day. “I became known as a problem solver. When a complicated project presented itself, my boss would sometimes ask me, ‘can you sleep on it?’ I would consider the issue and often figure out the steps needed to help solve the problem.”

Being creative has always been at the center of Joanne’s life. She loves to garden — she has way too many flowers and every summer grows enough vegetables to feed an army. She also loves nature photography, camping with her family, and glamorizing her vintage camper (Shirley). But sewing has always been her #1 hobby. “My mom taught me to sew when I was five. We made a red and white striped pillow. I was instantly hooked. I sewed a lot of clothes from middle school through high school including my prom dress. After I became a mom, I sewed clothes for my boys. They had overalls for every holiday. I also made a variety of storage solutions for cars, LEGO bricks, coloring, etc. I cannot imagine my life without sewing.”

She was in her 30’s when her mother-in-law introduced her to quilting. “My first two quilts were hilarious. I cut all the pieces with scissors and had no clue about using a ¼” seam allowance.” But it really didn’t matter. Jo was in love . . . she had found her passion.

Lacy Runners make stunning holiday tables.

Lacy Runners make stunning holiday tables.

For many years, Joanne has attended a Girl’s Weekend with a small group of friends. In the beginning (10 years ago), Jo was the only one sewing — everybody else was scrapbooking. Jo loved to bring her sewing machine, and a basket of fabric. She would experiment all weekend, putting together different combinations and patterns. During those retreats, her friends were always saying, “You should design quilts! You should start a business!!” On the morning Jo had the “Follow Your Dreams” epiphany, it was like somebody hit her in the face. That day she created her business — The Fat Quarter Gypsy.

The Fat Quarter Gypsy took up residence in the upstairs of Mike’s wire forming business, Nu Design, in Pine City, Minnesota. Their building is an old dairy creamer and dance hall from the 1920s. It even has a ghost named Ed. Jo and Mike car pool to work every day and they take their dog, Bugsy, along. The Fat Quarter Gypsy has a lot of space — including an office, a longarming room, a sewing room and a big storage room.

The Fat Quarter Gypsy was doing fine. Joanne was designing quilt patterns, she had a website, and she was building a customer list of independent quilt shops. She attended business workshops and met other quilt designers. Her business was growing. THEN, as often happens in this life, there was a moment of convergence that nobody saw coming.

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Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 6

What Sewing Enthusiasts are Saying About Their Retreat Experience

People who sew are a special lot. You have chosen a hobby that is all about giving. You make things to give as gifts. You sew Easter dresses for your grand-daughters, or t-shirt quilts for your grandsons who are graduating from high school. After you’ve made quilts for every relative, friend or casual acquaintance — you look around and start sewing for charity. You make quilts for Quilts of Valor, or you sew pillowcases for children in cancer wards.

You know who you are. You are thoughtful, kind and generous. Maybe it’s time you directed some of that towards YOURSELF. Take advantage of this hobby you love — SEWING — and go on a retreat. Invite sewing friends to join you — or go by yourself to make new friends. Consider your next retreat a gift you are giving yourself.

Because you’ve earned it . . . . Still on the bubble? Here are some of the comments from people who have attended a sewing retreat or two.


Don’t forget school kids. They like to sew too!

Don’t forget school kids.
They like to sew too!

I have been to two retreats in Shipshewana IN. Quilt n Go quilt shop in East Leroy, MI has three retreats in Shipshewana: April, August and November. It is a well run retreat. Just bring your machine, projects and clothes. Everything is taken care of so you can sew.Gail M.

I adore sewing retreats and make them my holiday destinations. I choose retreats based on what I will learn if they are taught, as well as traveling distance and cost. Twice a year I attend retreats that are just “do your own thing” with friends for get togethers. We learn from and inspire each other.Bren H.

I will be teaching at the Sewcial Escape hosted by SewMichelle in July. Retreats are a unique experience – multi-days with those that share your passion!Lisa S.

I am hosting a sewing retreat this week in McCall ID! Looking forward to a great weekend of sewing and sharing!Beth C.

Went to my first sewing retreat with a friend. I loved sewing from sun up to sun down and someone else doing the cooking. Signed up again for next year!Patsy M.

I’m a huge fan of the Modern Stitching Affair. Wendy F

I get so much done because I have to get organized. There are no outside distractions… just sew, sewing, SEWING!Anonymous


Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 1 – Private & Small
Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 2 – Group Retreats
Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 3 – Official Retreat Centers
Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 4 – All-Inclusive
Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 5 – Interview with an Attendee
Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 6 – Testimonials


Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 5

An Interview with Laura Mendoza
Attendee, Pierce County CTA Sewing Retreat

An Interview with Laura Mendoza Attendee, Pierce County CTA Sewing RetreatHow long have you been doing your Sewing Retreat? My first one was 11 years ago at this same location.

Does it have a formal name? Pierce County CTA Sewing Retreat.

Is it always scheduled for the same time every year? Until this year, it had been the first weekend of February. We changed it to 4th weekend of March for better weather conditions……and it snowed this year.

How many people participate? 30-40. We have 39 hotel-style rooms with private baths. Each room has a queen bed and bunk beds, table/chairs, all linens. So if we go over 39, people need to share a room. The conference room where we sew really only can hold about 42 and all our stuff.

Who can attend? It’s for Pierce County CTAs first. After they have signed up, then we open to other counties CTAs and to friends. We always have Pat & Shirley from Snohomish County CTAs attend. My BFF has attended a few times too. Others have invited friends from other groups like ASG.

How long does it last? Friday at 9:00 AM to Sunday at 3:00 PM.

What does it cost? This year was $240. Our price hasn’t gone up much, as we stay at the same location. Ten years ago it was about $200.

Have you always used the same facility? For at least the past 11-12 years.

Does everybody bring their own equipment and/or projects? Yes. However, the retreat center provides all the tables and chairs. Most of us do bring our own chairs anyways. Three attendees will bring big ironing boards and irons for all to use. We elevate two of the banquet tables to use as a cutting center. Most of us get an entire 6 ft table for our own use. We usually group them together in groupings of 2-4 tables. The center also provides coffee/tea, industrial size coffee maker, microwave, small fridge, and there’s a sink in the conference room.

Do you all work on the same project? Sometimes a group project idea is set up that people have the option to do. Like this year, about 10 learned how to ice dye. Other years groups have done 60 degree table runners, pillowcases for charity, aprons.

Do you have Sew & Shares? Saturday night at 7:30 PM.

Do you have guest speakers? No.

How do you handle the meals? The retreat center has a separate dining hall and they cook yummy meals for us. We get dinner Friday, all three meals on Saturday, and breakfast/lunch on Sunday. They cook a great variety of quality meals. Every year, it’s different. Breakfast can be eggs/bacon/potatoes one day and French toast and sausage on the other. There’s also cereal, oatmeal, yogurt, bagels, and fruit. Lunch is usually homemade soup on one day in bread bowls. The other day might be sandwiches, Asian wraps, taco salad, etc. And there is always a nice salad bar too. Dinners have been pot roast, pasta, tacos, baked potato bar. This year we had Greek-inspired dinner one night. On Friday, we are on our own for lunch, so many of us go to the local historic café bakery about 15 minutes down the road.


Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 1 – Private & Small
Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 2 – Group Retreats
Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 3 – Official Retreat Centers
Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 4 – All-Inclusive
Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 5 – Interview with an Attendee
Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 6 – Testimonials

Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 4

#4: All-Inclusive, Luxury Retreats

All-Inclusive Luxurious Sewing Retreats

The ultimate luxury sewing retreats are taking place on board cruise ships. Depending on the length of the cruise, the location, or the size of the ship — the cost can be anywhere from $1500 to $6000. Kaye Wood has been quilting and cruising for years, and Jenny Doan was on a Royal Caribbean cruise as well. Most quilting and sewing retreats have a set agenda, with a particular project or theme. The attendees don’t have to worry about a thing — everything is included in the price. The machines are often provided by sponsors, and the price includes patterns, kits, teachers, maybe a goody bag — and those legendary cruise-ship buffets.


Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 1 – Private & Small
Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 2 – Group Retreats
Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 3 – Official Retreat Centers
Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 4 – All-Inclusive
Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 5 – Interview with an Attendee
Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 6 – Testimonials



Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 3

#3: Official Retreat Centers

Missouri Star Quilt Retreat Rita Farro (R) and her sister, Ronda, with Jenny Doan.

Missouri Star Quilt Retreat
Rita Farro (R) and her sister, Ronda, with Jenny Doan.

Retreat centers are professionally managed, and often provide the sewing machines, cutting tables, ironing stations, etc. Their retreats are sometimes themed and may hire popular teachers to plan the projects and fabric kits. The sewing area is usually open to attendees 24 hours a day. The retreat center sets a “per person” price and markets their events to a wide customer base. Anybody can sign up, which is why these retreats are a great place to make new friends and they can be surprisingly affordable.

Missouri Star Quilt Co. in Hamilton, Missouri runs one of the busiest retreat centers in the country. Their retreats range in prices from $175 to $500. A typical MSQC retreat starts Tuesday morning and ends Friday morning. Food is included. Many of their retreats are themed, and they often include a Jenny Doan trunk show. (

Sew-clusion Retreats

Sew-clusion Retreats, LLC, Sebago, Maine is located less than an hour west of Portland, Maine. The stunning retreat center is a dream come true for owner Patty Sawyer. She supplies most everything so her guests don’t have to “schlepp lots of stuff.” The workshop includes cutting mats, rotary cutters, irons and boards, etc. Everyone gets a work table, a rolling adjustable desk chair, a personal side table, and an Ottlite. There are design walls and a small on-site “Forget-Me-Knot” shop for forgotten items (i.e., SCHMETZ Microtex 60 Needles).

An avid quilter herself, Sawyer attended many retreats (and still does!). Eventually, she started a longarm quilting business and began teaching. Patty started her quilt retreat business with a small house, then two houses . . . but she was spending all her time running between the two properties, cooking and cleaning. Two years ago, she and her husband bought THE BIG HOUSE on the lake. It was already 5000+ s.f., and after a recent expansion, it’s now over 6500 s.f.

Patty’s longarm Gammill (with a Statler) is an optional participant in Sew-clusion Retreats. Patty is happy to teach an introductory class so her guests can rent the longarm to quilt their own projects. Sew-clusion Retreats are limited to 12 attendees. Patty considers that amount suitable for an intimate retreat. She says, “every retreat is different, so each one is customized. I start off with a base price ($65 per person includes the lodging and sewing studio). They can add services or meals . . . like an a la cart menu. Many of my guests have specific dietary needs, so they often prefer to bring their own food. There are many local food options available. I wanted to keep the price affordable, and make SEWING be the main focus.” (

The dress is very casual (sometimes Pj’s all day) and Patty jokes “bras are optional! This is my home. Retreat attendees are my guests and they are encouraged to use it as a place to relax and feel comfortable. They can sit out on the deck, on the beach or in the den, recline in the chairs and watch movies, sit by the fire (either inside or outside), take the kayaks out on the lake or go for a hike.”

Even though this is only her second full year in the new property, Sew-clusion is almost completely booked through this upcoming season. “So far, everybody who has booked a retreat has put down a deposit for the same time next year — and most groups are adding an extra day.” Sew-clusion is open year-round.

Celebrate finished projects at Needle In A Haystack.

Celebrate finished projects at Needle In A Haystack.

Needle In A Haystack Sewing Retreats in Sherman New York (

Thirty years ago, Judy and Jeff Fenton purchased a giant early 1900’s abandoned dairy barn. They built their home into one cozy area of the lower level. For many years, the rest of the barn was used as storage space for lots of wayward “stuff” from family and friends.

During those years, with their daughter Megan, they lived in their “house within a barn.” Judy was busy building her business, Millcreek Sewing and Fabric in nearby Erie, Pennsylvania. An avid quilter, Judy had a gift for creating special events and classes for quilting enthusiasts. The small weekend quilting event she started over a decade ago — Quilting On The Bayfront — has grown into a giant, annual regional quilt show that attracts the biggest speakers in the quilting industry. (

Five years ago, Judy convinced Jeff to take a giant leap of faith and turn their beloved barn/home into a retreat center — another major renovation in their continuing story of “This Old Barn!” After the dust settled, they opened Needle In A Haystack — a spacious, beautiful, workshop-retreat gathering place. There are nine bedrooms, seven bathrooms, and a fabric store-within-the-barn (it’s fun to shop in your pajamas). The huge open main level is dedicated to the classroom/sewing area, with individual tables, ironing stations and 4’x8’ cutting tables. Most of the time, attendees bring their own projects and machine (but as a sewing machine dealer, Judy is happy to provide machines if needed). Each station has a sturdy 3’x5’ sewing table equipped with a Daylight lamp and a posture perfect, sew comfort chair. (

Daughter Megan manages the retreat website, registrations and retail store (Fabric Outlet Barn), and can accommodate 22 attendees. They offer “Open Sew” Retreats, (three nights/four days Thursday-Sunday) for $279 per person. The retreats include six meals. (There are several nearby restaurants for dinner Friday and Saturday or delivery is available.)

Often there are special guest designers and national teachers who offer a structured workshop weekend or a machine specific workshop clinic for learning techniques. You can come alone or plan to attend with a group of sewing sisters. Judy says, “it warms my heart when a guest comes alone, and makes a new friend. They keep in touch and often return to Needle In A Haystack for their annual retreat get-together.”

Needle In A Haystack has become so successful, Judy and Jeff purchased a property across the road so they could move out of their comfy barn/home to make room for MORE QUILTERS! (


Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 1 – Private & Small
Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 2 – Group Retreats
Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 3 – Official Retreat Centers
Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 4 – All-Inclusive
Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 5 – Interview with an Attendee
Sewing & Quilting Retreats, Part 6 – Testimonials