Why Hold a Quilt Retreat in Winterset, Iowa?

Marianne Fons and her hometown of Winterset, IW

The Question That Launched a Quilt Retreat

One day I was asked if I’d like to help plan a quilt retreat with Marianne Fons. Of course, I said yes! I’d known Marianne since our historically long breakfast meeting in Kansas City during Spring Quilt Market, maybe 15 years ago. We could find no end of things to discuss then, business-wise and personally, and it seems to still be true today. I’d planned one other event with her when the Quilts of Valor® Foundation held their annual conference concurrently with a large quilt event in Des Moines a few years ago produced by Original Sewing & Quilt Expo (of which I am founder). It was fun, as she generates ideas at the speed of light, and we seem to build on one another’s expertise very smoothly, tweaking things as we go along.

So it seemed obvious to me the retreat had to be in Winterset because Winterset is such a big part of Marianne. It’s where she lived and raised three outstanding, interesting and dynamic daughters. It’s where she began her amazing career, eventually growing to become an icon in the quilting world. It’s where she and her business partner, Liz Porter, took on and raised a fledgling publication we’ve come to know as Fons & Porter’s Love of Quilting, to become the world’s largest quilt magazine. With a PBS series. And it’s where she still lives.

Marianne in front of her quilt "American Pie"

Marianne in front of her quilt “American Pie”

But would there be a place large enough to house a bunch of quilters, sewing machines, food, and fun? Yes, it turns out, after she and Teddi Yaeger, from the Chamber of Commerce, physically visited all possibilities, there was a place! And so that was the second sign… that this was meant to be.

The clincher was the day I spent a day with her. In Winterset. With her people. She knows everyone, it seems, and with just a few calls and maybe a text or two, she helped us navigate the town’s resources in a way that’s impossible in my world (citified, suburban me). We met chefs, winemakers, artisans, saw an impressive quilt collection at the museum, toured a historic theater, visited Ben Franklin (really!) and lingered inside one of the most fabulous quilt shops…. but I digress. What happened is that suddenly we all had faces to put with the names, and we had an event on our hands. In a little town that turns out to be the perfect setting for this retreat: At Home with Marianne Fons. In Winterset, Iowa.


The Cutler-Donahoe Covered Bridge, located in Winterset's City Park

The Cutler-Donahoe Covered Bridge, located in Winterset’s City Park


Why Winterset?

My Conversation with Marianne Fons

Q: Marianne, when we decided to do a retreat, there was no question about whether it would be in Winterset. For you or for me. I know Winterset as the town in which you raised your family and the Fons & Porter brand, which is why I had no hesitation whatsoever, given that we could locate a sewing space large enough for our group (which we did, thank you!!). Why is it important to you that we gather in Winterset, Iowa?

A: After traveling away frequently from home for over two decades to lecture and teach quilting workshops around the US (and beyond), a few years ago I had the opportunity to rediscover my hometown. A local couple invited me to coffee and told me they thought Winterset should have a quilt museum. Though I was very involved with Quilts of Valor® at the time and didn’t need another project, I began to agree with them.

Working with others to make the Iowa Quilt Museum a reality reintroduced me to the thriving cultural, social, and business community that was in my backyard all along. Winterset is a classic Midwestern town, the county seat of Madison County of The Bridges of Madison County (book, movie, and Broadway musical) fame, and the birthplace of legendary screen actor John Wayne. My hometown is thriving, its population growing, and I feel lucky to be a part of the renaissance I feel it is undergoing. The idea that quilters will come and share it with me for three days makes my heart sing!

The Iowa Theater in Winterset, renovated by Marianne and Rebecca Fons

The Iowa Theater, recently rennovated by Marianne and her daughter, Rebecca, is an active part of Winterset’s iconic town square.

Q: I spent one day with you—actually half a day, truth be told—meeting many of the people who will make this quilt retreat so special for our group. It seems you know everyone, and I marvel at your home network. We don’t get that in our suburban community in quite the same way. So this quilt retreat is really very, well… you, and you are very, well… Winterset. Would you like to share some of the resources you introduced me to that day? Let’s start with The Iowa. There’s a story there… 

A: Had it not been for the Iowa Quilt Museum, I wouldn’t have paid much attention when I heard the Iowa Theater—located on the adjacent side of the square—was for sale, even though my daughters grew up watching movies there, and my youngest, Rebecca, loved movies so much she majored in Film Studies at the University of Iowa, got a master’s in Arts and Media Management, and went to work for the Chicago Film Festival.

The theater soon actually closed, and with Rebecca’s promise to help, I made an offer on the very run down, non-digital movie house everyone calls The Iowa. Over a period of two years, Rebecca traveled to Winterset every month from her home in Chicago to oversee the gut and rehab of the Art Deco style building and turn it into a 501c3 nonprofit. Working with a local contractor and local artisans, the theater was transformed back to its 1938 glory—but with modernized infrastructure.

The Iowa will be our participants’ first official venue for the September retreat. That my special quilt pals Paula Nadelstern and Victoria Findlay Wolfe will take the once-Vaudeville stage with me for “Ask Me Anything” puts a huge smile on my face. That Tony Jacobson (whose beautiful quilt designs are known nationwide) will moderate makes my smile even bigger.

The Iowa Quilt Museum, located on the south side of Winterset's historic town square

The Iowa Quilt Museum, located on the south side of Winterset’s historic town square

Q: And the Iowa Quilt Museum? I hear you were an important part of that project, as well. Can you share that story, and tell us what will we see when we are there in September? 

A: The Iowa Quilt Museum storefront was Winterset’s JC Penney outlet for some fifty years, and then changed hands many times. Transforming it into a space to showcase quilts from all of the US was a labor of love.

A non-collecting museum, we mount four exhibitions a year, each one consisting of about 25 quilts and running for approximately three months. We work with guest curators on themes our show committee develops. This year we hosted “Feed Sack Quilts,” curated by Linzee McCray, followed by “Playing With Purpose,” Victoria Findlay Wolfe’s first-ever retrospective. The display during our retreat will be “Blue Ribbon Winners from the Iowa State Fair,” curated by Virginia Berger. Iowa’s State Fair is a famous one, and our curator is gathering quilts from many decades of competition.

Piece Works Quilt Shop, a quilter's dream located on the south side of Winterset's square, is the former headquarters of Love of Quilting magazine

Piece Works Quilt Shop, a quilter’s dream located on the south side of Winterset’s square, is the former headquarters of Love of Quilting magazine

Q: I was surprised at how much we can bring to the retreat right from Winterset and Madison County—from locally roasted coffee and local wineries to your amazing local quilt shop. Can you tell us about Piece Works and how it ties into your past here?  

A: On a scale of 1 to 10, in my book Piece Works is a solid #10. The building, just a few doors down from the Iowa Quilt Museum, was once the headquarters of Fons & Porter. Liz and I did operate a shop on the ground floor, but the shop that’s there now is way, way better. Our main business was publishing, which happened on the second floor, so the store was never our main focus.

Now, under the ownership of Joyce Franklin and the management of Tony Jacobson, Piece Works is a place where you walk in the door and just want to stay. Like most storefronts on Winterset’s square, the space is about twenty feet wide by 100 feet deep, so it’s neither tiny nor huge. It’s beautiful and cozy, and ANY quilter can find fabrics to love there, whether it’s batiks, contemporary, reproduction, patriotic, etc. Lucky for me, it’s less than five minutes walking distance from my back door.


The 1876 Renaissance Revival style Madison County Courthouse and bell

Ready to learn more?

Join Marianne Fons in the Heartland of Quilting—Winterset, Iowa! Check out the quilt retreat itinerary and explore the quilting destinations you’ll visit during your quilting escape.

Stay tuned for more of my conversation with Marianne! Next time we’ll talk about the gorgeous quilts you’ll make during the retreat.

~ Marlene

Can’t make it to the quilt retreat? Learn from Marianne Fons at home!

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