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A Return to Winterset: Quiltfolk Goes Brick and Mortar

It was cold … brutally cold.” 

I borrowed that line from Undaunted Courage, a book I read as a kid about Lewis and Clark traversing North America. Because that’s exactly how I felt in 2017 when the Quiltfolk crew landed in Iowa in zero-degree weather, and the wind … well, let’s just say it wasn’t helping.  

We traveled there for our second issue of Quiltfolk—and it was the first true road trip we’d taken together as a team. (Issue 01 was produced in our backyard: Oregon.) Now that we were using planes, trains, and automobiles to reach, and share the stories of, quilters, we could have gone just about anywhere. But we picked Iowa … in early January … when it was zero degrees. 

And I am so glad we did.

A bright barn quilt block stands out against the snow on a remote Iowa barn.

It turns out, this frigid locale could not have provided a warmer welcome to our young, inexperienced crew. To this day, it’s one of my most memorable trips because our time there was steeped in what I call “the luck of the learner,” a time when you don’t know any better, so you just start knocking on doors and asking lots of questions. And to our eternal gratitude, Iowa answered at every stop. 

One stop in particular, our first, set the tone for the rest of the trip: Winterset—a small town with a population of around 5,000 people. It felt its size in the most charming of ways. And, yet, there was a grandness to it. The bridges of Madison County … the birthplace of John Wayne. What was this place? I wondered. I was dying to find out. 

The Madison County Courthouse in Winterset, Iowa.
Picturesque view of downtown Winterset.

But first, food. The Historic Northside Cafe (now, unfortunately closed) was serving three kinds of homemade pies that day. And the main dish included a delicious spread of my childhood favorites—beef stroganoff, green beans, and buttered bread—1,793 miles from home. Quilts lined the walls of the Northside. Lots of them. The presence of patchwork at the local eatery paid homage to the city’s important role in the history of quilt culture—it is the home of Fons & Porter’s “Love of Quilting,” for instance—and served as advertisements for the Iowa Quilt Museum and the local quilt shop across the town square. 

Mike's beef stroganoff at the Historic Northside Cafe.
Quilts on display at the Historic Northside Cafe.

After dinner (and a few helpings of dessert), we walked catty-corner across the square to what would prove to be one of my all-time favorite stops in Quiltfolk history: The Iowa Theater, purchased by Marianne Fons in 2015 as a “post-retirement” project. While we were there, she was literally in the middle of gutting, rebuilding, and repurposing the historic venue.

Not yet complete, the marquee outside remained bare. But from the mezzanine, we had the best seat in the house, watching a small town revitalize a cherished institution one brick and board at a time.

Inside the Iowa Theater mid-renovation.
An original projector used in the Iowa Theater’s earlier days.

It all felt a bit magical to me. I wasn’t familiar with such close-knit town squares in the Oregon area (though I’m sure they exist). I phoned home to Marisa—my wife now, but she was my  fiancée at the time—doing my best to sell her on this quaint little city of Winterset. I think the pie almost convinced her. 

That was the last time I visited Winterset. But that’s about to change!

Quiltfolk’s First Brick-and-Mortar Studio 

Six years have gone by, but these fond memories are still fresh in my mind. That is why we’re heading back to Winterset, and this time, we will be sticking around for a little bit longer.

Quiltfolk’s first-ever brick-and-mortar studio will be located on the second floor of the Iowa Quilt Museum, a space that is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places and is furnished with several antique items that are native to Madison County. It’s truly a remarkable building with an incredible history and, we hope, an exciting future!

To start, we will be filming many of our workshops there—the first of which will be Quiltfolk’s Finishing School 101 with hosts Mary and Marianne Fons—and we went in with the Iowa Quilt Museum to install a quilt hanging system so that we can use the space as a gallery of sorts.

Finishing School film crew outside the Iowa Quilt Museum with hosts Mary and Marianne Fons.
Quilts on display in Quiltfolk's new space on the second floor of the Iowa Quilt Museum.
Behind the scenes of Quiltfolk's Finishing School workshop.
Finishing School hosts Mary and Marianne Fons during filming.

We’re excited for the studio to be a home for the Foundry, where we’ll be completing and displaying our finished quilts. And I have other ideas for the space as well. One of my dreams would be to host events for Quiltfolk readers, where we can gather in person and explore all of the things that Winterset has to offer: the museum, the quilt shop, the theater, and much more. I don’t know exactly what that looks like now, but if anyone reading this has any ideas, we would love to hear them!

For now, the Quiltfolk team is just happy to have made it official—and to start thinking about all the creative ways we might use the space. We are also thrilled to be part of the community in some small way, to try something new with some new and familiar faces. Because no matter how cold the winter months can get, we know the residents will welcome quiltfolk with open arms and radiate warmth that lasts all year round. 

Share Your Suggestions With Us!

As mentioned, we have ideas on what might come next. But we want to hear from you! Let us know how we might continue to fulfill our mission to tell the stories behind the stitches using our new location. Just email me at mike@quiltfolk.com with any and all ideas you may have!

And, in the meantime, we will keep you posted on all the developments. 

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