Joe Cunningham aka Joe The Quilter

the joe retreat: the backstory

By Patricia Belyea


When I met Joe Cunningham, I didn’t know who he was. Joe was in town for a teaching gig at the annual festival for our quilt museum. I was volunteering at the event, taking entry fees at one of the three venues brimming with quilts.

I certainly noticed the tall man who entered the hall, all on his own. Joe noticed me as I was wearing a big button that said: Ask Me Anything. Joe asked me about the location of a scheduled talk that evening which I knew nothing about. All the same, the two of us became engaged in a conversation.

When I stated that ”No one cares about quilting except quilters,” Joe said we could talk about that for hours. So I suggested we have dinner together that night.

An hour and a half into our meal, Joe mentioned that he wanted to lead a quilt retreat—something he hadn’t done for 20 years. I responded that I wanted to organize my own quilt retreat—as I’d been kicked out of the only one I’d ever attended. We impetuously decided that we should put on a retreat together. The next hour and a half was spent brainstorming some preliminary concepts.

The following week, I called Joe at his studio in San Francisco. Do you really want to put on a quilt retreat with me? I asked. YES was the answer.

The next time I laid eyes on Joe, I was picking him up at Sea-Tac Airport for the very first session of The Joe Retreat. That was November 2013. Our venue was Saint Andrews Retreat House on the Hood Canal. Sixteen participants arrived to cut up fabric and sew it back together with Joe.

Before the session was done, the first cadre of students asked me when the next retreat was scheduled. I hadn’t thought about that! I’d spent the year organizing the 2013 retreat. On the spot, I scheduled Saint Andrew’s for the following November.

Fast forward to November 2019: a few weeks ago, Joe and I led the last session of The Joe Retreat. It was a great run with a total of 11 sessions over seven years. Every session was different but each was filled with non-stop creative adventures and laughter. I personally learned so much from spending time with Joe and the self-selected participants!

The Joe Retreat is a testament to Joe’s quilting mantra: Think Less, Sew More. Joe encourages quilters not to think too much as they proceed on their inventive compositions. Our impulsive decision that fateful night in October 2012 allowed the embryo of an idea to grow into something meaningful and fun for many.

Here are a few pics from the wonderful times we’ve had at Saint Andrews.