Joe Cunningham aka Joe The Quilter

the joe retreat: the backstory

By Patricia Belyea

SEATTLE WA

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. If you have a story to add, please do so in the Comment Box.


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8 comments


  • Birgit Edmayr
    What a great start to what looks like a fabulous retreat. ….on my bucket list , so hope you carry on for years to come !

  • Jane Holbrook
    Ohh I hope you will offer another workshop with Joe, I would love to participate! So inspiring. Thanks, Patricia.

  • Patricia Belyea
    David—Great to have you join the gang. PB

  • David Owen Hastings
    I feel super lucky to have been included in your final retreat with Joe… it was a fantastic experience, both creatively and socially! Thank you, Patricia and Joe, for all the energy you put into these gatherings!

  • Patricia Belyea
    Laurie—It was great to see you at work at The Joe Retreat. It didn’t look like you needed much of a push to sew outside the lines! PB

  • Patricia Belyea
    Karen—It is the last session of The Joe Retreat that will be organized by myself and Okan Arts. To learn from Joe, please visit his website at joethequilter.com to learn about his occasional week-long workshops in San Francisco. PB

  • Karen Swiech
    Being new to the area I’m hoping that you say last as in latest, and that there will be another retreat in the future. I’m hoping but thinking that’s not what you meant.

  • Laurie Wilkey
    Attending the Joe retreat was an eye opener for me. I found my quilting mojo there. Before that, my quilting was all about frustration. In higndsight, I needed permission to think and sew outside the lines. I found it there.

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