(Originally published in SCHMETZ Inspired to SEW #54, June 2018. Written by Rita Farro.)
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.
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 carpool 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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