Sewing retreat weekend in De Soto, WI and Lansing keeps participants in stitches, provides them with so much more

Bonded together by more than just needles and thread ... Taking a photo-break in the sewing room at a recent weekend retreat at The Cottage in De Soto, WI are, left to right: Sandy Radtke of Wisconsin Dells, WI, Lori Iseli of Waukon, Pam Rick of Wonewoc, WI, Becky Gilbertson of Mankato, MN and Joan Boice of Ridgeway. On the fabric board behind them are works-in-progress being created by Iseli (left) and Rick (right). Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond.

An educational aspect of the retreat ... Part of the recent weekend sewing retreat at The Cottage in De Soto, WI involved a Sunday morning sewing machine maintenance class taught by Arla Wagner at Arla’s Sewing Room in Lansing. Arla’s Sewing Room is owned and operated by retired Eastern Allamakee Community School District teacher Arla Wagner and her husband, Paul, of rural Lansing. Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond.

A Place to Sew... Pamela Cotant of Madison, WI owns A Place to Sew housed in The Cottage in De Soto, WI. Among other events, sewing retreats such as one held during the first week of March, are offered at The Cottage. Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond.

by Julie Berg-Raymond

According to the Wikipedia entry for the historic Black Hawk Bridge, it “spans the Mississippi River, joining the town of Lansing, in Allamakee County, Iowa, to rural Crawford County, Wisconsin … Named for Chief Black Hawk, it is popularly referred to as the ‘Lansing bridge.’ It carries Iowa Highway 9 and Wisconsin Highway 82.” As anyone who crosses that bridge on a regular basis knows, though, it carries more than those roadways; it carries people - as they pursue their livelihoods, do their shopping, gather with their friends and family. In the case of this story, the bridge was the conduit by which two area businesses - one on each side of the Mississippi River - came together to offer five women who came from elsewhere an opportunity to get together over a shared passion for sewing, and to enjoy amenities offered by two Upper Mississippi River towns – Lansing, Iowa and De Soto, Wisconsin.

Pamela Cotant, a freelance reporter from Madison, WI, bought The Cottage - a house that sleeps 10 people and is located just uphill from the main road through De Soto - in 2018. She held her first sewing retreat there in September of that year and has been holding them regularly since then. The Cottage is available for crafting/sewing/weaving/knitting retreats and, she says, any other kind of gathering - like a reunion, for example. “I had one group of gals come and use it as a base while they explored the area, going to a winery, taking a trip on the Mississippi, visiting the shrine near La Crosse,” she says.

On a recent weekend, five women were in residence for a sewing retreat. They came from Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and they came in two groups: A mother and daughter were joined by a good friend, and the three met up with two “almost lifelong friends” who’d come to the retreat together.

“When people ask me about a retreat, I like to say it’s a girls’ weekend with a purpose,” Pamela says. “You eat, drink, laugh and tell stories but you also get projects done that are hard to do at home because you see all the things you think you should be doing. The community that is formed over the weekend also is incredible and I think it comes from the closeness developed while spending that time together. It’s also a time to help each other with your projects.”

In fact, that’s exactly the situation encountered by a reporter on a visit to The Cottage to meet the women on this retreat. The tables in the sewing room were filled with fabric and sewing machines; the breakfast bar that separated that room from the kitchen was covered with snack foods - mostly chocolate, one of the sewers noted; but a jumbo container of cheese puffs also stood out. The women were all working on various projects; and an observer would not know that they were not all longtime friends - that, in fact, new friendships were being formed to the hum of sewing machines and the laughter of people who all found joy in this event that had brought them together.

Pam Rick of Wonewoc, WI saw an ad on Facebook for this retreat; she’d been to this house before, several years earlier. This time, she brought along her daughter, Becky Gilbertson, of Mankato, MN. They’ve both done this sort of retreat before - because they share a passion for sewing. “We will go into a fabric store, and we’ll both pick out the same bolt of cloth,” Becky says. “This is therapy,” her mom says. “This is sanity. And socialization.”

Not everyone understands that - which is why, they all agree, these retreats are ultimately so valuable. Lori Iseli of Waukon says her father-in-law tells her, “‘I will never understand cutting pieces of fabric apart and sewing them back together.’ It’s a long-lost art,” she says. “People once did it out of necessity.” Now, “quilters are all about the wine and the chocolate,” she laughs. “And the people.”

The women help each other with tips they’ve learned - and with tasks, should it be necessary. Sandy Radtke of Wisconsin Dells had an injury that made it hard for her to cut fabric strips for her project at the moment; so Pam did it for her. Sandy works at a shop in Reedsburg, WI where fabric and sewing/quilting materials are sold. She told a story about a man and a woman coming into the shop one afternoon, and about approaching the woman to help her.

The man said, “See, I told you she’d start talking to you.” As it happened, the man was the quilter. “Usually, if a man comes into the shop with a woman, he’s just waiting until she’s finished,” Sandy says. “But I learned a lesson that day.”

Joan Boice of Ridgeway, an over-the-road truck driver for 28 years, says this retreat weekend serves as “my mental health days from work.” She used to sew strictly clothes, she says; now she sews strictly quilts. Like the other women, she has done sewing retreats before.

“We come for the food,” she laughs. “And the wine.” Someone else shouts, “And the people!” (“There’s a lot of laughing with this quilting,” Sandy notes.)

They weren’t going to be cooking that night; the plan was to head across the river to Lansing for fish at Shep’s Riverside after they’d finished sewing for the day. The next night was earmarked for playing cards and having some wine - namely, a sweet white table wine called “Quilt,” from Rock N Wool Winery in Poynette, WI.

The next morning, the group headed back across the Black Hawk Bridge to Arla’s Sewing Room, a new business in downtown Lansing. Arla was teaching a class in sewing machine maintenance, and the class was held in conjunction with the sewing retreat. About 15 people attended the class, including the five women from The Cottage.

Originally from Monroe, WI, Arla Wagner and her husband, Paul, have lived in the Lansing area since 1986. “I met my husband here in Lansing, raised a family, and taught in the Eastern Allamakee School District until I retired in 2021,” she says. “It took me about a year to figure out the next ‘career move.’ I have always loved to sew and recently took an interest in repairing sewing machines.”

She completed online coursework on sewing machine repair and opened a tiny repair shop in her home. “It wasn’t long before I outgrew my workspace,” she says. “Hence, my husband and I decided to open a business in Lansing. I officially opened my sewing shop on June 1, 2022. I am an authorized Elna sewing machine dealer, I repair most brands of domestic sewing machines, sell fabric and notions, and offer sewing classes every now and then. I do not, however, offer clothing repair/alterations. My shop hours are Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4, Saturdays 10 to 2, and other days by chance.”

Pamela first heard about Arla’s sewing shop from some of her guests. “They were in Lansing having a meal and probably going to Horsfall’s and they saw Arla’s store and told me about it,” she says. “One time when I was in De Soto I went to Lansing to the shop to meet her. I also dropped off my brochures there. We can be mutually beneficial to each other with guests coming over to purchase fabric or notions that they didn’t bring with them.”

“Pamela reached out to me, hoping we could join forces and create a fun weekend for sewing,” Arla says. “I offer classes when I can. Unfortunately, there’s not enough time in the day/week, nor enough room in my small shop to accommodate many students. I keep extremely busy with sewing machine repairs, so that limits the amount of time available for classes. In the past, I have offered beginning sewing, scrap quilting, fabric basket making, and sewing machine maintenance classes. I always advertise my classes on my Facebook page, Arla’s Sewing Room. That is the best way to keep an eye on any upcoming classes.”

By the time the weekend was over, another group of people who share a passion for sewing had made some new friends, acquired some valuable information about how to care for their machines, and enjoyed some time in two river towns on the Upper Mississippi River. In the end, Pamela says, “it’s hard to imagine the experience and even know what’s like to stay at A Place to Sew, with its expansive view of the Mississippi River, until you’ve been to a retreat.”