Northern Friendship Quilters

Although they are called the Northern Friendship Quilters, quilting is not the only thing on the minds of this group. For more than 20 years, they have gathered once a year at Sugar Lake Lodge in Cohasset for a weekend retreat. While everyone there may work on a quilting project during their time, it’s the friendships that keep these women coming back year after year. 

Sue Sauer and Judy Bylkas were a part of the first retreat that was ever held in 1993. Sauer was teaching quilting at a local quilt shop and it was decided that they should extend the classes to make a full retreat. Bylkas was the nursing manager at the same hospital where Sauer was the nursing director. The two bonded as Sauer began to teach the nurses how to quilt in order to relieve stress while the hospital went through its accreditation process. 

“It was the greatest thing,” Bylkas said. “I went home and I didn’t care about the accreditation.”

The two split up the duties of organizing the retreat. Sauer focused on teaching and Bylkas did, well, everything else. There were 11 people at the first retreat. Some of these women, including Sauer and Bylkas, still attend today.

 Now, there is a retreat every fall, as well as in the spring at the Cohasset Community Center. 

“Everybody was so excited after getting together like that,” Sauer said. “They did it a second year and from then on we had people saying, ‘Let’s do this every month!’”

The Northern Friendship Quilters Retreat has seen anywhere from 55 to 85 people. This year, the maximum is 65 people. Registration opened last week and already 38 people signed up. Marsha Benolken, one of the current chairs of the retreat along with Teresa Damyanoich, noted that seven of the attendees signed up are new. This year will be Benolken’s sixth year at the retreat. 

“We find that it’s so organized already that there isn’t that much to do,” Benolken commented regarding how seamless the transition was to become an organizer of the retreat.

All levels of quilters are welcome attend—from total beginners to experts. Each person is set up with their own 8-foot table to work on. The leadership of the retreat puts together projects for people to work on if they choose. These range from table runners to purses to wall art. 

“It can go either way. It can be stressful quilting or it can be relaxing,” Benolken said. “It just depends on what you’re working on and if you like it because there are so many types of quilting.”

This year, three quilting vendors from Minnesota will be available to speak with attendees and show their products. There have other activities to do over the years with different vendors including makeup sessions, massages and reflexology.  Or if one is like Benolken, you may just enjoy taking some time to read outside or spend time with the other attendees.

“A lot of it is all about friendship and socialization,” Benolken said. 

The Northern Friendship Quilters also look for ways to give back. The quilters have done different charity projects including making pillowcases for hospitalized children and quilts for veterans. 

And while there are no requirements for what must be completed at the retreat, these women hope that everyone simply has a good time. From the stories they shared, it was clear the bonds created over the years are strong as ever and that many laughs have been shared. All it took was a common hobby to bring them all together. 

“It’s a fellowship,” Sauer said. 

The 2019 Fall Northern Friendship Quilters Retreat will take place at Sugar Lake Lodge Oct. 31-Nov. 2. For more information or to register, contact Sugar Lake Lodge by calling 218-327-1462 or email Marsha Belkonen at


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