Hamilton, Missouri, was once in serious financial trouble. But in a matter of a few years, Jenny Doan and her family transformed the sleepy town into a magical destination, drawing thousands of creatives every month. How did the Doans do it? By the power of faith—and quilts.
Editor’s note: This article was the cover story of the May/June 2022 print issue of LDS Living magazine.
A letter penned in Iran travels more than 7,000 miles to land in the hands of Jenny Doan in tiny Hamilton, Missouri. The woman who wrote the letter and the woman who just received it have never met. Their childhoods, religious practices, and cultures are worlds apart. However, some of their deepest desires are the same: they are two women who search for joy, confidence, and community.
Jenny cannot help but weep as she opens the letter and reads the message written inside: “I want to do for the women in my village what you have done. You have filled my war-torn life with color.”
Jenny never expected to receive such a moving message from a stranger, but now she cherishes many others much like it. The memories are so meaningful, she recalls each one as though she is experiencing them for the first time: A US Marine puts his head in his hands and cries as he thanks her for saving him from the ill effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. A young woman who was once addicted to meth tells Jenny she’s been sober for 10 years, thanks to her. A man dedicated to the fight against human trafficking says Jenny’s work brings him a peace he didn’t know existed.
What has Jenny done to bring happiness and hope to these people and so many more? The simple answer is this: she taught them how to quilt. But Jenny has learned that quilting is about much more than stitching straight lines or arranging colors and patterns. Quilting is but a means to an end—the real magic is in the healing power of creation.
“Most people come to a creative entity because they’ve suffered some sort of loss [and] they’re looking for something to fill them, so they start creating. That creating process is the healing process. They want to share with me what’s happened to them because I taught them how to quilt. For me, that’s the tenderest mercy in the world because it gives meaning to what I thought was just an occupation,” Jenny says.
That occupation as a cofounder of Missouri Star Quilt Company in Hamilton, Missouri—a town CBS News has since dubbed “the Disneyland of quilting”—is one Jenny didn’t see coming but which has now filled her heart and her family’s once-empty pockets. The company currently provides a livelihood for more than 450 employees, and before the pandemic it drew 100,000 visitors per year to a town of just 1,900 people. In fact, Missouri Star grew so quickly that teams from Google, YouTube, and other high-profile Silicon Valley companies came to Missouri to learn the company’s formula for success. Jenny, whom Forbes has called “the Oprah of quilting,” even recently released a book, How to Stitch an American Dream, with Mark Dagostino, one of the most respected celebrity journalists in America, who also helped with Joanna Gaines’s first book.
But for Jenny, it isn’t about the profits or being in the limelight. What does matter is living her faith and sharing her light with millions of people who are finding joy through the art she enables them to create.
Like Jonah and the Whale
Jenny and her husband, Ron, resisted the move to Missouri. At least at first.
They had lived in California for their entire married lives, but the cost of living had become burdensome, especially with seven kids to care for. And after one of their sons had an expensive operation to remove a tumor in the mid-1990s, the Doans needed to find a more affordable place to live, and fast. Ron was considering his family’s situation during daily scripture study one day when the idea to move to the Midwest came to him. He had served a mission in Indiana but had no other ties to the area.
When he proposed the idea to Jenny, she was surprised and found herself realizing she didn’t even know for certain which states were in the Midwest. But she had also been praying about what they should do, and Jenny trusted that Ron’s impression was inspired. They continued praying and decided the Lord wanted them specifically in Missouri, but the thought of moving to an unknown area away from loved ones was unnerving.
“We went to tell my parents, and they thought we were nuts,” Jenny says. “Missouri, to us, felt like we were moving to China. It felt like we’d never see our family again if we went that far away.”
So the Doans decided they would temporarily move into a family member’s basement and eventually make their way to Missouri. But that plan didn’t last for long.
“That basement, which had never flooded, flooded five times in the five months we were there,” Jenny says. “We felt like Jonah and the whale! We were like, ‘All right, fine, we’ll go to Missouri.’”
Ron remembers no longer feeling nervous about the move at that point: “I said, ‘OK, Lord, I’m going to do what you asked me to do, so let’s go.’ And we packed up and came here. We didn’t really know anyone, and I had no job to go to, or any of that, but I trusted in the Lord, [and] He’s helped us ever since,” he says.
So in 1995, Jenny and Ron put their kids in the car and headed to Missouri. They intended to find a place to live in Far West, a city they’d read about in the Doctrine and Covenants. But they ran into a problem: Far West isn’t actually a city anymore—just a small historic site. But even after discovering Far West wasn’t what they thought, the Doans weren’t deterred.
“The next-closest place was Hamilton, so we came over and lived here,” Jenny says.
The family found a home in a farmhouse that was more than 100 years old, but no one in their family had landed a job, and they were now in a community that had been wary of “Mormons” since the earliest days of the Church. But Jenny’s optimism, faith, and love for her family allowed the Lord to lead the Doans to a destination full of more beauty and purpose than they ever could have imagined on the day they arrived.
A Complete Pollyanna
Ron began looking for a job in their tiny new town, but when he still hadn’t found anything after about four months and their already small savings had dwindled, he began to worry. Yet despite their struggles, Jenny was determined to make life fun for their children.
“I am a complete Pollyanna,” she says. “I have joy by nature, and I find the good in things. I would say to the kids, ‘People have lived in this house for more than 100 years. We just have to figure out how they did it.’”
Jenny’s optimism—and a lot of hard work—created a happy home. Her son Alan remembers that the house didn’t have indoor plumbing, so Jenny and Ron would boil water to make their baths warm, and they kept a roll of toilet paper on a tree branch outside.
“We were just broke,” Alan says in a video documenting the history of Missouri Star. “But they always worked really hard to make it fun for us kids. We always thought we were on this great, grand adventure.”
The family kept their own chickens (which Alan defended from intruding possums), shopped in bulk at nearby Amish stores to save money, and canned all sorts of food to last them throughout the year. During those times, Jenny had a simple trick for helping her children find excitement in their rural farm life: “You just tweak one little thing,” she says. “And then it becomes special.”
Ron was eventually able to secure a job with the local newspaper working as a machinist. Through the ups and downs of those hard days, Ron leaned on Jenny’s positivity—a trait he’d been drawn to ever since the couple reconnected at church in California after Ron’s mission. They had met at a church dance when Jenny was 17 but had gone different ways after high school. Jenny was married at 19 to a man she ended up divorcing nearly three years later due to his abusive behavior. She was about eight months pregnant, and she and her first daughter, Natalie, were living in her parents’ home when she ran into Ron again. He had been a quiet teenager due to a difficult childhood but had become more confident after joining the Church at age 19 and later serving a mission. Jenny was impressed by how he had matured, and Ron loved her lighthearted, resilient nature.
“I had some dark times early in my life, but having Jenny there, always seeing the light and the bright side, really changed my life,” Ron says. “She’s always got a happy and joyful outlook on life, and when you’re around that, it rubs off on you. It’s not contained inside the cup, but overflows. She is such a joyful person, a loving person, and that makes things good.”
Even though they had recently reconnected, Jenny felt so safe around Ron that when she gave birth to her new daughter, she invited him to come and be one of the first people to hold the baby. Due to her past experiences, Jenny was hesitant about marrying again, but she eventually came to see that with Ron, she could have a second chance at what she’d always wanted: a happy family of her own. She and Ron were married in 1980, and their family came together in an unconventional way as Ron became dad to Jenny’s first two children. The couple adopted Jenny’s nephew, and then they had four children together.
Thirteen years after the move to Hamilton, when those seven children were grown, they began to look for ways they could improve their parents’ lives. Alan proposed a simple business idea that unexpectedly grew into a family enterprise and enabled Jenny to share her innate belief that life can be joyful with millions around the world.
The Rise of Missouri Star
Before Jenny would reach millions of people, however, her family’s financial struggles worsened: when the great recession of 2008 hit the US, Jenny and Ron lost all of their retirement money, and their children became concerned for them.
Alan, who had gone on to earn a degree from Brigham Young University–Hawaii in information systems, had spent the last few years working as an entrepreneur. When Jenny mentioned to him that she needed to pick up a quilt she’d been waiting over a year to have bound, Alan perked up—someone had enough orders to be backlogged for over a year? That sounded to him like a service in high demand. So without doing any further market research, he proposed the idea of buying a long-arm quilting machine for Jenny so she could make some extra money for retirement by finishing other people’s quilts. While Jenny had always enjoyed sewing clothes and in the past few years had fallen in love with quilting, she’d never used a long-arm machine before. But she felt confident she could figure it out.
So Jenny’s daughter Sarah took out a second mortgage on her home to buy the machine, which was at least 10 feet long, and a building to put it in. Thus, Missouri Star was born in November 2008. Business was slow at first, so Alan suggested they post videos on YouTube of Jenny giving step-by-step instructions on how to make a variety of quilts. YouTube was only three years old at that point, but Alan insisted it would become the world’s center for learning. So they gave it a shot, and at the end of their first year, the channel had almost 1,000 subscribers. By the end of the next, 10,000. And by 2013, Jenny was a YouTube star and their annual revenue had topped $4 million.
“YouTube was something I only knew about because crazy teenagers had this new thing that was called ‘YouTube,’” Jenny says. “But it was the catalyst that really carried us forward. And that’s where people saw me that I never dreamt of reaching.”
Many of the people watching Jenny’s videos wanted to know where they could buy the fabric she was using. The family hadn’t previously thought of selling fabric online, but, once again, entrepreneur Alan saw a demand and jumped on it: He and his former mission companion Michael Mifsud taught themselves how to set up an entire shipping warehouse by watching YouTube videos and soon began filling orders. Because fabric wasn’t a product easily available online at that time, their business filled a hole and grew rapidly. And Jenny began receiving letters—lots of them.
“The first letters I got were so fascinating, because they were all from women who were handicapped or had some sort of an illness. With me, they were able to take a [YouTube quilting] class, and if they got tired, they could pause and stop and come back later. If they didn’t remember, they could repeat it; it was just so freeing for them. They couldn’t get all their paraphernalia out into a quilt store, but now they could take a class and learn a skill that they just never dreamt would be open to them. And it was all because it was available online,” Jenny says.
To this day, Jenny still films a YouTube tutorial every week—her channel boasts over 823,000 subscribers and well over 251 million views, and Missouri Star now offers the largest selection of precut fabrics in the world. She and Ron (pandemic allowing) travel to trade shows all over the country. As part of their tour, Jenny also delivers powerful motivational speeches to quilters who come from far and wide to hear her.
Missouri Star has also transformed downtown Hamilton from a collection of dilapidated buildings waiting to be demolished to a charming main street. The Doans renovated buildings that dated back to the 1800s, commissioned large murals throughout town, and fixed up sidewalks. Now they own 13 themed quilt shops and even a storefront called “Man’s Land,” where non-quilters can relax while their friends or family members shop. The stores (all divided neatly by fabric type, from florals to batiks) are bustling with visitors, most of whom are hoping Jenny herself will pop in to say hello.
But Missouri Star hasn’t only brought economic blessings to Hamilton and Missouri: the company’s success has also provided a platform for the Doans to share their faith in a part of the country with historically hard feelings toward the Church.
Softening Hearts in Missouri
Early Latter-day Saints began gathering in Independence, Missouri, in 1831, but Missourians grew unsettled by their unique religious views and by the voting power of so many newcomers. Hostilities arose, culminating in an order from Governor Lilburn W. Boggs in 1838 that all Latter-day Saints be driven from the state or exterminated. And while those events took place many decades ago, Jenny says some tension remains.
“We are in a town that was pretty ‘anti-Mormon.’ We’re right where they drove the Saints out. And the people on these farmlands, they don’t really leave—they’ve been here on this land since it was ownable, so a lot of their feelings can [stay] the same,” Jenny says.
Ron and Jenny believe part of their purpose in Hamilton is to soften people’s hearts toward the gospel, and they do so through service.
“We may go do a mission of another type someday, but right now we are going to serve the Lord where we are as we can,” Ron says. “One of the things I learned on my mission was, as you serve, you love, and that continues on today. Jenny and I both know that if you want to love somebody, you serve them. … Even in the business, it’s all about giving for us.”
One way Ron and Jenny have served their neighbors is through providing youth in town with a positive work experience. Jenny remembers a woman stopping her in a dollar store to thank her for providing her teenage son with a job close to home—a valuable commodity in a town as small as Hamilton. This mother expressed what a blessing working at Missouri Star had been to her son’s confidence and to his life.
Jenny remembers another occasion when a woman she had known casually for years as a customer walked into the store and said to her, “Is it true you’re a Mormon?” Jenny replied with enthusiasm, “About 1 million percent!” The woman considered that for a moment and then said, “Well, I still think you’re one of the nicest ladies in Hamilton.”
Ron and Jenny’s bishop, John Dawson, is grateful for the impact the Doans have had on the community, starting with his own life. As a young adult, he came to Hamilton after pursuing education in Utah, and the Doans offered him a place to stay in their home.
“They like doing that—they tend to pick up strays,” he says. “Jenny’s been ‘mom’ to everybody. They are just pleasant, happy-all-the-time, fun people.” John adds that there are three young men in their ward who are paying for their missions thanks to working at Missouri Star.
“Everybody needs additional revenue in a small town, and instead of a Sturgis [motorcycle rally], we get quilt ladies. You couldn’t ask for a better source of revenue to help build a town up,” he says.
“Not Even on My Radar”
As Jenny looks back over the past 14 years, she is still in awe at the joy and opportunities that have come from a simple idea during a difficult time. And while Missouri Star has won business awards, generated revenue, and brought Jenny a degree of fame, for her the work is all about bringing joy and creativity to as many people as possible.
“When my first letters came, that wasn’t even on my radar. I just thought I was going to teach people how to sew, then they’d send their quilts to me, and that’s how I’d make money,” she says. “The letters that always stunned me were ones that came from overseas in places I’d never heard of, never dreamt of being able to go. Their lives were so different from ours, but they wanted to bring the same joy to people [through quilting] as I brought to them; they wanted to be able to teach people. They didn’t have fabric, but they had clothing, and they would cut up their clothing. It was just so amazing to me.”
Jenny believes the joy of quilting comes from creating. In fact, she’s so passionate about people and creativity that in the early days of her business, she hung a sign in her main shop in downtown Hamilton with these words from Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf: “The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul. No matter our talents, education, backgrounds, or abilities, we each have an inherent wish to create something that did not exist before.” While most of her customers didn’t recognize the name “Dieter Uchtdorf” on the sign, they did stand and stare at the words, often commenting on how the message resonated with them.
She also believes that giving a quilt to someone else is a labor of love that is life-changing. Whether a quilt is gifted to a family member or is made as a donation—like the various quilting drives Missouri Star has organized for disaster victims—Jenny wants to help people to know that what they do matters.
“What quilters need to realize is … they’re sending out their emotion, their love, their warmth. These stitches they make in the basement—I feel like they’re changing the world because they’re wrapping the world in comfort,” she says.
Jenny tells her viewers not to worry about achieving perfection as they stitch together patterns, instead encouraging them to focus on the love going into the project. She affirms over and over that anyone can learn how to quilt with enough practice and a guiding hand. She wants everyone to feel confident in their ability to create, contribute, heal, and succeed. Jenny’s life hasn’t been full of ease and quick victories, but she’s seen how the Lord can take a willing heart and a humble idea and stitch together a life more beautiful than she’d hoped.
“Who would have ever thought that sewing would be the catalyst that would take care of my family and get me to where I am? It’s so fascinating to me and lets me know that whatever we do, it’s enough. … When we get to heaven, there won’t be a whiteboard with all the good things we’ve done and all the bad things we’ve done. The Savior will look on our heart, and if our heart is like His heart, that will be enough.”
How to Stitch an American Dream
Jenny is now giving her fans, the business world, and moms of all ages (and grandmas too!) what they’ve been asking for: the full story of her journey, from her humble beginnings as a homeschooling mom, to founding MSQC in her fifties, through the remarkable success and inspiration she’s so well-known for today. How to Stitch an American Dream will make you laugh, cry, say “bless your heart.” Available at Deseret Book and deseretbook.com.