March 27, 2006
Life is sew-sew for Jean Lanska
By Roz Kohls
Jean Lanska of Cokato gets bored with repetitive sewing projects.
“I like doing different things all the time,” Lanska said.
“Being creative and blessing someone gives me more pleasure and is more satisfying than anything else I do,” she said.
That’s why Lanska doesn’t just sew clothes. She sews toys, costumes, curtains, place mats, hot pads, wall hangings, blankets, pillow covers, dummies, and upholstery. She also sews bridal clothes, bath robes, men’s suits, prom dresses, and matching outfits, in which the husband, wife and children are all wearing clothes made from the same fabric.
“This has always been fun for me,” Lanska said. “People know I can sew so they ask me to do stuff.”
Lanska has been sewing for 35 years. She started sewing clothes for Barbie dolls. Her mother, Opal Helwig, sewed also and always had a sewing machine available. Lanska’s mother made a suit jacket and matching skirt which she then modeled in a fashion show in Montevideo, said Lanska, who is originally from Madison, Wis.
While Lanska was in junior high school in Duluth, her home economics teacher, Mrs. Meyers, gave her the confidence to try unconventional sewing projects.
“This lady was my biggest encourager and my biggest inspiration,” Lanska said. “A lot of it was her personality. She was a positive coach.”
Lanska looks at patterns and directions but doesn’t always go by them. “I create my own things,” she said.
Lanska made her own prom dresses, for example, that she saw in expensive dress stores. “I drew it out and made it my own,” said Lanska, who works part time at a Mykkanen facility, Shepherd Acres, south of Cokato.
Lanska used to have her own seamstress business, “Life’s A Stitch,” for five years in the building that now houses The Grounds, along Highway 12. Her three sons, Joshua, Jeremiah and Josiah, all have small children. She often baby-sits her grandchildren, so doesn’t have time to operate a business now, she said.
Lanska pointed out the numerous fabrics folded up and ready to be made into sewing projects. “I have lots of things that I intend to do,” she said.
One of her current projects is a fur hat and matching fur mittens. The hat is designed so it can be worn on the side, front or backwards, she said.
Lanska likes to create from fur. She makes “tails” which can be grouped into wall hangings or made into toys.
Lanska has a striking fur moose head she made hanging on the wall in her family room. The only part that is real is the rack on the moose’s head. It looks, though, as if a taxidermist made the head from a real moose. The moose’s head is an acrylic form covered with fur. Lanska sewed the moose’s lips from leather. She used taxidermy patterns to make the moose’s ears look lifelike, Lanska said.
“I like outdoorsy stuff and rustic things,” Lanska said.
Lanska also likes birch trees. She made pillow covers with a birch tree pattern, as well as a dress for herself. Many of the items she sews for her home on Brooks Lake Road have wildlife or outdoor themes on the fabric or in the design.
Although Lanska now makes many unusual fabric items, she also spent years honing her craft sewing men’s pants by patterns and doing alterations, hemming pants for both men and women, she said.
“When I first got married, I made all my husband’s pants,” Lanska said.
Her husband, Dennis, is a maintenance mechanic at Twin Cities Die Cast of Monticello. Lanska frequently made matching shirts and skirts for herself made from the same fabric as the shirts she made for her husband and sons, she said.
Lanska also tailored a full suit for her husband and a matching suit for herself. “That suit is going to last a lifetime and it’s wool,” she said.
When she first started making men’s clothes, she thought putting in the fly was the most difficult part. But as she made more and more tailored clothes, she sewed welt pockets, which are inside pockets on a men’s suit. Welt pockets became the most difficult sewing she has ever done, she said.
Lanska made a costume for Bob Gasch of Cokato, a storyteller. Gasch had a presentation at a Murphy’s Landing fund raiser within 10 days of when he hired Lanska to make an 1880 Sack suit. It included a coat, vest, shirt and pants. The vest had four welt pockets on the front, Lanska said.
Although it was extremely difficult, Lanska finished it in 80 hours, she said.
Lanska makes many Halloween costumes, as well as mascot costumes, she said.
She currently is working on a dummy that will sit in an ultra light airplane hanging from the third floor of a barn. Lanska’s uncle, now deceased, used the barn to display antiques. Lanska is making the dummy’s face to look like her uncle, she said.
Lanska also made dummies that were displayed for years in the Dassel Cokato Middle School, she said. Lanska often sewed for the school district. She worked at the middle school for six years, she said.
In addition to her Bernina sewing machine and surger, she has a travel sewing machine she’d take to school and repair draperies, she said.
Lanska also makes things for people out of materials that have significance for them. She made teddy bears, for example, made out of clothing tags. She also made dolls’ aprons out of a black slip her mother-in-law gave her.
“Then I wrote a poem about the slip, called ‘Grandma Lanska’s Slip,’” she said. Lanska gave the dolls with their aprons to her three sisters-in-law.
“This past year I made a quilt for one of my daughters-in-law, Jeni from Dassel, out of her senior prom dress. That’s a great idea for anyone who is having trouble getting rid of that special garment. Change it and make use of it in a different way,” Lanska said.