By Jen Bakken
A quilt is far more than just a blanket to cover your bed. A quilt is also far more than something to keep you warm during Minnesota winters.
Full of beautiful patches, blocks and squares, every piece of fabric is fitted, every cut made, and every shiny little thread is stitched together with love.
A quilt is a piece of art, full of memories to cherish for a lifetime.
It could be said that a quilt has a story to tell. It could also be said that behind every quilt is a quilter with many stories to tell. This is certainly true with long-time Delano resident Jan Johnson.
Her creativity did not begin with quilts, however. Johnson always had an interest in art, and began sewing her own doll clothes before she was 8 years old.
“I used my grandmother’s treadle sewing machine,” Johnson said, smiling at the memory. “I couldn’t even reach the pedal, and had to stand up.”
Growing up as the oldest of 10 children, she continued to sew, and made all of her own clothing. Though this was out of financial necessity, she did enjoy it, as well.
Years later, when she married her husband, Dave, the very first gift he gave her was a sewing machine.
Not only did she make her own apparel, but her husband’s suits and eventually clothing for their two children, Brian and Lori.
“I used to make matching outfits for my kids and I,” laughed Johnson. “I’m sure my son probably hates to see those pictures now.”
The only sewing lessons she ever received were during seventh grade, and a few instructions that came with her sewing machine, but otherwise, she taught herself through trial-and-error.
The first quilt she attempted to make was for Lori. In the beginning, she bought many books about quilting and purchased patterns.
During the late ‘80s, she made teddy bears to sell to co-workers or at art fairs. Each bear came with its own quilt clutched in its paw.
“I had more fun dong the quilts than the teddy bears, so I started quilting more,” she said.
Thirty-five years later, Johnson is still quilting, but is now putting together fabrics and making more elaborate designs.
Most of the quilts she makes are given away, such as one she just donated to Love Inc. Heartland. The organization is having a gala Sunday, April 20, and by then, there will be two of Johnson’s creative quilts completed and up for auction.
Love Inc. Heartland holds a special place in her heart since she served on the board of directors for two years. Involved is something Johnson likes to be, as she was also on the Delano Relay for Life committee during its first year.
In 2004, she lost her beloved husband to cancer. Dave had worked as a sales manager at the Delano Sports Center for 25 years. His passions were fishing and woodworking.
Eventually, Johnson sold her husband’s boat, motor, and trailer to purchase a new sewing machine and a quilting frame.
“So, his first gift to me was a sewing machine,” said Johnson. “And his last gift to me was a sewing machine. Every time I load it, I say ‘Thanks, honey.’”
Other projects she has recently completed include themed quilted wall hangings to be given to families hosting exchange students in China.
Johnson’s artwork doesn’t end with sewing or quilting; she also makes gorgeous hooked rugs. A stroll through her home is almost like walking through an art museum.
There are pretty quilts everywhere, and the floors and walls showcase amazing hooked rugs.
A special angel hooked rug hangs on her wall, and it has a sister on display at Delano Methodist Church in memory of her husband.
They were her very first original designs, made when she had only been hooking rugs for two years.
“There is an angel holding a bird representing my husband’s love of the outdoors,” she said.
After visiting with this fiber artist, as she likes to calls herself, it is obvious that her masterpieces are as stunning as she is charming. Open and talkative, she can make time pass rather quickly while answering questions you hadn’t thought to ask.
With her short reddish hair, dark glasses, and contagious laugh, Johnson is full of spunk, and fun to be around.
“I don’t like to sit still,” she admits.
This is evident in the many projects she works on. The craft room, where she stores all her quilting and rug-hooking items, is neat, and highly organized. Everything definitely has its own place, and there are a lot of things in that one small room.
“I could hibernate for five years and not run out of materials,” she confessed.
Johnson retired in October from Loram Maintence of Wayzata after 22 years of service as a cost accountant.
“I think the accountant side of me helps the creative side keep organized,” she said.
After retiring, she saw information in the newspaper about the Delano Library art fair, and decided to showcase three of her quilts and a hooked rug.
“I’d never done anything like that, but decided to take a risk,” she said.
Since that art fair, she has given a rug-hooking demo at Patchwork Alley in Buffalo, and has been asked to teach more classes there. She has also been invited to give instructions at Shepherd’s Choice in East Bethel.
Always open to learning, Johnson has attended many camps and retreats as a student, to gain new insight, learn new techniques, and enjoy the camaraderie.
Last year, she went to the Chicago International Quilt Expo and learned more about art quilts. These are wall hangings where mixed media can be used. In the future, she would like to get into fabric dyeing and painting.
Family and friends are important to Johnson.
“My best friend, Lois, and I are cohorts in crime, we call ourselves hookers and strippers,” smiled Johnson. “Lois says we go to the store and see this lovely fabric and have to have it, then cut it into little pieces and feel bad, so we sew it together and make it even more beautiful.”
Her children and grandchildren have grown up around the quilting, and she doesn’t put away projects she is working on.
The children always know not to touch, and she has used her talent as a learning tool. From cutting to putting the items together, she explains what she is doing.
With five grandchildren, it’s no surprise that one seems to be following in her shoes.
“My 5-year-old granddaughter, Faith, I know she will be a quilter,” Johnson said with pride. “If I am at the sewing machine, she is glued to me like Velcro.”
There is no telling what this active lady may do in the future or what risks she may decide to take, but she is sure to pass her love of art on to others.