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Published April 20, 2012, 12:00 AM

Hankies become quilts in her hands

Hawley, Minn. - What formerly were used to tidy up the tears and sniffles of women in the early 1900s have become Ione Johnson’s most coveted items for sewing projects: antique handkerchiefs.

Hawley, Minn. - What formerly were used to tidy up the tears and sniffles of women in the early 1900s have become Ione Johnson’s most coveted items for sewing projects: antique handkerchiefs.

“Whenever they’re on an auction sale, that’s when I buy them, and you pay dearly for them now,” says the 88-year-old Hawley embroiderer. “Seems like there are a lot of other ladies that like them, too, these days.”

Perhaps they, like Johnson, have discovered an even more delicate purpose for the hankies. No longer just for mopping up messes, in the right hands the old cloths can be turned into delicate butterflies fluttering on a warm, soft quilt.

Johnson just finished three “butterfly quilts,” and when she took them to downtown Hawley to show her quilter friends, they made a big deal of them.

It’s likely she’ll be hauling at least one of them to this year’s Clay County Fair in Barnesville, as she’s done in past years with other hand-stitched creations. “I’ve been making quilts for over 50 years,” Johnson says. “Many of them have received grand-champion ribbons.”

Not that she needs the accolades. “It’s just a lot of bragging as far as I’m concerned,” she says, chuckling.

For her, it’s not about the awards or even the money, though she does sell her quilts on occasion. Instead, she does it for the pure satisfaction she receives from hanging out with her embroidery needle – something she started when her mother introduced her to the craft as a teen – and seeing what can come of it.

“I just love to embroider and put things together,” Johnson says. “It’s comforting and relaxing. It’s something I can just do on my own and forget everything else. To me, it’s just plain enjoyable.”

She also likes giving away her quilts, mainly to family and friends. Johnson has six grandkids and nine great-grandchildren, and all have benefited from her handiwork.

She’s impressed with the care her family members have taken to preserve them. The car quilt she crafted for a grandson back in the 1980s, with wheels she worked hard to fill in solid with thread, looks nearly as fresh as the day she gave it to him, she says.

Other favorites include one that featured an array of Biblical characters, another with depictions of the United States, and a third sporting all of the state birds in various colors.

Her baby quilts have been among the most used and well-received, welcoming new life.

Johnson says a lot of patience and sustained concentration are required to go from beginning to end of a quilting project. “It takes six weeks at least. For the butterfly quilts, maybe two months for each,” she says, “and that’s pretty steady work.”

But she’s got a nice, rolling chair that adjusts height to help, and plenty of ambition to keep going, one quilt to the next.

“I’ve been a widow 10 years on April 30,” Johnson says, adding that keeping busy with projects helps take her mind off missing her husband, Haaken.

Of course, if she wanted, she could join the quilting ladies who convene each week at the senior center. But Johnson says she’d be hard-pressed to find time to break away from her own routine and projects.

Johnson is willing to sell the three butterfly quilts she recently completed, including the two queen-sized ones with colored butterflies, at $100 each. The third, a king-sized quilt made of white handkerchiefs, will go for about $125.

“I think any quilter would say that’s not high at all,” Johnson says, noting that each quilt consumes many hours of her time, but, to her, it’s worth every stitch.

Those interested in the butterfly quilts can contact Johnson at (218) 483-4156.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Roxane Salonen at (701) 241-5587