Hooked on handiwork

By Carlienne A. Frisch


When Nancy Ann Sullivan of North Mankato sees an artistic or crafty idea, she begins to think of how to make it her own—and then how to share it with others. Throughout much of her 85 years, Nancy has made a variety of items to wear, display on a shelf or wall, or offer as a gift. She knits, crochets, sews, paints greenware ceramics, practices the Norwegian folk art of rosemaling, creates original and repurposed greeting cards, and has taught several of those arts and skills to others. When her daughters were growing up in the 1960s-1970s, Nancy sewed many of their clothes, including a ballet costume and a snow mobile suit.


Nancy also enjoys gardening, which she learned from her mother.


Nancy Ann Sullivan knitting at her Mankato home. Nancy has loved to create things her entire life. Photo by Carlienne Frisch

“I went out one day when Mom was weeding, and she taught me how to identify a weed from a flower. Many years later, a North Mankato neighbor had a driveway sale of hostas. I bought several plants at $5 a plant. If you get one, then you want more, so you split them.”


At its peak, her yard boasted 100 varieties of hostas, but a few years ago, a couple of bad winters in a row cut that number nearly in half.


As the Covid pandemic began to wane, Nancy resumed holding small coffee-and-craft parties at her home, most recently for 98-year-old Dorothy Knedel, who still serves as Nancy’s beautician, and Dorothy’s caregiver, Sharin Sambataro-Scott. The three women made unique greeting cards that were distributed to 50 residents at a senior care facility. The card-making team is now working on a patriotic design for cards celebrating Independence Day—also destined for senior care residents.


“I’m just a lady who likes to do crafty things,” Nancy said. One might say she was influenced by the adults among whom she grew up in Canton, Ill., in the 1940s. Every year, her mother sewed a new outfit for Nancy’s Shirley Temple doll, which had been a gift at Nancy’s first Christmas.


In elementary school, Nancy was introduced to the creative fun of various activities. When her first grade class was learning to print letters, repeating each letter many times on a page, the teacher commented that whoever was humming should stop. That’s when Nancy realized she was humming—an expression of the joy she felt in carefully printing the letters.


Nancy’s second-grade teacher, Grace Silva, taught her students to knit little squares, which the teacher then sewed together and took to the Red Cross. Nancy recalled that several years passed before she again took up knitting in seventh or eighth grade. In the meantime, she learned a new needlework skill.


“A friend taught me how to crochet. We crocheted around the edges of handkerchiefs and gave them as gifts,” she said.


The tradition of creating gifts continues. Although neither of Nancy’s daughters has been interested in needlework, Nancy said, “A few years ago I taught my granddaughter, Jaclyn, how to knit. She began with an afghan and then she knit scarves as gifts for friends.”


Nancy with a rosemaled plate, one of her creations. Contributed photo

Nancy also learned Swedish weaving, which was called huck weaving in Illinois. It involves hand weaving with a needle on heavy cotton material, usually intended for an afghan or a couch throw.


As an adult, Nancy learned tatting from her mother-in-law, Wilda Sullivan. (Tatting is similar to crocheting, but uses a small, hand-held shuttle instead of a needle.) Wilda came into Nancy’s life after she met Tom Sullivan, also a student at Canton High School. On Nancy’s 16th birthday, they went on their first date, to a movie at one of Canton’s two movie theaters.


The couple married three years later and soon were stationed with the U.S. Army in Germany.


“Every day was new in Europe,” she said. While there, the couple visited art museums in the Netherlands as well as the Louvre in Paris.


Their daughters, Sheila and Sheri, were born in Mankato, where the family moved for Tom’s career as an attorney after he completed his Army stint. Nancy sewed most of the girls’ clothes, especially Sheila’s.


“Sheila was little and could not find clothes that fit her that were appropriate for her age,” she said. “I had to sew everything for her. When she began taking ballet lessons, I made her ballet costume. I also sewed a snowmobile suit for Sheila when she was in sixth grade. She wanted it brown, and she wore it to school.”


Nancy’s mother taught her to sew on a treadle machine, which is operated by the user’s foot, but eventually the family got an electric sewing machine operated by pushing a lever with the right knee. Nancy still keeps a Pfaff sewing machine in her basement work area (which also includes tables for painting greenware or for rosemaling). She bought the Pfaff many decades ago, after her first sewing machine, a Necchi she’d bought in Germany, wore out. Every autumn, Nancy sews nightwear as Christmas presents for her great-nieces and great-nephews in Illinois. She also sends them Christmas tree ornaments that she has decorated with rosemaling, as well as rosemaled pins and earrings for their mothers.


Nancy began painting ceramic figurines as a result of her family driving to their cabin near Brainerd. One day, along the way, Nancy caught a glimpse of a what looked like a dwarf in the window of a ceramics shop. She insisted on stopping there--the beginning of a frequent habit.


“We drove that route many times, and stopped many times. I bought the pieces already cleaned and fired, ready to paint.”


Later, Nancy and another crafting friend from Mankato visited the shop several times and painted there, learning a technique called dry brushing, which uses nearly dry paint.


Nancy (right) discusses making a card with 98-year-old Dorothy Knedel and Dorothy’s caregiver, Sharin Sambataro-Scott. Contributed photo

“I was immersed in all of these figurines and wanted to paint them all,” Nancy said. “I have no idea how many I painted because I bought something every week. I painted a ‘nisse,’ a Norwegian dwarf, put some rosemaling on it and entered it into a rosemaling contest in Decorah, Iowa. It sold for $65, but with materials costs, including special paint, varnish and the contest entry fee, I didn’t make any money on it.”


Nancy originally heard about the Norwegian folk art of rosemaling from the mother of a Camp Fire girl who was in the club of which Nancy was the leader. Later, she ran across a book on rosemaling (which means “rose painting”) while browsing at a craft supply shop. It caught her interest because she was looking for a more creative opportunity--to design the art she made. So, Nancy and a friend attended rosemaling classes at the Vesterheim Folk Art School in Decorah, Iowa, where some of the teachers were artists from Norway. She also studied rosemaling in classes taught by two Mankato women, Dephrone Ogee and Grace Hewitt, both now deceased. Nancy has since given free rosemaling lessons to a friend, just as she shares her talent with Dorothy and Sharin in creating greeting cards.


“Once you get into crafty things, it just grows its own life,” Nancy said. “I enjoy handiwork of any kind—crocheting, knitting, sewing, card-making, painting figurines, Swedish weaving, and, of course, rosemaling on wood, jewelry, cards, glass, a milk can or even a bench on the porch.”

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