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A grandmother's gift + video

Millie Lais stands in the sewing room inside her Magnolia house. A cutting table was fashioned over a bed to give her the space she needs to work.2 / 3
Millie Lais holds up one of the quilts she made during her quest to give each of her 38 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren a quilt for Christmas. The task took two years to complete, and the family members will each get their quilt on Christmas Day.3 / 3

MAGNOLIA -- If there's one way to ensure all of the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren come home for Christmas, tell them they won't get their gifts without an appearance.

That's what Millie Lais told her family this year. Sitting in the living room of her Magnolia home earlier this week, Lais was practically giddy with excitement as she surrounded herself with a stash of not-so-well-kept secrets. She's anxious to unveil them to her family -- all 38 of them.

Lais knows that it's better to give than to receive, but she's sure looking forward to basking in all of the smiles, hugs and thank-yous as she spreads Christmas cheer in the form of 38 painstakingly handcrafted, gorgeous, pieced and machine-stitched quilts. There's one in the stash for each of her seven children, 15 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren -- the youngest recipient to be her three-month-old great-grandchild.

Family members who will travel the farthest for their treasured quilt hail from Springfield, Mo., and eastern Iowa. The rest of her children reside in southwest Minnesota and southeast South Dakota.

The quilts took more than two years to make, the last one finished just a week ago, Lais said.

"I've been giving the kids quilts every now and then," she said, adding that each time her stack of completed quilts overflowed from the closets, she'd call the kids home to divvy them up.

While her children certainly appreciated the gifts, she realized the grandkids and great-grandkids were being overlooked.

So, two years ago, she hatched a plan, hoping to have a quilt made for every member of the family by Christmas 2010. The holiday came and went, and she was still knee-deep in fabric, batting and spools of thread.

"I thought, well, this year I'm getting them done -- I don't care what," she said with a laugh and a hint of determination in her eyes.

Lais never asked them their color choices or design preferences, instead choosing what she thinks they will like. There are a couple of quilts in purple tones (one of which was already snatched by the daughter that lives with her), a teal-colored quilt for one granddaughter and a crazy quilt for another that loves bright colors. There's even a patchwork quilt with blocks of blue jean material alternating with Case-IH tractors -- that one is for a great-grandson with a penchant for red tractors.

The quilts range in size from crib- to nearly king-sized and were fashioned in an array of patterns. Lais likes the Log Cabin pattern most, but admits she only used it a couple of times for this project.

"A lot of patterns come from my quilting magazines," she said. "Some are more intricate so you do need a pattern."

Lais used to do all of her quilting by hand, but arthritis has settled into her hands and made the work with needle and thread way too painful. These days, she uses a long-arm sewing machine to make each tiny stitch.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't sew," Lais said.

With her sewing room nestled between the kitchen and the dining room, she starts stitching in the morning and continues through the afternoon. Even while making her meals, she can steal away to the sewing room to get a few more stitches in. She works at her hobby about six to eight hours a day.

"It can snow and blow and I don't care," she said with a laugh. "I've always got something to do."

With her 38 Christmas quilts now complete, one might think Lais is taking a break from the sewing machine for a while, but that is certainly not the case. She has one granddaughter getting married in April, and another one planning nuptials in October. They, along with all of the other Lais granddaughters, will get a double wedding ring quilt on their wedding day. She also has to start working on some quilts to be displayed during the month of February at the Carnegie Cultural Center in Luverne. The Blue Mound Quilters, of which Lais is a part of, will host their biennial show there.

All of those projects will likely be hidden from view on Christmas, however -- there's no room for quilting supplies to be sitting around with 40-some people expected in the Lais home on Christmas day. The small home will be seemingly busting at the seams, and Lais said her family doesn't want it any other way.

"It's just fun to have them home," she said. "Everybody brings and we just have a big potluck."

Her husband Ralph, who has been a resident of the Veterans Home in Luverne for the past seven years, will be home as well for Christmas to enjoy the day with all of their family.

Those that stay overnight will fill the chairs, couch and even the floor -- and they'll be together, which is just part of celebrating Christmas.

"I made sure that they all know that they need to come -- even if it's just for an hour," said Lais, already saying it will be a "joy to watch their faces."

Lais grew up with a garment-making mother who sewed clothes for all of her 11 children.

"In those days they had those old treadle sewing machines," she recalled. "We liked to sit underneath and pump the treadle. Mom was an excellent garment maker."

Lais, the second youngest of seven brothers and three sisters, was the only one who carried on her mother's passion for home-made garments. She sewed items for her own children -- everything from blazers to skirts -- when they were growing up, but it wasn't until after she retired from a 38-year career at the Magnolia Steakhouse that she picked up the needle and thread and started quilting from morning 'til night.

"I always liked quilting, even as a child," she said.

Unfortunately, Lais never kept track of all the quilts she's made during her lifetime, although the estimate is "several hundred."

"Quilters give away everything they make," she said with a laugh. "It's so much fun."

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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