OSU Exhibit Focuses on the Lost Art of Sewing

Melanie McIntyre Melanie McIntyre
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An exhibit currently on view at The Ohio State University’s Campbell Hall is a must-see for apparel aficionados with an appreciation for fine detail, craftsmanship and good design. “The Sewer’s Art: Quality, Fashion and Economy” celebrates the cultural significance of home sewing during the 20th century and features 49 ensembles, most of which were created between the 1940s and 1970s. The art of home sewing seems to represent a place and time that no longer exists, says Gayle Strege, curator of OSU’s Historic Costume & Textiles Collection (a hidden treasure of sorts that makes exhibitions like the aforementioned possible. But more on that later.).
“Women no longer needed to make their own clothes in the 20th century,” she continues. “Ready-made apparel was available in stores, so sewing for oneself was a creative leisure activity that few women today participate in.”

Unfortunately, home sewing doesn’t always get its due.

“‘Home sewing’ and ‘homemade’ are often seen as negative terms conveying something either amateurish or poor quality, which is not always true,” she contends. “I struggled with the title of this exhibition, about essentially home-sewn garments, because I did not want to alienate potential visitors before they even came through the doors of the gallery. The high-quality construction of these garments is equal to that of professional artisans or craftspeople and reflects the time and skill invested in creating these works.”

I couldn’t agree more. As I walked through the Gladys Keller Snowden Gallery, where the exhibit is being shown through June 27, I was continually awed by the high-quality materials and designer-inspired patterns used to create a variety of formal and day dresses, skirt suits, blouses, vests, trousers and even children’s clothing.

My personal favorite is a gold satin evening dress with a cowled back and dolman sleeves. Though the ensemble was made in 1989, it could easily be worn today by a fashionable Hollywood actress like Nicole Kidman or Uma Thurman. To make the dress, its creator, OSU alum Susan Hunter Beall, craftily combined a blouse pattern dating back to 1948 with a wrap skirt and self belt gleaned from a more recent Vogue Kaspar pattern. Beall’s handiwork anchors “The Sewer’s Art,” as she made 24 of the garments on display. Further, it was her wardrobe and detailed records, noting the machine stitches and tension settings used, the names and numbers of the patterns, the cost of materials, etc., that inspired the show.

“The concept for the exhibition first occurred to me in discussing Susan’s collection with her and the possibility of it becoming a donation to the collection,” says Strege. “The fact that she kept a record and scrap book of all her fabrics with documentation reminded me of Barbara Johnson’s clothing album from the 18th century. I thought Susan was a 20th century version of Barbara Johnson and her record of the things she made equally as relevant to women’s fashion and wardrobes of the later 20th century.” (FYI: Barbara Johnson’s album spans the years between 1746 and 1823, and is in the collection of the renowned Victoria and Albert Museum in London.)

The remainder of the exhibit features clothing made and worn by Mary Heck, Ruth Ella Moore, and Joyce Smith, as well as vintage sewing machines, sewing instructional books, and patterns.

“I want our visitors to appreciate the level of quality of the garments in the exhibition and the level of thought and problem-solving involved in addressing issues of fabric and construction choices. The ‘art’ of the sewer is not necessarily the finished product, but the process and creativity in achieving the end result,” says Strege.

To date, about 300 people have seen the show, the gallery’s first in 2009; three were held there last year. The Snowden Gallery can be accessed from the second floor of Campbell Hall, located at 1787 Neil Ave. Parking is available after 4 p.m. and on weekends in a garage behind Campbell. The gallery is open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Fridays and Saturdays between 12 p.m. and 4 p.m. Image courtesy of the Historic Costume & Textiles Collection at The Ohio State University.

On June 27, the HCTC also will host a half-day seminar to coincide with “The Sewer’s Art” exhibit. Speakers will include Joy Emery, curator of the Commercial Pattern Archive at the University of Rhode Island; Sara Marcketti and Jean Parsons of Iowa State University, which also has a sewing exhibit on view; and Kent State University’s Catherine Leslie, who has done research on Mary Brooks Picken and the Women’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences, which offered correspondence courses in dressmaking and sewing starting in the late 1910s.

For more information, visit Historic Costume & Textiles Collection.

The HCTC itself (unknown even to me, an ardent fashion fan, until my senior year at OSU) has roughly 12,000 holdings that include textiles, articles of clothing and accessories for men, women and children, period fashion magazines, fashion plates, commercial patterns, and swatch books from the mid-18th century to the 21st century. In short, the collection, which has existed in some form since 1927, is a fabulous artistic and scholarly resource for students, academics, and collectors.

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