Exhibit opens grandma's sewing basket

(Edmonton) Students who want to learn about the magic of textiles and fashion, but can’t sew a stitch, will get a nip-and-tuck history lesson when they start classes at the University of Alberta this spring and fall.

A new U of A exhibit is opening up grandma’s sewing box to pay tribute to the sometimes quirky yet ingenious ways that seamstresses of the past did their intricate work.

“Tools of the Trade,” which opened May 10 and runs until January of 2012 in the main floor inner lobby of the Human Ecology building, features artifacts from the U of A’s clothing and textiles collection, the private collections of faculty members and the Royal Alberta Museum.

Students enrolled in the Department of Human Ecology’s clothing and textiles programs take a second-year course in apparel design and construction, and for some of them it is the first serious hands-on encounter they have with needles, thread and patterns. The exhibit will reinforce their connection to the craft of sewing and pass along a sense of traditions being upheld, said Vlada Blinova, course lecturer and manager of the University of Alberta Clothing and Textiles Collection.

“It’s important to introduce students to these tools and how they were used in the past,” Blinova said. “It helps them build an understanding of the skill and techniques needed to sew.”

The exhibit boasts about 50 artifacts dating as far back as the 18th century, including antique sewing machines, some of them child-sized. On loan from the Royal Alberta Museum, the machines are pint-sized cousins of the everyday versions used by women in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Their daughters, as young as four or five, learned to sew alongside them, with the little machines doubling as toys and learning tools.

Knowing how to sew was a crucial skill for women, who, when wed, were expected to clothe their families and decorate their homes using needle, thread and their own creativity. The exhibit represents a female rite of passage, Blinova said.

“It was important for a woman to be ready for her adult life, to sew and take care of her family. And the earlier they started to learn, the better their skills were by the time they were ready to get married.” The oldest artifact in the exhibit, a sampler completed by an 11-year-old girl in 1736, shows the level of reached by a tender age. “You can see the high quality of craftsmanship at such a young age.”

“Tools of the Trade” also boasts an oddball assortment of sewing tools, including a crimping iron, heated with a metal block and perfect for creating bits of pleated frou-frou on a frock. Tailor’s soap from turn-of-the-century England, used to mark cloth for cutting, is also shown, and was the forerunner to the dressmaker’s chalk used today.

The exhibit features pedestrian items like pin cushions and hot sadirons of all sizes, which were used to smooth the most delicate lace and hard-to-reach corners. But alongside those artifacts are personal, well-worn items like sewing boxes, a wire mesh dress form and a thimble collection. Vibrant gown illustrations from an early 19th century collection of fashion plates also opens a window to the hottest patterns of the day, to which any well-tailored woman would have aspired.

Robyn Stobbs, a fourth-year human ecology student majoring in clothing and textiles, feels the connection with the sewing tools that were used more than 100 years ago, even though she’ll never likely use them herself.

“I always like to see the history behind what I am doing.”

“Tools of the Trade” is open to the public Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.