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Sewn in America

If you are planning a trip to our nation’s capital, why not make time for a a sewing-related excursion? At the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Museum in Washington, D.C., you can explore the fascinating exhibition Sewn in America: Making — Meaning — Memory.

DAR Museum Sewn in America exhibit
From left: silk thread on wooden spools, 1850-1900; thimble, 1794-1815, silver, gift of Mrs. James McNab, 751; needles, late 19th century, and needle case, 1790-1850, steel, gift of Mrs. George and Miss Jane Eaton, 3596.9 and 3596.11; bodkin, 1780-1800, silver, gift of Minnie Bigelow, 1890; beeswax holder, 1850-1870, silver and beeswax, gift of Mrs. Paul Reistrup, 84.6.11; emery, 1850-1900, cotton, gift of Mrs. George and Miss Jane Eaton, 3596.11; awl, 19th century, bone, 92.243; pin cushion, 1797, silk, gift of Carrie Nutting Stone, 7319; pins, 1780-1820, steel, gift of Mrs. J. W. Clark, 47.49; scissors, 1780-1920, iron and steel, gift of Ella F. Sheperd, 6708; embroidery scissors, 1880-1899, silver and steel, gift of Frances Peters, 92.128.7; tape measure, 1850-1870, silver and silk, gift of Mrs. Paul Reistrup, 84.6.13, all from the DAR Museum.

Discover the History of Sewing

Sewn in America takes visitors on a journey through the history of the craft, from the mid to late 1700s to contemporary times. The exhibit features a diverse collection of historical garments, textiles, sewing tools, and personal narratives. You’ll learn how sewing has shaped American women’s lives, influenced gender roles, and played a part in professions ranging from dressmaking and tailoring to factory work.

Antique hand-sewn white garments hanging on a washline with a wicker washbasket nearby, part of the Sewn in America exhibit
From left: cotton night cap, 1840s, DAR Museum, 2000.10.1; corded cotton petticoat, 1820–1835, DAR Museum 2005.49; embroidered linen pocket, 1750–1790, gift of Abbie S. Sargent, DAR Museum 2423.2; linen shift, 1795–1815, Connecticut, gift of Lucy Bishop Minor, DAR Museum 46.16; cotton stockings, 1820s, gift of Grace Rheinstrom, 3231.A&B; embroidered cotton apron, 1914, Indiana, DAR Museum 97.43; cotton twill drawers, 1840s, gift of the University of Maryland, DAR Museum 2014.21.30.

By displaying garments, quilts, and embroideries from the 18th century to today, the exhibition highlights how women from different backgrounds have used sewing to express emotions, identity, and as a force for benevolence and justice. The items showcase craftsmanship and artistic expression, and they demonstrate the practical necessity and creative outlet sewing provided then—and still does today!

Silk dress from 1853, one of the items at the Sewn in America exhibit
Silk dress made by Rebecca Cram, 1853, for Sarah Ann Gault, Pembroke, New Hampshire, silk with cotton lining and wadding, steel boning, Gift of Augusta Rand, DAR Museum 3213.

Exhibit Highlights

The exhibition is divided into three sections, each offering a unique perspective on the world of sewing.

Mastering the skills: This section explores the generational transmission of sewing skills. In the 18th and 19th centuries, sewing was a crucial part of women’s education, with girls learning by creating items like doll clothes and samplers. You’ll see how these early lessons laid the foundation for a lifetime of sewing.

Exhibition curator Alden O’Brien explains that sewing was a constant in women’s lives during this period. “Every woman knew how to sew,” she says in a recorded discussion of the exhibit. “It was as important as the ABCs.” She explains that hand sewing was an almost never-ending task, as women were responsible for making the household’s linens from bedsheets to towels. Plus, every family member’s clothing, including underwear, needed to be hand sewn and mended repeatedly, as they were not purchased.

Making: Discover the evolution of sewing techniques and technologies. This part of the exhibition illustrates the progression from sewing most family clothing by hand to the modern era of sewing by machine and with the help of commercial patterns. You’ll gain insight into how technological advances transformed sewing from a labor-intensive necessity to an accessible and efficient activity.

Meanings: Delve into the symbolism and cultural significance of sewing. This section examines how sewing has been used to convey personal and collective identities. For example, a quilt made by a Hawaiian woman might feature traditional motifs that reflect her heritage. You’ll see how sewing projects have served as a medium for storytelling, heritage preservation, and social commentary.

Ke Kahi O Ka’iulani, 1920s, yellow and white Hawaiian quilt at the DAR Museum
Ke Kahi O Ka’iulani, 1920s, DAR Museum 2023.6

Celebrating Creativity and Resilience

Sewn in America pays tribute to the contributions of women and various communities to the sewing tradition, celebrating their creativity and resilience. The exhibition connects historical practices to contemporary trends, demonstrating the ongoing relevance and transformation of sewing in modern culture.

"Vote" mitten and "pussy hat"
“Vote” mittens, 2020, wool, lent by Jennifer O’Brien; “pussy hat,” 2017, worn in Washington, D.C., acrylic, made by Stephanie Szurek, lent by Sarah Kirspel.

The exhibition features more than 100 objects, including those shown in the images above and below, as well as men’s clothing, quilts through the centuries, reception dresses, cotton night caps, housewares, and sewing tools.

Hand-sewn linen suit and embroidered family record at the DAR Museum
Skeleton suit, 1822, linen suit with brass buttons, DAR Museum 91.269.1; family record, linen embroidered with silk thread, DAR Museum 91.269.2

Interactive Activities

If you’re looking for a hands-on activity, you’re in luck. The interactive portion of the exhibition enables you to make your own sampler bookmark. The museum offers a rectangle of perforated paper with embroidery thread on tapestry needles for the dexterous—and some plastic gridded squares, along with larger needles, and yarn for those who’d like an easier way to make the bookmark. All exhibition visitors are welcome to make one.

In addition to this activity, the DAR Museum offers programs on Saturdays where educators help visitors make those sampler bookmarks. Additional craft opportunities happen throughout the year, so be sure to check their web site before your visit. You don’t want to miss a thing!

Girl sitting at a table before a prepared embroidery hoop, and threading a needle.

Plan Your Visit

The DAR Museum’s Sewn in America exhibition is on view now through December 31, 2024. For more information and to plan your visit, check out the DAR Museum’s website. Don’t miss this chance to immerse yourself in the world of sewing and discover how this timeless craft has shaped and reflected American society.

Also be sure to check out curator O’Brien’s formal presentation of the exhibit at noon August 13, 2024, in person at the DAR Museum or online. For more information and to register, go to the DAR Calendar of Events.


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