Tailored to Teach: Highlights from the Irma Bowen Textile Collection

women sewing in class

Miss Irma Bowen in class, ca. 1922

March 31 - December 8, 2000
Dale Valena, Museum Curator
Astrida Schaeffer, Guest Curator

View the Irma G. Bowen Historic Clothing Collection in our Digital Collections.

Tailored to Teach is the first major exhibition of the Irma Bowen Textile Collection, which was first gathered by Ms. Bowen under the auspices of the Home Economics Department beginning in the 1920s. Over 600 clothes and accessories were donated to the collection by Durham residents and the friends and colleagues of Ms. Bowen. She used them as teaching tools in her classes, both to demonstrate fashion history and to provide hands-on examples of sewing techniques. Now part of the University Museum, the collection has come out of storage to resume its original role — albeit no longer hands-on — as a teaching tool, with highlights selected as prime examples of the craft.

blue-and-white-striped gown

This blue-and-white-striped gown made of homespun flax (linen) was a gift of the Coe Family of Durham and is attributed to Temperence Knight Pickering (1732-1823), whose husband owned and operated Knight’s Ferry, which ran from Dover to Newington, New Hampshire.

“The gown was probably worn over a petticoat. Darned areas just below the high waistline suggest that the wearer pinned an apron over the gown. Multiple patches suggest this dress saw a lot of wear.” (Linda Welters, Newsletter, Costume Society of America, Region 1). Ironically, it is the common nature of this gown that makes it so rare. Everyday clothing such as this was often used, mended, and re-used beyond recognition. That this ordinary gown was somehow spared from the rag-bag makes it truly unique.

Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich '80G, from Harvard University used the gown to exemplify homespun textiles in a history class, and during a recent textile symposium at UNH, scholars were excited to see this rare example of everyday wear. A photo of the gown illustrates the section on homespun clothing in the three-volume, Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005).