How did sewing help hospital staffers who might have to deal with the Ebola crisis?

That's one of the questions you could get answered at "35 Years and Still Sewing Strong," an exhibit in the basement of the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis. The Hennepin Gallery display is presented by the local chapter of the American Sewing Guild (ASG) as it marks its 35-year anniversary, but it goes well beyond that, looking at how home sewing has changed over the past half-century or so.

For starters, there's a depiction of a typical sewing room of the 1960s, with a mechanical sewing machine in place, and there's also a present-day setup, featuring digital machines. While the early sewing room has pins and other old-fashioned paraphernalia, such as a swath of cotton, the modern one has newer kinds of materials.

"The beginning tableau is about how we learned to sew," said Mary Anderson, a former president of the Minneapolis/St. Paul ASG chapter who helped set up the exhibit, which runs through Aug. 27. "Everything was in a cabinet. You could close it all up. Now, everything is mostly on a bench with a movable chair."

Lori Clark of Stillwater, who began sewing in the 1950s and leads the group, said the norm now is to have multiple sewing machines, including an electronic machine. "The digital age has come even to sewing," she said.

Along with advances in equipment, a shift from natural to synthetic fibers "changed what you could sew. You could make T-shirts and swimwear out of the same kinds of fibers that ready-to-wear items were using," Clark said.

Sewing and society

Ultimately, in the exhibit, "we're trying to show the evolution of sewing over the last 60 years," Clark said. "It started out as a necessity, because people needed to save money, to make ends meet, and prolong the life of the items they had."

However, as time wore on, "changes took place in society, where sewing wasn't so necessary." For example, as more women entered the workforce, they had less time to sew, she said.

At one point, in the early 2000s, sewing appeared to be a dying art, but it has endured. "Our big message is that home sewing is alive and well," Clark said. "People are passionate about it."

And although few schools teach sewing today, the guild sees renewed interest in it among young people, something that's evident through the popularity of local workshops and the traffic at its State Fair stand.

Just within the local chapter itself, the range of sewing interests is "mind-boggling," Clark said.

Nearly 400 members-strong, the local ASG chapter brings together sewers of all abilities and skills.

"We have people who sew couture doll clothes, upholstery — I recently sewed a "heat housing cab" for a tractor," which helps make it operational on a cold winter day, Clark said.

"You really don't save money sewing today, but it's an opportunity for creative expression."

The exhibit reflects different eras in sewing, and features a wide variety of casual and formal clothes, quilts, costumes, swimsuits and coats, all produced by guild members through the years.

Among the highlights are a high school graduation dress from 1955, a couple of "Star Trek" shirts and an orange hand-woven jacket.

Some of Anderson's creations are also in the mix, including smocked sailor outfits, Stretch & Sew knit clothes from the early 1980s and a prom dress from the 1990s, all of which she made for her children.

The chapter organized a similar exhibit at the Hennepin Gallery in 2013, which showed off the guild's handiwork. This time around, "We wanted to tell a little bit of the story," Clark said. A portion of the exhibit, though, is dedicated to the guild's educational programs and community service.

For instance, guild members have made covers for tablets and e-readers; they've made bags and T-shirts, and they've sewn all kinds of items for charities, such as clothing for the homeless, hats and blankets for cancer patients and layette baby sets for needy children.

Last year, the group produced 30 Ebola hoods for the Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, Clark said.

The hospital needed to train hundreds of staffers on "how to put on and take off protective wear if treating an Ebola patient," she said.

So, it needed some sewn "mock-ups" of the actual kinds of protective wear within a short time, Clark explained.

"Who would think that people who sew just for the art and craft of it would be involved?" she said. "I'm proud of how the members come together when you ask them to."

More recently, the Bell Museum of Natural History got in touch with the group about making items for its Sensory-Friendly Saturdays programs, which are geared for children with autism and other sensory sensitivities. As one example, the group sewed curtains for its quiet spaces along with weighted lap pads, she said.

"Hopefully it gives people the idea that there's no limit to what we can do," Clark said.

And, some things might never go away: Recently, she got her mom's old treadle sewing machine up and working. "The mechanical machines last for generations," she said.

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.