In a world where every stitch is perfected by a machine, it's easy to look at the Historic Costume and Textiles Collection exhibit at OSU and think, "What a bunch of pretty dresses."

In a world where every stitch is perfected by a machine, it's easy to look at the Historic Costume and Textiles Collection exhibit at OSU and think, "What a bunch of pretty dresses."

Or maybe, "Where can I get one of those?"

Or even, "So what?"

That's because our eyes aren't trained to see the handiwork, to imagine the effort that went into crafting a buttonhole or stitching a hem.

Although the exhibit's 40 or so mannequins are what attracts the eye, it's the fabric swatches, sketches, pattern books and gallery guide that give context and value to this exhibit.

The Sewer's Art: Quality, Fashion and Economy shows off three women's personal, handmade collections from the mid-1900s, at a time when women had few shopping choices and patterns were plenty.

But, as curator Gayle Strege points out, the collection of formal gowns and skirt-suits don't look like an amateur art project.

It's something she thinks people could take a lesson from.

"It's interesting because there are a lot of younger girls now - because there are no home-ec classes in a lot of the high schools and their mothers don't sew - who don't know how to sew," Strege said. "And they want to get sewing machines and create and produce their own things."

Not only did 1949 OSU grad Susan Hunter Beall make her own clothes, she kept the pieces for decades and updated necklines and skirt lengths to keep with the times.

Beall donated her work to the museum about 10 years ago, along with fabric swatches, mock-ups in muslin and photos of her wearing everything - including her wedding dress.

The Historic Costume and Textiles Collection contains about 11,500 men's, women's and children's clothing pieces and accessories that date to the 1750s, most from couture designers or donated by well-known owners.

The staff shows off the collection in about four exhibits each year in Campbell Hall's Geraldine Schottenstein Wing, where a split-level public gallery space opened in 1996. Items are also available to researchers by appointment.

"We're a pretty well-kept secret," Strege said, laughing, "although we don't try to be secret."