After years of teaching, she now lends textile talents to BECHS

Grace Keir of Mankato holds a couple crosses made with an English paper piecing technique. Photo by Carlienne Frisch

From writing detailed descriptions of vintage purses and shoes for the local historical society to making aprons from old table runners, Grace Keir, 81,  has kept busy since retiring 19 years ago from teaching about textiles at Minnesota State University, Mankato (MSUM). She comes by her needlework talents naturally, even though she didn’t learn to sew at home while growing up on a northeastern Iowa farm.

“My mother sewed my clothes using flour sacks and feed sacks, which was typical of the clothing of the girls in my class,” Grace said. “She also sewed her own clothing, but did not teach me to sew. I learned to sew in 4-H and in home economics classes in high school. I really liked my home economics teacher, and when she went into county extension work, that’s what I decided I wanted to do for my career.”

Grace attended Iowa State University in Ames, paying tuition of $99 per quarter, working summers on the family farm and sewing her college wardrobe. She majored in textiles and clothing, but also studied other home economics subjects, such as food and nutrition, housing and interior design, and child development. She enjoyed making her own patterns based on body measurements, including tailored jackets for women and men, and learning about historic textiles and costumes–knowledge that has been valuable in her volunteer work for the Blue Earth County Historical Society in Mankato.   

After receiving her Bachelor of Science degree in 1960, Grace worked for the Extension Service in Butler County, Iowa, teaching family financial planning, training 4-H leaders, planning and supervising 4-H camps and helping clubs prepare for county fairs and the state fair. The work often involved five nights of meetings each week. Seeking change after three years, Grace began working on a Master’s degree at Iowa State University.

Grace’s work exhibited in the BECHS shop, these small quilts and apron were made from Civil War era reproduction fabrics.
Photo by Carlienne Frisch

“I didn’t like the advisor for textiles and clothing,” Grace said, “so I switched to home economics education, with an emphasis in adult education.” Before completing her Master’s degree, Grace taught at Waukon (Iowa) High School, where she met her future husband, Richard, who taught English. They were married four years later and moved about a bit, which gave Grace the opportunity to gain experience working in fabric stores. Both of the Keirs completed their Master’s degrees and held teaching jobs, eventually landing in Mankato in 1982, where Grace became a professor at MSUM.

“I taught clothing construction, tailoring, flat pattern making and historic costumes,” Grace said. She took time out to earn a Ph.D. degree from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in 1986, returning to teach at MSUM until she retired in 2000.

“Then I became involved with Blue Earth County Historical Society, which had a collection of shoes from the past,” Grace said. “Having studied historical clothing, I sorted the shoe collection, adding information to the accession sheets for the storage process. What I’ve been doing ever since is revising and improving the accession sheets — some didn’t have dates. I love it, and I always look forward to going there.”

Grace also has worked with BECHS’ collection of hats. She said, “I’ve done all of the hats, some called bonnets — more than 300. The oldest is from 1860. We do it by decades; some of the hats didn’t have dates. I’m now working on purses, including wallets and coin purses.”

Although Grace’s experience provides her with knowing how to date an artifact, she also uses online resources or Sears catalogs, either vintage or reproduced. She said, “I have a lot of books, including my original textbooks for historical clothing.” She also looks up the obituary of the person whose clothing it supposedly was to make sure he or she was alive when that style of clothing was worn.

“The person donating the clothing, perhaps a grandchild, may not know the years the item was worn,” she said. “All items in the collection must have been worn or used in Blue Earth County.”

For Grace, cataloging the clothing items is not only a labor of love, but also an opportunity to revel in the accessories of bygone eras.

“When I did the hats, it was like Christmas every day–all of those boxes,” she said. “The purses, too, are all different. There are a number of beaded bags from the 1920s, all with different beading. The petticoats from the early 1900s were not as exciting unless they had unusual needlework on them.”

Grace also examines undated photographs at BECHS. In estimating the year a photo was taken, she looks at the person wearing the most modern clothing. She explained that some of the people in the photo, usually older generations, would not have been wearing the latest style of clothing.

Grace enjoys the camaraderie of volunteering at BECHS, working alongside other volunteers and the staff.

“It’s a fun place to work,” she said. “When they showed me all of the textiles in the collection 19 years ago, I said, ‘This looks like a 20-year job.’ But I may have to re-do the shoes because we didn’t do all of the details, like looking up obits, when we started.”

Grace Keir holds a blue apron with vintage armchair cover décor. Photo by Carlienne Frisch

Grace’s other service to BECHS is making and donating one-of-a-kind aprons and small quilts to the historical society’s shop. For the aprons, she uses vintage linen from the unstained sections of table runners, combined with reproduction fabrics (patterns of the 1930s and 1940s). Vintage doilies complete the apron by serving as pockets.

“I saw the idea of using vintage linen for aprons and used our family’s table runner,” Grace said. “Now I pick up old table runners at thrift stores and keep a box of vintage linens. I can make two aprons out of one table runner. It takes maybe three hours to make one apron.”

Grace also collects vintage accessories as well as vintage aprons, which she has used in doing presentations–such as one called “From Pockets to Purses.”  She has bid on vintage purses at auctions and once bought a box of beaded bags and long gloves, some originally sold by Marshall Fields in Chicago.

Another of Grace’s interests is quilt making, which is why she joined Deep Valley Quilters about 25 years ago. Other than making three bed quilts, she has focused on making smaller quilts. She keeps a selection of small quilts in acid-free boxes to provide variety in decorating her home. She recently began to learn a quilting technique that uses English paper piercing.

“It began in the 1700s in England,” Grace said. “The cloth is sewn around a folded paper, and the paper is then removed. In the past, they kept the paper in for insulation.”

Grace continues to be interested in anything textile related. She has done crocheting, knitting and embroidery, but has shied away from the Norwegian folk craft of hardanger. She said, “I tried it, but it’s too time consuming. I like smaller projects, and they take less room to store.” Her collection of small quilts, aprons and vintage fashion accessories continues to grow.