A stitch in time: Research looks at old samplers in new ways

Seminal research in samplers published by notable sampler historians focused on documenting the genealogy of the sampler maker, describing the appearance of the sampler, recording the ground fabric and kinds of threads used, and attributing the work to particular schools.

Current research has built on this tradition, but has introduced a new paradigm to the study of samplers.

Contemporary scholars place the sampler in its historical context in efforts to understand the culture in which the stitcher lived. A sampler is now viewed not just as the product of a stitcher’s hand, but as a document that reflects a particular region, culture, economy, and society.

Not only are samplers the testimony of female (and sometimes male) achievement, they are keys to understanding history. Many now understand that samplers are significant documents that reveal much about the lives and times of those who produced them, taught them and paid for them. This growing understanding has fueled the appreciation of samplers in historic and monetary value.

Over the past few years, many individuals and organizations have been exploring this new direction in sampler research. Within the past few years, august institutions such as the Peabody Essex, the Museum of Fine Arts, Winterthur and Colonial Williamsburg have mounted exhibits of their collections. Regional museums, such as the Charleston Museum and Historic Deerfield, also have held exhibitions. Symposia and lectures have been held in conjunction with them or independently of exhibits.

The most notable symposium occurred Sept. 8-11 at Historic Deerfield, in conjunction with the exhibit In Search of Origins: Needlework & Samplers from the Old & New Worlds 1500-1870. Curator of textiles Edward Maeder brought together 16 curators and scholars from the United States, Canada, England and Europe to present their findings in four event-filled days. Some 160 attendees attended lectures and workshops on a wide range of topics: education, printing, religion, history, immigration, race, economics, business, geography, horticulture and fashion.

This article provides some highlights on new directions in current research on antique samplers and needlework.

Education and needlework

For years, scholars have studied the connection between girls’ education and needlework. Such work has frequently focused on attributing a sampler or group of samplers to a particular school or teacher. Currently, researchers are studying the debates over girls’ education and applying it to the stitching of samplers. Mary Brooks, senior lecturer at the Textile Conservation Center at the University of Southampton in Winchester, England, is examining the debate over the usefulness of needlework in girls’ education in the 17th century. In his 1640 poem that prefaced his The Needles Excellency, a book full of patterns for needlework, John Taylor extolled needlework, writing:

And for my Countries quite, I should like
That Women-kinds should use no other Pike.
It will increase their peace, enlarge their store,
To use their tongues lesse, and their Needles more,
The Needles sharpnesse, profit yields, and pleasure.

Taylor felt that idleness tempted industry and wisdom, and he promoted needlework as a virtuous way for a woman to occupy her time.

Printers increasingly published books of manners, in which writers delineated what it meant to be educated, virtuous, industrious and polite. Hannah Wolley wrote several books on manners and on managing the household in the 1660s and 1670s. Having worked as a servant, Wolley could well praise the usefulness of learning needlework. She even advised women not to break their needles in order to get out of work.

Eventually, some came to feel that needlework was an unsuitable diversion, for it detracted from important responsibilities, such as managing the household. Others argued that girls needed to occupy their minds with more important matters than ornamental stitching. Margaret Cavendish pointed out the difference between boys’ and girls’ education. She argued that girls should take up the pen rather than the needle. John Whitlock wanted to raise the quality of women’s education and proposed purging the curriculum of needlework. He felt that educators put a needle in a girl’s hand way too soon.

Mary Brooks’ research shows how interest in women’s education began to evolve and how needlework reflected the evolution in thinking. The shift to more academic subjects would be one factor in the demise of sampler-making in the 19th century.

Map samplers and embroidered globes

Map samplers have been receiving an increasing amount of attention. The Osher Map Library at the University of Southern Maine will mount an exhibit Women’s Mappings in 2006-2007, and the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City has just published the catalog “Mapped and Charted.”

Cartographer Judith Tyner, professor emeritus of geography at California State University at Long Beach, has been studying map and globe samplers and their role in education. She has traced trends and has looked into the relationship between printed maps and samplers. Extant map samplers stitched in the United States are quite rare; Tyner has documented some 50 samplers.

Beginning in the late 18th century, educators began establishing female academies. They decreased the emphasis on accomplishments and developed new teaching methods. They introduced educational manipulatives, from card games featuring states and capitals, to board games based on travel, to jigsaw puzzles of maps. Tyner’s research leads her to conclude that teachers from England brought the map sampler tradition with them when immigrating to the Americas.

The earliest American-stitched map samplers date from the 1770s and were traced by hand from a printed source. Generally, references for map samplers come from paper patterns distributed by publishers of maps and from patterns in magazines such as Ladies’ Magazine. But Tyner feels that the map sampler stitched by Ann Brown must have been traced from the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

Tyner sorts map samplers into two groups: those stitched by Quakers in Pleasant Valley near Poughkeepsie, at Westtown in Pennsylvania, and at an unidentified school in Baltimore, and those that are not stitched by Quakers. Quakers shunned ornamentation, so their maps are plain with a simple cartouche outlined with a vine and a bow. Map samplers stitched by girls not attending Quaker schools are far more ornate, sporting heavy floral borders and sometimes a fancy title cartouche. Tyner feels that these girls were more interested in stitching the border than stitching the map itself.

The rarest of the samplers focusing on geography are the famous Westtown globes. Westtown students did not stitch map samplers; instead, they — boys and girls alike — made elegant paper maps, learned surveying and mapped the school grounds.

Students did, however, learn geography by studying globes. Globes were imported from England at great expense. The first handmade globes were crafted in 1808 out of molded papier mache, with an engraved drawing of a map pasted on. John Wilson first started selling globes in 1811. Tyner believes that the Westtown teachers were looking for a less expensive globe and consequently created globes out of fabric. Teachers and students either inked or stitched maps on the fabric. Then they stuffed the globes with the wool of sheep raised at Westtown. Some girls made a pair of globes — one celestial and one terrestrial.

Tyner has not uncovered a definitive reason for the interest in embroidered maps and globes in the early 19th century. Was the stitching of local maps necessary to impress future husbands about the intelligence of the embroiderer? Did stitching national map samplers encourage schoolgirls to become responsible federalists? With global trade becoming easier, faster and more financially rewarding than ever before, were parents demanding their children be taught geography in a tactile way? Did these globes encourage girls to become consumers of foreign products, thereby creating firm markets for imported goods?

Source material for creating samplers

In the 1940s, Nancy Cabot published several articles linking images in pictorial samplers to engravings. Independent scholar Davita Deutsch has built on this research to show how social norms demanded girls study the visual arts and learn how to transfer patterns for stitching. In the 18th century, to become accomplished embroiderers, girls had to learn how to draw. This requirement was “drilled into them” through advertisements, drawings, prints, books and tracts.

Two markets sprang up: one for materials that facilitated the transfer of patterns and another for the images themselves.

• How-to books, such as The Lady’s Drawing Book, were readily available to teach schoolgirls and women how to draw so that they could transfer patterns. By the 1770s, magazines became sources for patterns.

• Prints became an eagerly sought commodity as teachers developed a bank of references for their students to copy. One man collected some 14,000 works for his students. Deutsch will explore the trend of copying images onto fabric in her forthcoming book, The Polite Lady.

Religious imagery in New York samplers

Researchers also have begun rethinking the role religious imagery and motifs play in samplers. It is clear that a good deal of religious iconography in samplers is the direct result of teaching certain moral standards or of passing on a particular religious tradition. However, these religious images tell us something more about the community of the stitchers.

Biblical samplers stitched in New York City from the mid-18th through the early 19th centuries, for example, reveal a different dynamic at work. Amelia Peck, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, observes that these samplers were stitched by girls of various nationalities: French, German and Dutch, among others. Peck dismisses notions that the girls stitched biblical samplers in accordance to their own national tradition. France, for example, did not have a sampler-making tradition at the time. And similar motifs and images span the nationalities of the girls who stitched them. In New York, nationality cannot account for the similarity between samplers. These girls all had a Protestant background, but more importantly, these girls all belonged to the same social class. Many of them were the daughters of the merchant elite. The print references they used in their samplers were commonly known by people of the same class.

Furthermore, these images worked on different levels of meaning at different times. At an earlier time, these biblical samplers may well have been intended as lessons in morality, but over time, this emphasis changed. In addition to the religious message they bore, these images also reflected the experiences shared by the merchant class. Noah’s covenant with God after the flood was near and dear to those immigrating to New York. The accounts of Jacob’s ladder and the spies of Canaan have a similar significance — they hail the Promise Land and the potential to reap great rewards. Eventually, these become fashionable images to stitch, as stitchers mixed them with pastoral and romantic images.

What became important to the families of these New York stitchers was a shared experience, not of religious upbringing or national pride, but of business and commerce. These families did not feel that it was important to stay within a particular ethnic group; what was important was to marry into similar or better wealth.

Consumerism and samplers

British scholar Edwina Erhman has focused her research on the now famous Judith Hayle school. Hayle taught needlework in Ipswich, England, during the late-17th and early 18th century. In tracing sources for the motifs and patterns in the Hayle samplers, Erhman has found Dutch elements. The motif for the stitching cushion, for example, was imported into England directly from Holland. To date, no references to stitching cushions have been found in either in 17th-century English paintings or print. Stitching cushions did not exist in England.

Ipswich was a productive port at the time and heavily engaged in trade with Holland. Trade was indeed booming. Some of Hayle’s students were daughters of merchants and sea captains and would have had a direct link to imported goods, such as Dutch textiles or pattern records. Erhman’s work reveals the strong relationship between trade, commerce and sampler-making.
Similar connections between samplers and consumerism can be found in America. Over time, samplers in America increasingly demonstrated a girl’s knowledge of consumer goods, and consequently, of her refinement. Independent curator Kathy Staples has credited consumerism with the appearance of the home and large flowers on samplers.

In the early 18th century, houses were simply constructed. But by 1750, houses were being upgraded: Home owners added clapboards to log homes and painted the boards. The earliest recorded sampler with a house on it is dated 1776. The upgrades to homes continued, and soon it became fashionable to stitch a stately house on a sampler.

When comparing the samplers to the building construction of the day, Staples finds that girls stitched architectural elements correctly. Staples asserts that embroidering an upgraded house, or an elegant home, and especially one enclosed by a fence, is a statement about the refinement of the stitcher’s family and sets that family apart from other families.

In similar fashion, Americans became interested in gardening. Nurseries sprang up in Philadelphia and elsewhere. In 1780, Charlestonians began to hybridize roses, developing plants that produced large, showy blooms. Shortly thereafter, these blooms began to appear on samplers. The publication of The American Gardener’s Calendar in 1806 helped fuel the popularity of stitching flowers on samplers.

As cities such as Charleston became wealthier and trade flourished, people built more elaborate homes, cultivated their surroundings, and acquired fashionable goods. Schoolgirls followed suit and included these elements of refinement in their stitching. These social, cultural and commercial forces made the sampler more than just a diploma of a girl’s education; an elaborate sampler became a statement of her refinement.

Embroidery in the 19th and 20th century

As new materials, and particularly those that led to Berlin woolwork, became available in the 19th century, embroiderers turned from samplers to more modern forms of embroidery that became increasingly more fashionable.

The Colonial Revival brought back older forms of embroidery such as samplers and crewel work. The centennial celebrations and world exhibitions of the late 19th century rekindled an admiration for Colonial and early American embroidery. This movement continued into the early 20th century. Women adapted elements of Colonial needlework into their embroidery.

The Blue and White Society of Deerfield re-energized crewel work. The founders created designs, experimented with dyes, and enabled a number of women to profit from their stitching. The Society has been hailed as something of “an experiment in social economics.” The founders felt that handwork and brainwork deserved equal pay. These women brought needlework new respect. Their designs commanded high prices, and one newspaper article listed buyers as the “wives of millionaires.”

Past focus on Blue and White Society creations has centered on its crewel production. Recently, Suzanne Flynt, curator of Memorial Hall Museum at Deerfield, has brought to light several wall hangings that have an Art Deco flavor or a Japanese influence. These pieces are extremely rare and difficult to find, but have an unquestionable beauty and style all their own, related to, but different from the Blue and White work currently known.

Paula Richter, curator of Textiles at the Peabody Essex Museum, has been studying embroidery created during the Colonial Revival and, in particular, the work of Mary Saltonstall Parker. Parker used sampler-style motifs in a sampler-like composition to commemorate special events, such as her sons’ enlistment in the armed forces during World War I. Judith Tyner also notes that in modern times, the stitching of maps has evolved into commemoratives of Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight or maps of the United States that include state flowers in compartmentalized borders.

Samplers had a different function in the early 20th century: Adult women stitched samplers for various reasons — to express themselves, to record events and to create gifts. Whereas some Colonial and early American samplers were influenced by consumerism — and certainly 20th-century samplers were as well — 20th-century samplers also inspired advertising campaigns and packaging. Major manufacturers recognized the popularity of sampler-making, and marketers for businesses such as Ford Motor Co. appropriated representations of sampler-making in their advertising. Samplers inspired the design of the famous Whitman chocolate tin and boxes. Sampler designs also appeared on other decorative arts, especially ceramics and tinware.

Current research increasingly reveals the intricate connections of samplers to the society and culture in which they were created. These latest findings give greater insight into the work of schoolgirls and accomplished needlewomen. In many ways the work in the hand was guided not only by the teachers who educated these girls, but in subtle ways, by society at large.