THE hidden histories of girls and young women are being revealed in a display of their needlework at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, which has collated more than 120 intricately embroidered samplers — some dating from the 17th century.
The collection, “Sampled Lives”, contains many pieces that are rarely viewed, owing to their sensitivity to light. Others have been newly conserved and cleaned for the show. Samplers are a significant way to understand the lives of ordinary young women: their religious and political contexts and lived experience.
Why did young girls embroider samplers? What do the sewn images and texts tell us about their maker? And how might we continue to use embroidery to display Bible verses in the home?
TODAY, embroidery is predominantly produced for pleasure rather than necessity, but, for centuries, needlework was a core element of any young woman’s education. This was particularly so for girls from poorer families, where the skill of embroidery offered future employment opportunities.
The Fitzwilliam Museum’s exhibition shows work by girls as young as nine. One piece in the collection was sewn by 16-year-old Mary Ann Tipper. Mary was born in 1852 into a working-class family. By the time she reached her tenth birthday, both of her parents had died, leaving her an orphan. Because no one was willing or able to care for her, she was housed at Ashley Down, one of many orphan houses in Bristol. It was there that she, along with the other girls in the house, learnt to sew.
For those young women, such as Mary, the sampler was an essential part of their education. A competence with needle and thread was a core skill for many jobs, and offered otherwise unreachable opportunities for girls from deprived backgrounds. More than just a sign of her ability to sew, a well-crafted sampler was a stitched CV, shown to prospective employers to demonstrate competence in sewing, labelling, and mending personal and household linen.
The absence of a social welfare system meant that poverty was the likely outcome for orphaned girls. The skill of embroidery gave them a chance to earn a living and avoid the workhouse.
FITZWILLIAM MUSEUMMoral pledge: Hetty Grigg’s sampler (1761)
AS YOU walk through the Cambridge exhibition, the development of embroidery samplers can be clearly seen. The early pieces tend to be oblong in shape, and served as an aide-memoire for their creator. They contain a selection of text, images, and borders arranged in bands. Their rectangular shape meant that, once completed, they could be rolled up and stored in the young woman’s workbox to be used as reference when she needed reminding of a particular formation.
The later pieces become closer to square in shape, and were often produced in a schoolroom setting for display in a classroom or in the home. This led to an increasingly picture-like design. Where, before, the text had served as a reminder of a lettering style, the later samplers contained longer texts, to be read by the viewer.
Although they often contained Christian texts — most commonly from the book of Proverbs, or Isaac Watt’s Hymns for Children — their main purpose was not devotional. As the exhibition’s curator, Carol Humphrey, explains, they were essentially a schoolroom exercise to prove that a girl had “clean hands, could sit still, do basic stitching, and [was] able to do some decorative embroidery and stitch-worthy words”.
The identity of the educators, schoolmistresses, and governesses who taught this craft is unclear, but Mrs Humphrey believes that close inspection of the samplers can reveal the political and religious context in which they were sewn.
THE English Civil War produced evidence of political allegiance in young girls’ embroidery. One example is the depiction of the Boscobel oak, signifying that the creator was from a Royalist family. The image of the oak refers to the place of refuge sought by Charles II after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The King hid in the boughs of the tree while Cromwell’s troops scoured the surrounding woodland.
An example of a design influenced by the religious faith of a girl’s family is found in a sampler made by Hetty Grigg, born in Havant, Hampshire, in 1761. Its framing border and symmetrical pictorial content is a common layout for 18th-century samplers. The piece bears the text: “I’ll be sincere upright and true, at home at school and elsewhere too.” Making no religious reference, this contrasts with previous samplers that focused on biblical texts, sin, and the proximity of death.
FITZWILLIAM MUSEUMA stitch in time: Susanna Gellett’s sampler (1800)Although she cannot be sure, Mrs Humphrey believes that this change in emphasis may reflect changing attitudes to the upbringing of children: moving away from inculcating fear to a more positive attitude to life. Another influence may have been Hetty’s faith as an Anglican — as opposed to a Nonconformist — communicant, which may have meant that she was raised with a less severe image of God.
THE Industrial Revolution meant that needlework, like many other crafts, such as lacemaking, became largely mass-produced by machinery. This took away the relevance of the craft for women’s employment, and diminished its importance in the education of girls. Today, embroidery and needlework are not compulsory subjects in schools, and will often be taught only in optional textile classes.
Although churches contain many examples of embroidery, from vestments (often commissioned from women’s religious communities founded in the 19th century), altar frontals, alms bags, pulpit falls, and banners (parish, Mothers’ Union, Sunday-school, and so on), to decorative hassocks, for which there was at one time a craze, most of their creators belonged to generations who had been taught needlework at school. So, will the skill of embroidery and needlework, with its production of samplers, be lost?
The chief executive of the Royal School of Needlework, Dr Susan Kay-Williams, suggests not: “Embroidery is definitely back in
fashion. . . It is wonderful that the traditional skill of hand embroidery continues to be popular and appeals to new generations.”
The Royal School of Needlework offers courses that range from undergraduate level to day classes. “There is something for everyone, and at any level,” Dr Kay-Williams says. There has been an increase in demand for both the School’s classes and its exhibitions.
GRACE GATLEYTradition kept alive: a Grace Gratley creation, based on Isaiah 12.6HIS resurgence of a traditional skill has also permeated the Christian craft scene, as Grace Gatley, who runs her own business, Grace Gatley Textiles, testifies. As part of her business (sold at CheerfullyGiven.com), she produces intricate samplers that rework old pieces of linen and lace into new works of art. Each piece is finished with hand-embroidered text — either words from scripture or hymns — and then embellished with luxurious thread, often gold.
Ms Gatley describes her method as “prayerful and meditative”. Her pieces are produced for display in a domestic setting: “It’s so important to me to display scripture around my home so that I can be reminded daily of God’s love.”
Another young embroiderer who uses the historic craft as a part of her Christian faith is the founder of the Craftivist movement, Sarah Corbett (Features, 8 June).
The Craftivist movement, rather than protest, produces intricately decorated gifts for those whom Ms Corbett describes as “power-holders”. Craftivists send embroidered handkerchiefs to MPs, and letters in delicately sewn cloth envelopes to directors of corporations.
FITZWILLIAM MUSEUMA stitch in time: Sophia Ellis’s sampler (1785)Ms Corbett explains that her Christian approach is different from the usual meditative use of embroidery. “I encourage other people to use craft to engage in social change rather than prayer.” But producing the gifts involves a sort of meditation.
Many enjoy the repetitive nature of stitching, and use it to escape from the world and its concerns; when Sarah is sewing something for a power-holder, she will consider the difficulty of that person’s job, and why he or she is doing harmful actions. “I will be thinking: what would Jesus do in this moment?”
It could be said that, as the study and practice of embroidery moved from the sphere of education into the sphere of leisure, space was created for the craft to be approached from a devotional perspective. As the Royal School of Needlework has found, the absence of enforced teaching has breathed new life into the community of needleworkers in the UK.
In turn, among Christians this historic skill has found fresh expression in campaigning for social justice and adorning the home with scriptural truths.
”Sample Lives: Samplers from the Fitzwilliam Museum” runs until Sunday 8 April 2018, at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Entrance is free.