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Sewing stories: unpicking the faith of girls past

06 October 2017

As the Fitzwilliam Museum displays samplers embroidered with devotional texts, Katie Stock explores the craft’s heritage and recent resurgence


“Stitched CV”: Mary Ann Tipper’s sampler (1868)

“Stitched CV”: Mary Ann Tipper’s sampler (1868)

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.


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