I did not know that a beginner’s exercise in embroidery is called a sampler. So when Kathy Greensides says she’s got a 1787 sampler for her turn in our From the Vault series, I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. The only samplers I knew were manufactured by Griffins and came in a large box or tin.
I guessed that wasn’t what Kathy meant, unless the museum kept 223-year-old mouldy biscuits in the basement. My enlightenment was audible – like a clunky old bakelite switch – when I saw this embroidered treasure. Of course, it’s not strictly a sampler because whoever made it is hardly a beginner.
The sad thing is we know almost nothing about the needle wielder, the person who sewed the design into the fabric and created what is now a relic of history. Her name was A Rouse and Kathy is fairly sure she was an adult at the time of the sampler’s creation.
It is a map of England and Wales, depicting each shire in different coloured outlines and naming each one. Some grab your attention immediately. Liverpool – spelled Leverpool on the sampler – caught Kathy’s eye because that’s where she’s from. That’s one reason why she chose it.
“I actually sew,” she says. “I do embroidery and cross-stitch, so when I found it …”
The map also shows the coasts of Ireland and France as well as some of southern Scotland. The North Sea bears its original name of the German Ocean, a name that changed after early 20th century hostilities deemed anything German unacceptable in England.
Kathy tells me it is on linen, has a linen backing and looks like it was once framed. The colours are still quite vivid and the thread is silk.
Other places named on the sampler have a connection with Kathy and her family, like the Isle of Man where she used to holiday, although she says she never went there during the Isle of Man TT (motorbike races). “We used to avoid it then because it was so busy and expensive.”
However, her uncle would have gone. He was actually the Viking King of Man for a long time, says Kathy. “He used to wear the helmet and everything,” and I don’t think she means a motorbike helmet.
It’s an old Norse tradition, she says. “Every year they’d get out the longboats and they’d all dress up. They’d have feasts and longboat races. As he was the king he’d preside over it all.” She says he was a large man with a big, full beard and he’d tell stories about the fairies. She says that an island demands that the fairies are chased away in a particularly strenuous ritual, during which her uncle fell into a rabbit hole and broke his leg. Thereafter this Viking king would take great delight in telling people how he had to explain to his doctor how he injured himself chasing fairies.
The Isle of Man is obviously a lot more than just a tax haven.
Kathy works with collections, which is how she discovered this embroidered treasure. “I put stuff away. I accession it, photograph it and when that’s done I find a place for it. So I was putting some things away and had to pull this out [the sampler] to get to one of the boxes and I saw the label on it,” she says.
That we know so little about this artifact – and many others – is of some concern. It was gifted to the museum by Mr Morrie Randall in 1974, but we have no idea who made it and why. We can only assume it was made in the UK and the date stitched into linen is 1787. That expensive silk thread was used says something about the fortunes of the maker’s family … perhaps. The thread could have been a gift, for all we know.
Kathy has made the odd sampler. “It makes you think you should write a little about yourself and stitch it on to the back for future generations,” she says. Good idea, that way the work arrives at the museum with a ready-made provenance.
Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek June 2010. Reproduced with permission of the author.