cross-stitch

A sampling of samplers

The term “sampler” comes from the Latin word exemplum, meaning an example to be followed, a pattern or a model. Pictorial samplers began life as plain samples of different stitches worked onto a single piece of fabric. A girl would add to it as she learned different needle work techniques, a standard part of her education.

By the mid 17th century, decorative samplers with borders were considered to be a mark of refinement. They were worked with horizontal bands of stitching, featuring letters, numbers and traditional motifs, such as the dove of peace. Later, poetry or religious quotations were added, and ornate borders became common.

The stitching of samplers was believed to be a sign of virtue, achievement and industry, and girls were taught the art from a young age. Samplers are still stitched today and are often worked to celebrate a joyous occasion, such as a birth or baptism.

1. Hanner Passell

In 1806 Hanner Passell stitched a sampler of fine coloured wool threads on linen.  This sampler is very fragile and damaged, but you can still see her mistakes – she has not allowed enough room for the word “away” in the third line of the verse. The verse has a dire warning about wasting time:

Exonerate your mind of worldly cares

Spend each Lords Day in Spiritual Affairs

Such wretched souls as squander that aw[ay]

Repent it sorely at their dying Day

And in very faded thread at the bottom we can read: “Hanner Passell Made this in the 11th year of her age”. Hanner is an unusual spelling for the name Hannah. It could be a family name, but it might be that Hanner was a poor speller. Genealogy records show that a Hannah Passell was born in Sussex in 1795 – that might fit.

2. Grace Combe

 

 

While Grace Combe’s sampler is faded, you can still see the skill and charm of her work. Silk threads on fine linen demonstrate cross, feather, herringbone and satin stitches. Sample sewing of the alphabet, homilies and designs of flowers, crowns and geometric motifs all feature. And only just visible under a strong magnifying glass at the lower edge is “Grace Combe March 24 1724.”

 

3. E Gregory

 

E Gregory’s sampler was made in England in 1820 and comprises images of grand buildings and floral motifs, all delicately hand stitched in cotton thread. While we don’t know who E Gregory was, or if and when she came to New Zealand, it is an excellent example of the sampler craft. For new arrivals to New Zealand, samplers were a reminder of family left behind and a way of making a new house more comfortable. A few home comforts transported across the world helped mitigate the hardships of settling in.

 

4. Caroline Hopwood

 

Young Caroline Octavia Hopwood made a simple sampler of wool thread on fine canvas in cross stitch. Lines of the alphabet are repeated in different colours; there is also a line of numbers and small motifs comprising a bunch of grapes, two dragons, a flowering plant in a basket and a deer. The whole is surrounded by a vine with geometric leaves attached. Caroline has stitched her name and age, a mere eight years, at the bottom of the sampler. You can see why it is simple – she is just learning.

 

5. Hannah Hopwood

The very old sampler on fine, natural-coloured linen was completed by Hannah Hopkins in 1729. The deep flower and leaf border is stitched with two strands of twisted silk thread in satin stitch, French knots and cross stitch. The centre panel spells out the great Psalm XXVII, proclaiming absolute faith. It is easy to recognise what sort of beliefs Hannah’s family had:

The Lord is my Light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear, the Lord is the strength of my life of Whom shall I be afraid.

The eccentric punctuation of the lettering is matched by the eccentric switch from rose red to yellow thread, which is very faded and hard to read. Perhaps Hannah ran out of the red and only had yellow left to match the rest of the sampler.

 

Libby Sharpe is the Curator at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

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Sampler a right old age

Sampler a right old age

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.