needlework

Hidden in the Seams

The Whanganui Regional Museum houses a textiles collection with about 3,600 items ranging from early pieces of clothing, including dresses, skirts and shirts, jackets, hats, gloves and lingerie, as well as samples of needlework, lacework and embroidery. There are also domestic items such as tablecloths, quilts, tea-cosies and household linens. Add tapa cloth and mats and rugs, and the range is significant. The items provide important information about their role in different eras, and in the skill required to create them.

1. Silk dress

 Silk taffeta dress from around 1860. Ref: 1968.13.1

The way a garment is constructed can tell a lot. The choice of fabric, the quality of materials used, style, silhouette and colour combinations can offer hints about the era when it was made and about the person who wore it. Even something as simple as the stitching can tell a story.

The craft of sewing by hand was a necessary skill for women settlers in colonial New Zealand. Sewing materials like thread, fabric and needles arrived in Church Missionary settlements as early as 1820, and the ability to create, mend and repair textiles was essential. Dressmakers and tailors started to arrive by around 1840 and offer their services, but many people were in isolated areas or simply could not afford to have clothing made by professionals; therefore, sewing from home remained an essential part of life for women and girls.

As a seamstress, a woman was required to know a myriad of stitches for different purposes: hem stitch, top stitch, straight stitch, blanket stitch, tack, chain stitch, darning stitch, slip stitch, pad stitch, buttonhole stitch, to name but a few.

For many years clothing was either prohibitively expensive or fabrics were hard to source. Sewing was important in making clothing last longer, let alone creating something from scratch. Mending was an art. When clothing was faded, it was taken apart and sewn back together wrong-side-out, or the fabric used as trim or lining for new clothes. When the fabric wore out it was reused to make quilts or other functional items. These settler people understood Reduce, Reuse, Recycle out of pure necessity.

2. Inner of silk dress

 Lining of the same dress showing its hand-sewn construction.

In time, the arrival of retailers who sold ready-to-wear men’s and young children’s clothing made clothing the family easier. For many years, however, the intricate design, shape and fit of women’s clothing meant mass production was not viable. Even with the availability of more widely used domestic sewing machines in the mid-1880s, the skill and ability to sew by hand was still required. Many New Zealand women were involved in the handcrafted construction of clothing until well into the 1950s and 1960s. Thereafter the practice of home sewing started to decline, due to the availability of factory-produced and relatively cheap clothing.

In comparison to today’s world, sewing an item of clothing was a hands-on, intimate, lengthy and skilled process. Today as a society we do not have much of a connection to what it takes to make a garment, because much of the manufacturing involved is offshore and very much an industrialised process. It might even be fair to say many people today would struggle to be able to thread a needle.

 

Rachael Garland is the Events Coordinator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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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.