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How girls were into sampling years before Mark Ronson

A cross-stitch in time: an educational tool for teaching girls needlework

Trish Lee

trish lee

trish.lee@newburynews.co.uk

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01635 886663

Treasures in the West Berkshire Museum collection:

Samplers, with their embroidered rows of numbers and letters, were often seen as decoration in a Victorian home. By the 19th century, they were an educational tool for teaching girls needlework. Originally, they were a way of recording different stitches in the days before pen and paper were common, like a reference book, hence their name, explains museum volunteer ALISON TOPLIS.

THE West Berkshire Museum holds a collection of more than 20 various samplers worked by girls and women, mainly during the 19th century. These are decorative, many with typical horizontal bands within a stylised border, often in cross stitch.
One of the most pictorial in the museum collection was worked by Jean Elizabeth Walker in 1827, where she depicts Donnington Castle, along with a short history of its destruction during the English Civil War.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there was a fashion for copying topographical prints in silk embroidery. A print of the entrance to Donnington Castle was published in 1816-18, seemingly the source of the sampler image worked up during the following decade.

Likewise, map samplers were also popular in the late 18th century, combining both a geography and sewing lesson. As represented in the museum collection, maps of English and Welsh counties were most common, this one worked by Mary Meacham in 1783. A typical sampler was worked by Ann Gundrill in 1845, when she was 11 years old. A colourful fruit tree or tree of life in the middle with a moral verse above, were placed within stylised borders. The moral verse, often a Biblical
quotation, became an integral part of Victorian sampler design. Often with a general exhortation to a live a virtuous, industrious and religious life, such verses could serve a particular purpose, as in the sampler by Alice Sheppard, finished in 1889. Her entire verse sampler is the poem The Fatal Glass, which seems to be inspired by the Temperance Movement. During the 1880s, this was a mass movement which called for abstinence from the consumption of alcohol, supported by organisations such as the Salvation Army and Methodism.

Samplers were important as they were exercises in the stitching that girls would need during their working lives – sewing dominated the school curriculum, taking up around half the day. Sewing numbers and letters was a particular skill required by many women for numbering and initialling items of clothing and household linen, especially when sent out for laundry. Many women ended up in service of some kind, where this was a required skill. Clothing and textiles were expensive and easily stolen so being able to mark items was a necessity.

Two samplers in the collection are from Welford School – one from 1785 and one from 1853 – before the Victorian school was rebuilt in the village in 1857. They are both the first worked basic type of sampler, embroidered in simple stitches, usually cross stitch, in one colour, often red, as in the example from 1853. A girl would make a progression from this to something more elaborate between the ages of 10 and 14, before leaving school. Avis Fisher was nine when she finished her sampler in 1853. Perhaps she then moved on to working more interesting motifs in her next piece?

If not working in service, making clothing for other people in some capacity, often at home, was a common female occupation and ‘plain sewing’ samplers are also found in the collection. This was utilitarian rather than decorative sewing, as used, for example, to make clothing. Such samplers demonstrated techniques such as button holes and gathering, sometimes resulting in miniature versions of garments. Often mistaken for dolls clothes, these, along with the other samplers, show off the skills of 18th- and 19th-century girls and women otherwise long forgotten.

Researched and written by Alison Toplis, museum volunteer.

Images courtesy of West Berks Museum

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