Wrapped in History: Unveiling our textile collection
We have an extensive textile collection. This month we are diving into needlework from the 17th century up until the present day. The collection includes clothing, patchwork and a wide range of intricately stitched samplers. This blog post is the first of small series that will focus on unveiling the needlework in our care.
We will take a quick look at some of the samplers that caught my eye and that will perhaps be of interest to you. The brightly coloured designs, together with the delicate stitching, encouraged me to find out more about the museum's sampler collection and the history that accompanies them.
The needlework collection was started in 1928 by Miss Joan Drew, who donated a number of her own pieces of embroidery to the museum. This led to the development of a vast collection of embroidered textiles - we have approximately 120 samplers.
The sampler collection contains pieces from the 17th century, but samplers were known to be used by needleworkers in Europe as early as the beginning of the 16th century. They were a way for embroiderers to demonstrate and practise their needlework skills, and acted as a "sample" of their embroidery technique. They also functioned as a place to trial new patterns or stitches. Common samplers include the alphabet, decorative symbols, motifs, and moral and religious verses.
There is a noticeable shift in design between samplers created in the 17th century and the 18th century. While early samplers were often used as reference sheets for embroiderers, later they were used as a work of reference for educational exercises. They were frequently worked by children and used as a learning activity in schools and at home. There is less distinction between the 18th and 19th century samplers, except for the increased use of samplers as works for display in the home as opposed to reference material.
This sampler is from 1843 and contains the verse "On Youth" which is a section of a poem by John Dryden (1631-1700). The verse is surrounded by cherubs, birds and flowers. The lower part of the sampler has a central urn of flowers with trees and a variety of animals including a peacock, horse, dog and butterfly. Sewers would often finish their samplers by adding their names, dates of completion, and sometimes the name of their teacher or school. In this case, it is signed "Isabella Whinyates's Work Aged 7 Years 1834". She has used a variety of stitches including cross stitch, tent stitch and satin stitch to create this sampler.
Created by Emma Smith in 1883, this example of needlework is primarily made of canvas and silk. The border is a geometric pattern, deviating from the usual zigzag border that is characteristic of 19th century samplers. The alphabet is cross stitched over four lines, with letters in blue, mauve and yellow thread. The edges are sewn with blue silk and sewn with back stitch. Samplers were largely used as school exercises during the 18th and 19th centuries and by the 1850s, most samplers produced by children focused on letters and numbers. Girls were taught needlework from a young age and the stitching of samplers was believed to be a sign of virtue and achievement. There are a few holes in this piece, but they do not detract from the intricacy and design of the borderwork!
Several of the samplers are on display in the museum, along with highlights from the rest of the needlework collection.
Samplers remain popular in the needlework community, with modern kits available to purchase from needlework shops or the internet. Popular designs include those commemorating special occasions, family trees and family mottoes. Forms of embroidery are widely seen in high streets' clothing shops and in the works of high-end designers and fashion houses. For example, Dior's creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri turned to the past when designing the Dior Cruise 2019 collection, getting her inspiration from 19th century archival collar.
The golden age of samplers may have passed, but their legacy remains firmly appliqued onto modern society. Would you agree? Please leave your comments below.
You can also browse some of Guildford Museum textile collection
Stay tuned for more threads from our next textile collection blog.
Blog post by Parul Obhrai, a Guildford Museum volunteer.