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Floral borders: Gender, empire and the girls behind the needle

Hannah Lee

 

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The Farm Called Arnolds in The Parish of Stapelforth Abby & Lambourn in the County of Essex, Sampler, Embroidered woollen canvas with coloured silks and chenille thread, Essex, c.1790.
Museum no. T.65-1954. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A tiny white cottage surrounded by green trees and a carefully labelled river, is beautifully rendered in coloured silks and chenille thread, featuring cross stitch, French knots and couched work on a woollen canvas[1]. Below the cottage is a map of some farm land, featuring a detailed table which demonstrates through the use a key how the land has been divided up. We are told by a description stitched on the left of the piece that this sampler, made around 1790, depicts ‘The Farm Called Arnolds in The Parish of Stapelforth Abby & Lambourn in the County of Essex’.

The maker of the sampler is anonymous, yet we can fairly confidently guess that it was made by a woman, potentially as part of her education. The creation of samplers of this kind was a long established part of the education of young girls all across Europe during this period, with embroidery perceived as an essential element in the appropriate feminine skill set. Young girls, a group who have rarely been credited with being makers of history, have left a resource for scholars more significant than they ever could have imagined, revealing in these samplers – which survive in great numbers – the histories of both gender and empire, and extraordinary insight into the personal stories of ordinary women.

Deriving from the French word essamplaire, which means any kind of work which is copied or imitated, the sampler comes from a lengthy but not a linear tradition. With examples dating back to fourteenth and fifteenth century Egypt, the original form of the sampler was not necessarily associated with the education of young girls or the amateur sewer, such as the eighteenth and nineteenth century examples on which this article chiefly focuses. Instead, samplers were used by professional embroiderers as a means of both trialling patterns and stitches, and recording particular effects which they might want to recreate in the future.

Sampler, Silk, embroidered with silk in running, outline, split, stem, satin and long and short stitch, England, late eighteenth century. Museum no. T.44-1951. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Sampler, Silk, embroidered with silk in running, outline, split, stem, satin and long and short stitch, England, late eighteenth century. Museum no. T.44-1951. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Whilst the specific geographical location depicted in the Essex example suggests that its maker was perhaps local to the area, others from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are demonstrative of the way in which samplers were used as instructive tools in the school room, some following prescribed outlines pre-applied as a mass produced design, such as can be seen in the examples which depict maps of the British Isles and the world. What is particularly charming about the Essex example however, is the manner in which the personality of the sewer can be seen in the decorative details added, with the colourful flowers, small dogs and animals circling the depicted farmland, and an exotic looking green and yellow bird perched upon the table containing the meticulous key – unidentifiable in species but definitely not native to Essex in the late eighteenth century.

The making of samplers was not however confined to European shores, as is demonstrated by the research of Silke Strickrodt who has thus far identified thirteen samplers in the both private and museum collections across the world which were made by girls attending mission schools in Sierra Leone between the years 1820 and 1840. Strickrodt identifies the incredible value of these objects to historians, for the manner in which they represent an  ’emphatic insight’ into the lives of a group which are often undocumented, whilst noting the complex questions which they raise. ‘Do they express the perspectives of the African girls who made them, as distinct from the European missionaries who directed their work?[2]’  A question which might also be applied to the European examples; are these samplers representative of female creative expression at the time, or do they tell us more about the controls and restrictions placed upon it?

Sampler, Wool, embroidered with silk in cross stitch, Lucy Grant, Sierra Leone, 1840, V&A, Museum Number: T.54-1934, © Victoria and Albert Museum Images

Sampler, Wool, embroidered with silk in cross stitch, Lucy Grant, Sierra Leone, 1840, V&A, Museum no. T.54-1934. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Whilst these samplers can be placed within broader narratives of gender and empire, the question arises as to what they can really tell us about individual experience?  Whilst the unique decorative borders found on many samplers reveal something of the personality of the girl behind the needle, their ‘paint by numbers’ instructive nature has meant that these samplers have rarely been seriously considered by historians as examples of fine art or individual skill. Many of the samplers are named, yet their makers may as well remain anonymous for all that is known about them.

However, one particular example seems to defy this completely, proving too intriguing to historians not to fill in the blanks. Stored in the V&A collection is a sampler made around 1830 by a young woman named Elizabeth Parker, who in delicate but cramped red silk cross stitch seems to have spilled the secrets of her heart out; painstakingly stitched onto a piece of linen measuring 85.8cm in height and 74.4 cm in width[3].  She begins by laying out her purpose:

‘As I cannot write I put this down simply and freely as I might speak to a person to whose intimacy and tenderness I can fully entrust myself and who I know will bear with all my weaknesses….[4]

Sampler, Linen, embroidered with red silk in cross stitch, Elizabeth Parker, c.1830, Ashburnham, England, V&A, Museum Number: T.6-1956. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Sampler, Linen, embroidered with red silk in cross stitch, Elizabeth Parker, c.1830, Ashburnham, England.
Museum no. T.6-1956. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

She then goes on the tell the story of her life, stating that she was born in Ashburnham in Sussex in 1813 to a relatively poor family of eleven children, before recounting her time in service where she was abused by her employers and more than once attempted suicide. Her story is an unhappy one and seems to abruptly stop mid-sentence leaving the reader on unbearable tenterhooks, desperate to know what has happened to this extraordinary object’s maker. Fortunately historians have managed to trace the story of Elizabeth Parker back to its roots, discovering that in some ways her fortune seems to have improved – she became a teacher at the Ashburnham charity school and raised one of her sister’s daughters, before dying at the age of 76 whilst living in the Ashburnham Almshouses on the 10th April 1889.

In many ways, knowing the ending to Elizabeth’s story brings a sense of relief, given the potential tragedy that the story on the sampler seems to foretell. However even in this knowledge the sampler remains a startlingly poignant object, one cannot help but imagine the young Elizabeth working intently over this sampler in the rare spare time she had to herself, adding to it little by little. Whether she ever intended the sampler to be seen we simply cannot know, but this was clearly the only means through which she felt she could truly express herself. Elizabeth’s story is one of restrictions and limited opportunity, reflected even in the fact that her medium of expression, the making of a sampler, was perhaps the only creative outlet available to someone of her gender and social station.

Elizabeth’s sampler is unique but her story was almost certainly not. There is something quite amazing in the idea of the older Elizabeth as a teacher in the charity school, probably passing on her skills in needlework to yet another generation of young women, who would go on to produce samplers, perhaps stitching the outlines of countries they would never visit, dreaming of a world beyond the floral borders.

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[2] Silke Strickrodt, ‘African girls’ samplers from mission schools in Sierra Leone (1820s to 1840s), History in Africa, African Studies Association, Vol. 37, (2010), p.190

[4] http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O70506/sampler-parker-elizabeth/

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Hannah Lee – 

Hannah did her BA in History at Oxford University where she specialized in cultural history of the Renaissance. Her research interests include the material histories of trade and currency and gender. She is currently working on a dissertation which focuses on the material portrayal of Africans by Europeans in sculpture and jewellery.

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© Hannah Lee, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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