The Sam­pler Sleuth Scot­tish Sam­plers: Their Di­verse His­tory & Mo­tifs

Just Cross Stitch - - Contents - Deb­o­rah Fasano

His­tor­i­cally, Scot­tish sam­plers from the 19th cen­tury were made with strong col­ors—pre­dom­i­nantly shades of reds and greens—com­bined with sym­bolic mo­tifs, such as dis­tinc­tive ar­chi­tec­tural styles, heraldic an­i­mals, il­lu­mi­nated let­ter­ing, ever­green trees, this­tles and crowns. His­tor­i­cal tex­tiles from Scotland nearly al­ways in­clude the stitched ini­tials of fam­ily mem­bers. Ini­tials stitched in black thread rep­re­sented fam­ily mem­bers that were de­ceased, but not for­got­ten. These and other in­ter­est­ing fea­tures make sam­plers from this time and place quite an ap­peal­ing group.

There are spe­cific de­sign el­e­ments that de­fine Scot­tish sam­plers. A few ex­am­ples, be­sides the ones men­tioned above, in­clude: the coat of arms of Scotland, pe­cu­liarly shaded mounds upon which of­ten sit urns or foun­tains, Adam and Eve, and groups of rab­bits in a row. The Ali­son Bath­gate Wat­son 1856 Sam­pler, re­pro­duced on page 36, in­cor­po­rated many of these el­e­ments that were in­dica­tive of Ali­son’s her­itage. Ac­cord­ing to Mar­cus Bourne Huish in his book Sam­plers

& Tapestry Em­broi­deries (1913), the first doc­u­mented border en­clos­ing a sam­pler was worked in 1726. An­ti­quated mo­tifs from Greek and Egyp­tian ori­gins of­ten ap­peared on Scot­tish works 100 years af­ter their ap­pear­ance on English sam­plers, and Ali­son’s “rib­boned” car­touche en­cas­ing her name and the date is a prime ex­am­ple of dis­tinct nee­dle art.

One of the com­mon de­sign el­e­ments is the so-called “mys­tery man­sion.” In her book Scot­tish Needle­work Em

broi­deries: Me­dieval to Mod­ern (1986), Scot­tish needle­work ex­pert Mar­garet Swain states the fol­low­ing: “The build­ings that oc­cur on sev­eral Scot­tish sam­plers are of­ten thought to be imag­i­nary … [I]t seems prob­a­ble that the solid sym­met­ri­cal houses ap­pear­ing on so many Scot­tish sam­plers be­tween 1750–1850 are not imag­i­nary, but ac­tual houses, too fa­mil­iar to the nee­dle woman and her fam­ily to need a la­bel." An­other com­mon ar­chi­tec­tural mo­tif in Scot­tish sam­plers is the cas­tle; it stands as a silent re­minder of Scotland’s an­cient and vi­o­lent past.

The heraldic pea­cock, usu­ally with seven tail feath­ers sym­bol­iz­ing Britain’s trade links to the Nether­lands and Far East, was a pop­u­lar mo­tif, along with dogs and rab­bits.

The com­mon this­tle, na­tive to Scotland, ap­pears on many Scot­tish sam­plers as its prick­lyleaved pur­ple flower is the coun­try’s of­fi­cial flower. Ar­caded pan­sies stitched in triplet sym­bol­ize the Holy Trin­ity, and doves perched in the mid­dle of a foun­tain sym­bol­ize the foun­tain of Eter­nal Life. Hearts and crowns are also widely used, per­haps rep­re­sent­ing the beloved Luck­en­booth Brooch, a tra­di­tional Scot­tish love to­ken.

The Luck­en­booth Brooch, a tra­di­tional Scot­tish to­ken of love, may have in­flu­enced the use of crowns and hearts in some his­tor­i­cal sam­plers.

The ma­jor­ity of Scot­tish sam­plers were stitched in wool or a com­bi­na­tion of silk and wool threads. Be­cause of Scotland’s eco­nomic dif­fi­cul­ties dur­ing the 19th cen­tury, young women were en­cour­aged to use home­grown ma­te­ri­als in­stead of im­ported ones, hence the fre­quent use of wool in­stead of im­ported silks. Both silk and wool threads were used to bring the orig­i­nal Ali­son Bath­gate Wat­son 1856 Sam­pler to life, en­abling the viewer to rec­og­nize that Ali­son had the means and ac­cess to fine ma­te­ri­als.

Rows of up­per­case and low­er­case al­pha­bet let­ters and se­quen­tial num­bers be­gan to be seen in English tex­tiles in the 17th cen­tury. Ex­am­ples of these in­flu­ences can be seen on the up­per half of Ali­son’s sam­pler in its rich au­tum­nal pal­ette. Ali­son has left the bot­tom por­tion of her sam­pler for the col­lec­tion of “spot mo­tifs” such as ever­green trees, dogs, rab­bits, a cen­tral urn with flow­ers, and hearts and crowns.

Sur­viv­ing his­tor­i­cal Scot­tish tex­tiles have come from the Auchter­arder in the Tay­side re­gion Scotland, from north­west of Ed­in­burgh, and from Dalkeith, lo­cated just south of Ed­in­burgh, and from La­nark­shire. Ali­son’s 1856 sam­pler hails from the area of Liv­ingston ( West Loth­ian) 15 miles west of Ed­in­burgh.

Scot­tish needle­work teach­ers be­gan to in­cor­po­rate pat­terns found on 17th cen­tury English sam­plers into their stu­dents’ as­sign­ments and con­tin­ued us­ing these at­trac­tive pat­terns long af­ter they had gone out of fash­ion in Eng­land. Teach­ing sit­u­a­tions through­out the 18th cen­tury were in de­mand no mat­ter what the so­cial or eco­nomic cir­cum­stance. The over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of ed­u­ca­tional sit­u­a­tions for girls uti­lized the sam­pler as a learn­ing tool. De­mands for this skill flour­ished as needle­work or­na­men­ta­tion was seen as a mar­ketable trade skill for fu­ture em­ploy­ment.

Ev­ery Scot­tish sam­pler that has sur­vived is a his­tor­i­cal record of one girl’s ed­u­ca­tional train­ing, and the value placed on that ed­u­ca­tion. The over­all de­sign and ma­te­ri­als used give ev­i­dence of the maker’s cul­ture, re­li­gion and per­sonal ac­com­plish­ments and abil­i­ties. Each tex­tile that has en­dured to­day was val­ued when it was orig­i­nally made. Sam­plers from that era were of­ten framed and dis­played on walls, and many were kept within fam­i­lies for gen­er­a­tions as cher­ished heir­looms.

The lessons taught through the use of cloth and thread res­onate through­out the cen­turies. If we take the time to pause and ad­mire their hand­work, we might still hear their voices whis­per their wis­dom in our mod­ern 21st cen­tury, as in the verse be­low, found on a young girl’s sam­pler: Shine Lovely Maid in Nee­dle Work, But Shine Not only There. Know Thou That for thy Self thou Most A Bet­ter Place pre­pare. Let thy Works only Give thee Praise, Be sure Shune Flat­tery. Thy reuin Ser­tain if thou Run, With Youth and Van­ity. —Hen­reta David­son, Glas­gow, 1775

This por­tion from Ali­son’s sam­pler show­cases a va­ri­ety of mo­tifs com­mon to his­tor­i­cal Scot­tish sam­plers.

The Luck­en­booth Brooch gains its name from the “locked booths” that sold tri­fles along the Royal Mile near Saint Giles Cathe­dral in High Street in Ed­in­burgh. Quite com­monly given as a love to­ken or be­trothal gift.

The rib­boned sym­bols sur­round­ing her name demon­strate the unique use of mo­tifs in Ali­son’s sam­pler.

The use of let­ters and num­bers in sam­plers be­gan in the 17th cen­tury. Here, the ini­tials of fam­ily mem­bers are stitched in var­i­ous color threads, with black rep­re­sent­ing those de­ceased but not for­got­ten.

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