Sewing the seeds of love of life for women. A sampler showed that they were the right sort of woman and would be a thrifty housewife.” To underline the point, the girl making the sampler would show off her stitching prowess by embroidering a meaningful B
New exhibition of fascinating works which showcased girls’ credentials in bygone times
TWO hundred years ago, how did a young woman of marriageable age advertise her accomplishments? There was no Instagram to showcase her vegan brownies or perfectly arranged succulents. Her witty comments could not be shared on Twitter, or her qualifications listed on Linked In.
The young ladies of Victorian Scotland could not join Tinder and hope someone swiped right. For a start, many of them could barely read and fewer could write.
What they could all do was sew. They used their needles and embroidered samplers that told eligible young men of their achievements and connections.
To the uninitiated, samplers don’t look that spectacular. Especially now, faded and fousty, hundreds of years old. Stitched on to wool or linen, they usually start with the letters of the alphabet. Then there might be numbers one to nine, possibly a Bible verse, a row of impenetrable initials or some aristocratic symbols.
Houses are a popular motif – the point was to sell yourself as a domestic goddess – as were small animals and baskets of flowers.
But these rectangles of needlework are rich in social and economic history. And some specifically Scottish traditions mean that it’s possible to unpick a huge amount of information about the young girl behind the needle from every single sampler.
Later this month, there will be an exhibition of 70 fascinating examples at the National Museum of Scotland.
Dating from the early 18th century to the middle of the 19th century, they all belong to one American collector.
Leslie Durst bought her first Scottish samplers 20 years ago and has gone on to amass 550 of them.
What she particularly loves about Scottish embroidery is the biographical details that were sewn in to every canvas.
Young women included the initials of their relations to show how well-connected they were. And thanks to a historical quirk, this makes Scottish samplers uniquely easy to research.
Exhibition curator Helen Wyld said: “Scottish women kept their maiden names after marriage, so those initials tell you a lot more. “Leslie Durst has done genealogical research on every one in her collection. She has identified most of the people. She has a personal connection with them – she feels as if they are her ancestors.”
The earliest samplers were done at the start of the 16th century, to practise sewing and record patterns that other needlewomen could copy.
Religious verses started appearing in the 17th century. By the 18th century, they were being sewn for public consumption, to illustrate a woman’s education, character and social standing.
Helen said: “Samplers would be displayed in the home, in a very prominent position. They could be seen as advertisement that the daughter of the house was marriageable.
“At this time, all women had to know needlework. All underwear and shirts were made by hand – it was a big part
CURATOR HELEN WYLD ON AMERICAN COLLECTOR
write with the needle, rather than the pen. They also reflected changes in female education. In the 18th century, girls began to be taught geography. In the 1780s, we find map samplers, showing the shift.”
Samplers were personal and regional. Often they rooted the needlewoman in a specific area, showing geographic features or other strong clues about the locality. Helen said: “They give so much information about where the girls lived. Some might have local buildings -there’s one with a new bridge.” Teachers would give their classes the same designs to work on. These might then be shared around the same school or district. Helen has found a shepherdess beside a cottage on samplers from St Ninians in Stirlingshire. There’s a rainbow from Edinburgh and a distinctive house from nearby Musselburgh.
Boys did samplers but they are rare. The only one in the exhibition is by a lad whose background Helen can’t pinpoint. “He may have been from military family, possibly he was travelling with his sisters and learned to sew with them,” she said.
There are two more in Leslie’s collection. Helen said: “One was done by a boy who went on to be goldsmith so he clearly loved doing fine work. The other boy who made one was very ill. It’s still surprising to us. Even today we think of needlework as a feminine thing.”
That’s what makes samplers such a rich historical resource. They capture the lives of girls and young women in the emerging middle classes in a way that is not recorded anywhere else.
Any formal history of these families of farmers, bakers and butchers would focus on men. But here is their sisters’ and daughters’ education and environment, all recorded in crossstitch.
“It is,” Helen said, “an archive of Scotland’s history from a completely unusual point of view. Samplers are a reflection of female knowledge and that’s not something that’s been researched or even understood. The history of education during this period is all about boys. These are all about women’s experiences.
“Leslie Durst has resurrected these forgotten lives. Most of these girls were not aristocratic. They are people who would otherwise have been forgotten.”
●Embroidered Stories: Scottish Samplers is at the National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh from October 26
NEEDLE POINT Samplers were a way for girls to show their credentials to future husbands STORYBOARD Helen says the samplers tell so much about the embroiderer
COLLECTION Leslie Durst