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

Daily Record - - NEWS - BY ANNA BURNSIDE

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


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

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