There are rare records of women’s voices in the 17th and 18th centuries, especially ordinary middle and lower class women. An exhibition at the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum is approaching sewing samplers as documents of these overlooked lives, as the objects are sometimes the sole trace of a woman’s name, or existence. Created to demonstrate stitching skills, both for employment and as a future homemaker, they range from alphabets in thread that proved literacy, to dense embroidery that showed off needlework talents.
Sampled Lives: Samplers from the Fitzwilliam Museum features more than 100 examples of samplers from the 17th t0 early 20th century, most of which are rarely on view due to their fragility and sensitivity to light. An accompanying catalogue by Carol Humphrey, Honorary Keeper of Textiles at the museum, further explores their history, from covert symbolism to the evolution of styles. “Much has changed in the study of samplers during the last 30 years or so,” Humphrey stated in a release. “Now samplers can be seen as a valid means of studying the circumstances and material culture of their makers. When researched in-depth, they can reveal not only personal details about an individual girl but also provide a key to family histories.”
For instance, a 1787 medallion sampler attributed to Ann Jones, involving squirrels and flowers among scattered stitched numbers and letters, is a material artifact of a young woman’s life in a Quaker family in 18th-century London. Symbolism, like a seemingly innocuous sunflower, could suggest an allegiance to the executed monarch Charles I, thus hinting at a creator’s political beliefs. The appearance of names, dates, and inscriptions in the later part of the 17th century further instilled a distinct identity in the samplers. And while spot motif samplers of the 17th century were often sewn by elite women, with fine silks and silver and silver-gilt metal thread, by the 18th century, Charity Schools were incorporating samplers into their curriculum, the patterns of cross and satin stitch acting as a resume for future employment.
Often the stitched inscriptions professed faith, and virtuous living. A 1761 sampler by Hetty Grigg has her name flanked by angels over a fiber house bordered by trees, the alphabet and numbers sewn above the words: “I’ll be sincere, upright, and true at home, at school and elsewhere.” A later 1815 sampler by Mary Livermore presents both her faith and needle skill, with verses stitched in polychrome silks between a floral border: “Show me the path the sainted virgins trod. Wean me from earth and raise my soul to God.”
Florentine and damask styles appeared in the 18th century, along with an emphasis on literacy, and Sampled Lives includes research on how similar patterns and motifs indicate groups of girls who were educated together. Each sampler is just a small, delicate bit of fabric, sometimes without even a name to connect it to an individual, yet by treating them as documentary objects, there are hidden stories of women’s lives and the worlds they inhabited to be rediscovered.
Sampled Lives: Samplers from the Fitzwilliam Museum continues through April 8, 2018 at the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge (Trumpington Street, Cambridge, England).