Nimble Fingers

The museum’s samplers are some of its most treasured objects. A selection from the sampler collection is on view again in the temporary exhibition gallery and the exhibition will run until the 19th of April. Samplers cannot be permanently exhibited because prolonged exposure to light damages them greatly. However, we do try to show some of them every few years, for short periods of time.

In this year’s show we have concentrated on showing samplers that have been acquired in the past thirty years. One of the most interesting is one completed by Elizabeth Lodwick in 1798. Elizabeth was eleven years old and her sampler tells us that she was “Taught by Miss Gwynn Newcastle Emlyn”. Her sampler had been treasured and passed down through the family, until eventually it arrived by bequest at the museum.

Learning how to sew was a vital part of the education of girls. In the eighteenth century, girls such as Elizabeth Lodwick, who received an education, were pretty privileged. Even so, becoming a proficient needlewoman was essential for all girls. As education became available to all, so sampler making
became an everyday occurrence in schools throughout the country. In the days before mass-produced garments and sewing machines, who else could make household linen and underwear but a housewife and her daughters? Girls who went into service were also expected to do their share of mending or sewing. Making a sampler played a vital part in acquiring these needlework skills.

The first samplers were made to record stitches and patterns. By 1800 they were beginning to turn
from reference tools into display items. Embroidering the alphabet, numbers and Biblical orpious verses was also seen as part of an ‘improving’ process. However, the little sampler maker may well have had greater enjoyment from sewing borders and motifs, such as houses, birds and butterflies.

Large numbers of samplers have survived from the 1850s until the 1890s. They are often large and very brightly coloured and embroidered in wool using only cross stitch. They mark the beginning of the end of school sampler making. Ideas about the education of girls changed and the need for needlework skills diminished.

Sampler making survives today as a lovely pastime. Nothing illustrates better the enormous changes that have taken place in the education of women over the years than the history of the sampler.

Ann Dorsett

From 'The Friend' February 2010