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Object Thursday: A Stitch in Time

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Sarah Russel Warren’s Sampler 1830
Samplers invoke mixed reactions from people, they either love them, they hate them or they have never heard of them. Bound up the in study of female education in North America and the United Kingdom, they have been elevated from classroom exercise to ‘folk art’ to ‘naive art form’ within the precious field of Decorative Arts. For some researchers these samplers and embroideries are the gateway to other topics of research like 18th Century teachers, childhood, genealogies, textile history, decorative style, mourning rituals and more. For others they are small works of fiber art.
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Mourning Embroidery to Mrs. Elizabeth Seamans 1795
Sewn by hand by girls in the 16th Century through the 19th Century, they can be marvels of patience and skill with a needle and thread. They can also be the unfinished alphabets and numbers of a young girl who clearly wanted to be doing just about anything else besides stitching. The Mourning Embroidery above is astonishing, each leaf is made up of around fifty stitches and that is just one leaf, there is a whole tree.
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Judith Paul’s Sampler 1791
Since 2011 we have been participating in the Sampler Archive Project. The Rhode Island Historical Society has just over a hundred examples of samplers and embroideries in its Textile Collection. Last week we spent a few days intensively cataloging samplers in our collection as part of that project. Each sampler was inspected, measured, and vital statistics recorded: the variety of stitches, the colors used, what was finished, what wasn’t, figuring out what that verse used to say in 1790 that is now quite faded with several missing letters in 2013. Each region of North America and the UK has a distinct sampler style, their own symbols, layouts, colors, and verses, much in the way an 18th Century Newport mahogany table differs from one crafted in Philadelphia. Rhode Island samplers have a style all their own.
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Katherine Holden’s Sampler 1733
As part of the Sampler Documentation Project we have photographed our collection of samplers and embroideries.  A new online gallery of our collection is now available on our website.  As we catalog our samplers they will be added to the online gallery, be sure to check back often for new images.
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Sampler by Unknown Embroiderer
As I cataloged, the amount of time that was spent pulling the needle through the fabric again and again, just to form a single letter or a small flower was amazing to see. It can be hard to imagine in a world of instant messaging and drive through Starbucks spending what seems like extravagant amounts of time stitching.  I wondered about the thoughts of the girl who was visibly struggling to stitch letters and didn’t finish…did she want to be outside running through the town, or reading, or perhaps home with her family.
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Caroline Newbold’s Sampler 1817
No longer taught in school, I learned to embroider from my grandmother and can attest to the wandering thoughts of a seven year old girl. There was much jealousy in our house when my younger sister got to ride the lawnmower with my grandpa while I had to stay inside. However, now I would not trade that time learning to embroider, it is a wonderful memory of my grandmother. These are skills I still use for hours of digital-free enjoyment and for teaching others. Just like the parents of the girls or the girls themselves, I have saved my girlhood embroideries, set aside to use as examples for teaching and to pass down through the family, because to a seven year old they took forever to finish.
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Caroline Newbold’s Sampler 1818, one year after the one she did shown above
Want to start your own research into Rhode Island samplers? An good place to start your own research into Rhode Island samplers is Betty Ring’s catalog of an exhibition we put on in 1983 “Let Virtue be a Guide to Thee”.
~Dana Signe K. Munroe

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