Saturday, July 14, 2012

Samplers, The First Work of Small Hands

      A Chapter upon Samplers, by right, should precede the discussion of colonial embroidery, although the practice of mothers in crewelwork was simultaneous with it. They were carried on at the same time, but the embroidery was work for grown-up people, while samplers were baby work a beginning as necessary as being taught to walk or talk, to the future of the child. Fortunately, the very infant interest in samplers has tended to their preservation, and when the child grew to womanhood the sampler became invested with a mingling of family interests and affections, and she, the executant, came to look upon it with motherliness. The loving pride of the mother in the child's accomplishment also tended to the care and preservation of the first work of the small hands. 
Sampler worked by Adeline Bryant in 1826.
      As late as the twenties of the eighteenth century, infant schools still existed and samplers were wrought by infant fingers. Eightyfive years ago, I myself was in one of a row of little chairs in the infant school, with a small spread of canvas lying over my lap and being sewn to my skirt by misdirected efforts. My box held a tiny thimble and spools of green and red sewing silk, and I tucked it under alternate knees for safety. 
      Sarah Woodruff! I wonder where she is now? ; sat next to me in my sampler days, and her canvas was white, while mine was yellow. Her border was worked with blue, and mine with green. With a child's inscrutable and wonderful awareness of underlying facts, I knew that Sarah Woodruffs' father was richer than mine, and that the white canvas and blue border, which the teacher said "went with it," was an indication of it. I have it now, the little faded yellow parallelogram of canvas, on which the germ of the very fingers with which I am now writing wrought with painstaking care "Executed by Candace Thurber, her age six years." They have since had various fortunes and experiences, these fingers, and have wrought to the satisfaction, I hope, of their fore- gone line of Puritan ancestors. 
       The sampler has special claims upon the world, because it is probable that all forms of textile design originated with it. In fact, design for needlework began with small squares formed by crossing stitches at the junction of textile fiber. 
      In sequences these squares formed lines, blocks, and corner, and in double-line juxtaposition made the form of border probably the oldest ornamental decoration in the world, generally known as a Roman border. This decoration escaped from textiles into stone and building materials, and in fact appeared in the elaboration of all materials, from the fronts of temples to the ornamentation of a crown. The most ancient examples of design are founded upon a square, and this points inevitably to the stitch covering the crossing of threads, the cross-stitch, which preceded all others and remained the only decorative stitch until weaving sprang into so fine an art that interstices between threads are unnoticeable. Then, and not until then, the long over-stitch, the opus plumarium, which we call "Kensington," was invented, and served to make English embroidery famous in early English history. This was the stitch used by the Pilgrim mothers in their crewel embroidery, as we use it today in most of our decorative presentations. 
Sampler from Salem, Massachusetts, 1791.
      In spite of the achievements of the opus p/umarium, we are indebted to simple cross-stitch, to the obligations of the mathematical square of hand weavings, for all the wonderful borderings which have been evolved by ages of the use of the needle, since decoration began. We do not stop to think of the artistic intelligence or gift which made mathematical spaces express beautiful form, any more than we stop in our reading to think of the sensitive intelligence which drew a letter and made it the expression of sound, and yet most of us use the result of some exceptional intelligence and feel the exaltation of what we call culture. 
       The stitch itself is entitled to the greatest respect, as the very first form of decoration with the needle an art growing out of and controlled by the earlier art of weaving. Decorative bands of cross-stitch come to us on shreds of linen found in the sepulchers of Egypt and the burial grounds of the prehistoric races of South America. I have seen, in a collection of textiles found in their ancient burial places, the most elaborate and beautiful of cross-stitch borders, wrought into the fabrics which enriched Pizarro's shiploads of loot sent from Vicuna, Peru, to the court of Spain at the time of the wonderful and barbarous " Conquest." All of the old " Roman" borders are found in this collection, the best designs the world has produced, those which architects of the period used upon the fronts and in the interiors of their first creations. And here arises the ever recurring question of thought-sharing between the most widely removed of the earlier human races. How did early Peruvians and far off Latins think in the same forms, and how did they come to select certain ones as the best, and cleave to them as a common inheritance? But leaving the puzzle of design and returning to the cross-stitch, which was its first interpretation or medium, and to the little Puritans who shared its acquaintance and practice with the women of all ages, we may see how the New England sampler opened the door of inheritance. 
      As Eve sewed her garments of leaves in the Garden of Eden, so each one of these little Puritan Eves, so far removed in the long history of the race from the first one, was heir to her ingenuities as well as her failings, from her patching together of small and inadequate things, to her creative .function in the kingdom of the world, as well as to her attempts to sweeten life, and to her failures and successes. 
Sampler worked by Catharine Ann Speel
in silk on linen, 1805, Philadelphia.
       The learning to do an A or a B in cross-stitch was the beginning of household doing, which is the business of woman's life. The decorative and the useful were evenly balanced in sampler making. All this skill in lettering could be applied to the stores of household linen in the way of marking, for cross-stitch letters, done in colored threads, were a part of the finish of sheets and pillowcases and fine toweling which made so important a part of the riches of the household, and it led by easy grades of familiarity to more comprehensive methods of decoration. In truth, the letters first practiced in cross-stitch opened the door to all future elaborations, and were the vehicle of moral instruction as well; for little Puritans took their first doses of Bible history in carefully embroidered text, and their notions of pictorial art from cross-stitch illustrations. One finds upon some of the early examples pictures of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with the ever present author of sin, climbing the stem of the tree of life, or Jacob's dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder, intersecting clouds of blue and smoke colored stitches. 
      These pictorial samplers are certainly interesting, but those which confine themselves to simple cross-stitch with borders, and the name of the little child who wrought them, touch a note of domestic life which is more than interesting. 
      The sampler was purely English in its derivation and followed the English with great fidelity, although redolent of Puritan life and thought. Sometimes, indeed, it carried cross-stitch to the very limit of its capability in an attempt to render Bible scenes pictorially, but for the most part it was confined to the practice of various styles of lettering consolidated into text or verse. 
      The material upon which they were worked was generally of canvas, either white or yellow, and this was of English manufacture. As all manufactures were things of price, later samplers were often worked upon coarse homespun linens, which, barring the variations in the size of the threads inevitable in hand-spinning, made a fairly good material for cross-stitch. 
      Sampler making was a home rather than a school taught industry, going down from mother to daughter along with darning and other processes of the needle, and having no relation, except that of its dexterity, to the distinct style of decorative embroidery called crewelwork, which accompanied it, or even preceded it. 
       The collecting of samplers has become rather a fad in these days, and as they are almost exclusively of New England origin, it gives an opportunity of acquaintance with the little Puritan girl which is not without its charm. As most of their samplers were signed with their names, the acquaintance becomes quite intimate, and one feels that these little Puritans were good as well as diligent. Here is Harmony TwitchelTs name upon a blue and white sampler. What child whose name was Harmony could quarrel with other children, or how could this other, whose long suffering name was Patience, be resentful of the roughnesses of small male Puritans? Hate- evil and Wait-still and Hope-still and Thanks and Unity must have sat together like little doves and made crooked A's and B's and C's and picked out the frayed sewing silk threads under the reproofs of the teacher of the Infant School, Miss Mather of Miss Coffin or Miss Hooker, whose father was a clergyman, or even Miss Bradford, whose uncle was the Governor? 
Cross-stitch alphabet sampler worked by
Elizabeth Laidman, 1760.
      All this is in the story of the sampler, and so the teaching and practice of the canvas went constantly forward. The method was so simple, quite within the capacity of an alphabet studying child. To make an A in cross-stitch was to create a link between the baby mind and the letter represented. There was no choice, no judgment or experience needed. The limit of every stitch was fixed by a cross thread, one little open space to send the needle down and another through which to bring it back, and the next one and the next, then to cross the threads and the thing was done. Yes, the little slips could make a sampler, every one of them, and when it was made, sometimes it was put in a frame with a glass over it, and Patience's mother would show it to visitors, and Patience would taste the sweets of superiority, than which there is nothing to the childish heart, nor even to mature humanity, so sweet. 
      There were Infant Schools in my own days, little congregations of children not far removed from babyhood, who were taught the alphabet from huge cards, and repeated it simultaneously from the great blackboard which was mounted in the center of the room. In the schools, as well as at home, every little girl baby was taught to sew, to overhand minutely upon small blocks of calico, the edges turned over and basted together. When a perfect capacity for overhand sewing was established, the next short step was to the sampler, and the tiny fingers were guided along the intricacies of canvas crossings. The dear little rose- tipped fingers! the small hands! velvet soft and satin smooth, diverse even in their littlenesses! They were taught even then to be dexterous with woman's special tool, the very same in purpose and intent with which queens and dames and ladies had played long before. 
      The sampler world was a real world in those days, full of youth and as living as the youth of the world must always be, but now it is dead as the mummies, and the carefully preserved remains are only the shell which once held human rivalries and passions.

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