Sunday, November 2, 2014

An 1835 Workbook of Needlework "Specimens"

Sunday, November 2, 2014
Isabella reporting,

Last weekend I attended a wonderful conference at Winterthur Museum: The Diligent Needle: Instrument of Profit, Pleasure, and Ornament. The talks and workshops were devoted to the needlework of British and American women from around 1600 to the present, with topics that ranged from 18th c. samplers of the Carolinas to elaborate embroidered boxes from Stuart England, early 19th c. stuffed and stitched silk globes from a Quaker boarding school to the 1960s crewel work of Erica Wilson. In the museum galleries is also an accompanying exhibition, also called The Diligent Needle, of pieces from Winterthur's collection that will be running through July 5, 2015. Over the next weeks, I'll be sharing some of the things I learned and saw here on the blog.

This workbook was part of a workshop on the samplers and general needlework taught to girls in 18th-19th c. orphanages, asylums, charity, and model schools in Britain. The workbooks came from the collection of the workshop-leader, Rebecca Scott of Witney Antiques, Oxfordshire, England.

While middle and upper class girls studied fancy decorative needlework as a suitable "accomplishment" and produced samplers to be framed and admired by their doting family, the lower-class girls enrolled in a charity school (often orphans) were learning a much more practical kind of needlework. The goal was to prepare the girls for careers as skilled seamstresses, mantua-makers, and dressmakers, all respectable careers open to women, and ones in which they could become self-sufficient and even prosperous.

This workbook, printed in Dublin in 1835, was part of a rigorous program designed to teach students in model schools not only the basics of "plain needlework", but also crochet, tatting, fine lace knitting, darning, and elaborate embroidery stitches. The book's very lengthy title explains its purpose: Simple Directions in Needle-work and Cutting Out Intended for the Use of the National Female Schools of Ireland to Which Are Added, Specimens of Work Executed by the Pupils of the National Model Female Schools. (Whew!)

The first part of the book contained detailed directions for a series of lessons designed to teach various skills as well as the most economical ways to cut and produce garments. When the project, or "specimen," was completed and approved by the instructor, it was pasted in the special back pages of the book that were printed on sturdier paper, like a scrapbook. The workbook therefore became a record of accomplishment, a reference book for the future, and a portfolio to show to future employers.

On the pages (each about 8"x10") above, the specimens on the left demonstrate seaming and piecing, while the miniature nightshirt on the right shows gathers, hemming, narrow seams, and buttonholes. The pages below displays specimens of fine-gauge knitted lace, and examples of precisely executed herring-bone stitching on cotton muslin and on wool flannel. (As always, please click on the images ot enlarge them.)

Ms. Scott had several examples of these workbooks, each bulging with dozens of completed specimens. It was easy to imagine how proud each young woman must have been of her accomplishments when the lessons were complete and the back pages of the workbook filled: symbols of patience and skill, but also of hope for now-promising future.

Many thanks to Rebecca Scott for sharing her collection - please check out her website for many more examples of British samplers and needlework:


Elena Jardiniz said...

Some years ago I found a wonderful book by Susanna E. Lewis - there is a marvelous 19th century sampler in the Brooklyn Museum, white cotton lace still on its steel needles. She decided to document it and quickly realized the only way to really understand it was to start at the beginning and progress as the maker did. It is clearly an experimental piece, not for show, and Lewis also charted the patterns, the first time I was able to actually UNDERSTAND knitted lace! I enclose the link, only so you can see this wonderful piece.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Ooh, Elena, thank you! I've added that to my ever-huge wish list. I've knitted all my life, but only in the last few years have I begun to really work at lace knitting. The examples from the 18th-19th c are beyond my comprehension, using thread and needles so fine that they aren't even available now. Such beautiful work by very talented women of the past....

Unknown said...

I just love the intriguing and interesting things that you post on this blog, and I so wish that I could get to the Winterthur Museum to see these particular items. Since I can't, I appreciate even more the things you share with us from there.

BTW, did you mean to type "July 15, 2015" instead of the "July 15, 1915" that is in the post? *grin*

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Thank you, Unknown! I'm glad you're enjoying the posts. I know the feeling about exhibitions, too; all the really cool things always seem to be in California or London or any other place Where I'm Not. :)

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

And um yes, I did intend to type 2015. Which I have done now. The perils of writing in the past...

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