Most Americans today think of 17thc New England as a mythical Pilgrim-Land, where everyone is dressed in black with buckles on their hats, barely scraping out an existence in the new land before they finally erupt into the paranoia and persecution of the witch trials. It's seen as a grim, forbidding place where it's always winter, and it's more than a little scary.
Yes, the first years of the Massachusetts Bay Company were grim. But by the middle of the century, life was growing more comfortable. Many of the settlers in the Boston area were prospering, and actively trading by ship with London, and therefore with the rest of the world. The silk thread for this sampler likely came in one of those ships, and it could have come to a Boston or Salem shop from silk manufacturers in France, Italy, or even China. Even those north American colonies were already part of a global economy.
This sampler was made fifty years after the first Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, and twenty years before the infamous witch trials. Sarah Collins, the young woman who made the sampler, signed and dated her work in the bottom rows of letters. She lived in Salem, a coastal town about twenty miles outside of Boston with a good harbor, and she must have belonged to one of the families that was benefiting from this shipping trade. Clearly she wasn't required to work all day in the fields or preparing food for her family's sustenance, as girls might have done earlier in the colony's history. Instead she had sufficient time to devote to learning elegant, decorative needlework like this, and she was likely encouraged to do so as a sign not only her own skill, but as proof of her family's gentility.
The stitches and patterns are traditional designs that, once learned, could be employed in different ways. Letters and numbers would have been used to mark linens, shifts, and shirts, while the floral designs could embellish both clothing and household linens. Most of the sampler is worked in cross stitch, although there are some more linear stitches used as well. (Compare these geometrically-inspired designs with the more free-flowing flowers of the needle lace sampler I posted earlier from the 1790s.) Though faded with time, the colors would once have been rich and vibrant, and their selection would have been an integral part of Sarah's creation.
What impressed me the most, however, is not only Sarah's skill at needlework and design, but also the extraordinary tidiness of her work. The sampler is displayed sandwiched between two sheets of Plexiglas so that both sides are visible. If it weren't for the letters being backwards and the colors of the thread being brighter on the reverse (shown above right), it would be impossible to tell the right from the wrong side of the sampler. For Sarah, Puritan Massachusetts wasn't necessarily gloomy, but a place that included flowers, colors, and gleaming silk on fine linen - and beautiful embroidery.
Winterthur will be hosting a needlework conference in connection with this exhibition on October 14-15, 2016. Entitled Embroidery: The Language of Art, the conference speakers will include international experts on needlework as well as hands-on workshops in the needle arts. Click here for the conference brochure for more information. Sampler, worked by Sarah Collins, 1673. Winterthur Museum. Photographs copyright Winterthur Museum.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.