Thursday, July 12, 2012

Women's History in a Strand of Silk

Thursday, July 12, 2012
Isabella/Susan reporting:

Earlier this year, I wrote this post about 19th c schoolgirl needlework that had recently appeared in an exhibition at Winterthur Museum. One of our wise readers (and we do love our wise readers!) wrote to say that while she had enjoyed the post, Winterthur's exhibition wasn't telling the whole story by featuring pieces almost entirely from the northern American states. Where were the samplers and other fancy stitchery done by the girls of the South?

She was right, too. Many histories of 19th c American needlework emphasis the schools and handiwork of girls in the big northern cities of Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Very few feature the handiwork of southern girls. Some historians go so far as to claim that needlework simply wasn't important to these girls and women, or that the reason for so comparatively few surviving pieces in auctions and museums was because the humid climate destroyed them, or even that they were used for bandages in the Civil War.

None of those "explanations" is true. The reality is much less dramatic: few examples turn up for sale because Southern families tend to hang on to their heirlooms. Great-great-grandmother's prized sampler was simply too cherished to sell or be left behind, and their small size made them easy even for a family displaced by the Civil War to carry with them.

One group is working hard to change these perceptions. The Tennessee Sampler Survey is not only tracking down and documenting samplers and other needlework with Tennessee ties, but also creating an on-line resource exhibition of the pieces. The website is invaluable for collectors and historians, and inspiring to modern needleworkers. More importantly, it also gives names and voices to the hundreds of girls and women who worked these beautiful pieces, and the long-gone schools and academies they attended.

Women's history is seldom written as boldly as that of men. Sometimes it isn't written with ink and paper at all, but with a strand of silk thread on linen.

Above: Sampler worked by Frances (Fanny) Matilda Batey (1842-1926.) Completed 1862, at Franklin College, Nashville, TN. Silk & wool on linen.
Many thanks to Janet Hasson, director & genealogist of the Tennessee Sampler Survey, for her assistance with this post. 


Kaisa Kyläkoski said...

Great work in Tennessee. Are you already familiar with QuiltIndex?

Anonymous said...

Very well said. The silken strands speak a lost language of its own too.

Mark and Marianne Egan said...

One of the most memorable pieces on exhibit (to me) in the Mormon History Museum in Salt Lake City is a stitched sampler made by a young girl of about 12 years. It is stitched from her own hair as she worked her needle on the treck west to Utah. I guess without other string to use, she turned to what she had on hand (or head).

Martha said...

Kim Smith Ivey, associate curator of textiles at Colonial Williamsburg, has spent many years researching Virginia and southern samplers. She's done an exhibit on Virginia schoolgirl embroideries and samplers, with an accompanying catalog, "In The Neatest Manner: The Making of the Virginia Sampler Tradition."

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