Monday, October 29, 2018

Embroidery as the Thread of History

Monday, October 29, 2018
Susan reporting,

In the modern era, examples of amateur needlework created by women and girls of the past have often been regarded as sweetly decorative, and no more. The notion of dainty feminine hands bent over a sampler is a romantic one that's hard to shake: tiny precise stitches simultaneously represented not only industry, but also the luxurious spare time to sit and embroider with costly materials. While there is certainly an element of truth to this, the admiration can also be tinged with condescension. Boys went out into the world and did important things. Girls sat sequestered indoors and stitched pretty pictures.

Lately, however, material culture scholars have begun to study samplers and other embroidery from a different perspective. A new exhibition at Winterthur Museum called Embroidery: The Thread of History (now through January 6, 2019) considers these embroidered pieces as historical documents that described not only the workers themselves, but their families, friends, and the world in which they lived. As the catalogue notes, "Women are often poorly represented in traditional archival sources, but their needlework can provide crucial evidence of lives that would otherwise remain unknown."

Eighteenth and early nineteenth century samplers that listed the maker's hometown and her birth date as well as the dates for other family members were regarded as important family documents. They held the same importance and legitimacy as the handwritten pages in the front of family Bibles, and in an era when many families were moving to new regions, a sampler could be more lasting and more portable than a Bible page, too. Samplers noting marriages and births were even accepted as evidence in the military pension applications presented by widows of Revolutionary War veterans.

Through their needlework, women and girls could evoke a familiar place or culture left behind through emigration, or display civic pride by showing a new local town building or church. They could document the family's trade or wealth, documenting ships, farmlands, and homes. They could memorialize and honor the dead, whether a family member or a national figure like George Washington.

Needlework could also represent a much larger history, as the exhibition notes for the family sampler shown above - worked in silk on linen by Sarah Ann Major Harris as a schoolgirl c1822-1828 - explain:

"This sampler documents an extraordinary family and foreshadows the legal fight for equal rights for African Americans. Seeking to further education in order to become a teacher, Sarah Ann Major Harris (1812-1878) , asked Prudence Crandall if she could become a day student at her school in Canterbury, Connecticut, in 1832. Crandall agreed and, in protest, many parents withdrew their daughters from the school. Crandall then recruited other young black female pupils, many of whom were from out of state. As a result, the state of Connecticut adopted what became known as the Black Law, which prohibited the teaching of 'Colored persons who are not inhabitants of this state.' The arguments developed by Crandall's defense attorneys were used later in the case of Dred Scott vs. Sanford (1857) and were echoed in Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

"Sarah Harris continued to be active in the abolitionist movement throughout her life. She married another activist, George Fayerweather, and today their home in Kingston, Rhode Island, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Sarah was clearly well educated, having worked this sampler before attending Crandall's school."

Many thanks to Linda Eaton, Director of Museum Collections and Senior Curator of Textiles, Winterthur Museum, for her assistance with this post.

Above: Sampler, worked by Sarah Ann Major Harris, possibly at a school in Saybrook, CT, 1822-28. Winterthur Museum.


Sara said...

Beautiful writing. Just love it

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