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Natural Tendency and Nurturing Skills: Needlework Samplers and the Crafting of Femininity

Cathleen Burton | Lancaster University

Fig 1. Farmer Giles & his wife showing off their daughter Betty to their neighbours, on her return from school, James Gillray, 1809.
Fig 1. Farmer Giles & his wife showing off their daughter Betty to their neighbours, on her return from school, James Gillray, 1809.

The year is 1808, and young Betty Giles has returned home from boarding school (Fig 1). Her parents have paid good money to have her educated as a genteel young lady, and she has graduated not with a diploma, but a sampler, a piece of needlework identified by its bands of letters and symbols. It hangs with pride in the family’s parlour on the back wall in between the candles as a testament to their daughter’s accomplishments. While this cartoon by James Gillray satirized the family, the scene it depicts occurred often in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England and North America. Samplers were an important part of the education of young girls, and the symbolism held in them can teach us about the world these girls inhabited.

Samplers have a long history of development. In the 1600s, spot samplers were a way of learning and practicing stitches and were used as a reference for later works. By the early 1700s, band samplers were more common, featuring rows of patterns and images designed to be displayed. These samplers were created by middle- and upper-class girls who had both the time and the means to devote to their creation. Band samplers often included an alphabet and biographical information, including the creator’s name, age and birthplace. Unlike spot samplers, the band samplers were themselves the end product, the accumulation of knowledge the girls received to that point, changing their value from a reference book to a display of the girl’s skill. Band samplers were mostly produced from 1700-1850, after which they declined in popularity. The frequency with which samplers were made shows that they were considered a major part in the education of girls. Thousands of samplers can be found in museum collections such as the Smithsonian and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and online collections such as To understand why samplers were such a formative part of young girls’ education, we must first understand the historical connections between sewing and femininity.

In England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were widely held beliefs that women were naturally modest, cheerful, sensible, and chaste: traits that gave them natural inclinations towards domestic activities, including sewing. In the eighteenth century, the practice of sewing was an act of performing femininity and displaying womanly virtues. Sewing would not exacerbate perceived womanly failings, such as fearfulness and fretfulness, making it an ideal activity for genteel women. These beliefs were not universal and were challenged by women who described in letters and diaries how the process of needlework was tedious and unpleasant. Women would spend hours straining their eyes over tiny stitches, hunched in their chairs. Many eighteenth-century women writers and modern gender historians have defined needlework as an oppressive task. The sewing woman was inert, pinned by the needle to her chair. One of the most outspoken critics of needlework was Mary Wollstoncroft in her Vindication on the Rights of Women (1792):

…this employment contracts their faculties more than any other that could have been chosen for them, by confining their thoughts to their persons… women make their own clothes, necessary or ornamental, and are continually talking about them; and their thoughts follow their hands. It is not indeed the making of necessaries that weakens the mind; but the frippery of dress.

Here, Wollstoncroft argues that the emphasis on dress, and by extension needlework, inhibits women from thinking on other more useful topics. Wollstoncroft, and others who shared her opinion, had to contend with both male and female critics who felt women were incapable of higher-level thinking.

Women themselves pushed for more wide-ranging education during the 1800s. Education treatizes and novels contained extensive discussions over how girls’ education should be properly conducted. Some education writers and doctors said that academic education would overstrain women, that it threatened their sexual identity. Others said education produced better wives. Both arguments downplayed the importance of intellectual pursuits for the betterment of the woman herself. Instead, each position emphasized the creation of a better woman for her husband, her children, and society. Pioneers for education such as Hannah Moore and Maria Edgeworth argued that needlework helped women be more selfless and, therefore, better mothers.

Modern historians are now taking a critical look at these past debates, attempting to unpick the narratives of the either cheerful or oppressed housewife straining her eyes over her sewing. The act of sewing did not completely limit thinking; once a girl was familiar in the motions of stitching, her mind was free to concentrate on other things. Whilst sewing, women could listen to books being read aloud and could converse. There is also a need to acknowledge the benefit of needlework as a creative outlet. Embroidery was a means by which women could express themselves. The patterns created and copied by women were filled with coded symbols, which could be read if the language was known. Women chose images to reflect their own identity, who they were and whom they wanted to be. For working-class women, sewing provided employment opportunities, giving some women an opportunity for financial freedom during a time when many women were forced to rely on men. In short, the study of women’s history cannot reduce needlework to either “oppressive” or “liberating”; to categorize it as either would be to lose its nuance. The practice of sewing was different for each woman, providing a range of opportunities. Needlework and sewing at once bound women to the domestic sphere while giving them an outlet with which to express themselves, all while still remaining within the boundaries of appropriate feminine activity.

As sewing was an instrumental skill for women, it was one of the first pieces of girls’ education. Many were taught to sew as soon as they could hold a needle, with samplers being produced by children as young as five years old. Early instruction was usually carried out by the girls’ mothers, and depending on their family’s financial status, girls might receive further education. These women would teach their pupils the basic stitches and would choose the designs and verses of the samplers. Most girls who received education from the age of eight to thirteen would produce a band sampler. Through samplers, girls learned foundational skills, including reading and arithmetic through patterns.

The incorporation of genteel symbols and moral verses that the girls could dwell upon while completing their task also turned the sampler into a tool for moral education. The long hours of repetitive work gave girls time to contemplate the verses and symbols they were stitching. The verses sewn onto samplers reflected contemporary ideals and moral lessons, usually about the role of women within society. They emphasized supposed “feminine virtues|” including obedience, faith, and humility. Author Maria Edgeworth commented in her Letters to Young Ladies her wish to instruct young girls in the dangers of pride and vanity, so the girls might grow to be a compassionate and virtuous woman. These virtues extended beyond the included words as the simple act of creating the sampler itself was an exercise in patience and diligence, keeping girl’s hands busy to avoid devilish idleness.

In specific cases, samplers could also be a demonstration of gentility and class. Embroidery such as the kind seen on “fancywork” samplers featured more detailed embroidery than band samplers. These samplers were produced by upper-class teenage girls, whose families had been able to afford their extended education. These needleworks are demonstrations of status, as the young women had both the skill and time to create them. These women could outsource ‘useful’ work, activities needed to support the family, to servants and instead focus their time on ornamental work designed to show refinement. Idealized needlework scenes recreated images from artwork and novels. They romanticized lives focused on leisure, making it something to aspire to. It should be noted that leisure does not equal idleness. Leisure was beneficial, while idleness created opportunities for vice and temptation. Embroidering was often the default activity if there was nothing else to do, as it kept the hands busy while still displaying the means to participate in refined activity. In this aspect, sewing as leisure was used by women in the upper classes to distinguish themselves from women who were required to sew to support their family. After sewing a band sampler as a young girl, an upper-class teenager receiving further education might create a fancywork sampler to showcase the extra layers of education and refinement she received, setting her apart from other women.

Cassandanna Hetzel’s 1823 sampler is an excellent example of a fancywork sampler that includes references to classical imagery and moral education. Hetzel was born in 1802 in Pennsylvania. The stitching on the sampler records its production at Mrs. Leah Meguier's School, and several other samplers survive that were produced in this location. Hetzel would have been about nineteen or twenty years old at the time the sampler was stitched, and both the skill of the work and the subject matter demonstrate gentility and a well-rounded education. The images on the border are symmetrical, with the animals and flowers mirrored on the opposite side. Notable symbols are the lamb, a symbol of innocence, the fruits within the border are also reminiscent of a cornucopia, representing bounty and good fortune. Inside the border is another border of a vine containing grapes, ivy and other plants. Grapes are often referred to as a Christian symbol of Jesus, and ivy can be interpreted as immortal life due to its durability. The central image is of a classical woman holding a wreath in a garden space. Her dress and the willow behind her are both symbols of classicism, while her wreath represents victory. There are several sections of text below the figure; the first records Hetzel’s name, and the sampler’s creation date and place. The middle section reads, “When I am dead and in my grave/and all my bones are rotten here you see remember me/or I should be forgotten”. Here Hetzel recognizes her own mortality and indicates that her work would be one of her legacies. In the third section, Hetzel concludes with a small verse emphasizing her Christian devotion: “…Christ is my salvation…”. Hetzel’s sampler is designed to show her mastery of needlecraft as well as her repertoire of symbols. The figure shows her understanding of classical symbols. The symbols and verses reflect a rounded religious education. Altogether the sampler is a visual statement of Hetzel’s genteel education.

In a world with strong gender divides, sewing became a representation for women’s natural domesticity and delicacy. Sewing was an activity undertaken by women of all classes, and the production of a sampler was part of a young girl’s gateway into that domestic world. Sampler making was an experience that united educated young girls across England. In the years following their production, samplers might be displayed like Betty Giles’ was, as a testament to her genteel accomplishment, and providing a visual representation of her mastery of the feminine art. In these cases, the sampler serves as both diploma and resume demonstrating their instruction in the domestic arts, feminine virtues, and classical fashion. Mothers and teachers used the medium of the sampler to nurture the development of what was believed to be natural feminine qualities. All of these lessons instructed girls in ways to lead a good life, one full of virtue and spiritual faith.


Further Reading:

  • M Edgeworth, 1815 Practical Education. Boston: T.B. Wait and Sons.

  • M Wollstonecraft, 1792. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, London: Printed for J. Johnson.

  • On sewing and femininity: R Parker, 1996 The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, London: The Women’s Press.

Cathleen is currently undertaking a Masters Degree in History at Lancaster University, focusing her research on Gender and Material Culture in the Georgian Era. She is particularly interested in how people, both past and present, use objects to construct and project identity.


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