Flag conservation

Flag conservation
Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Girlhood embroidery - the world of the sampler

by Barbara Owens
textile conservation of historic samplers and embroideries, repair, restoration, antique
Pictorial Sampler c. 1876

When you talk about samplers, an image is conjured of a rectangular piece of old linen with a hand-stitched alphabet, or perhaps a biblical verse, and a “signature” of a girl, perhaps between the ages of 8 and 12 at the bottom, often accompanied by the location of where she lived or went to school. But the world of samplers goes far beyond to include intricate, highly skilled pieces such as mourning pieces, coats of arms, genealogies, pictorial works, and landscapes. Some feature painted silk, metallic threads and velvet appliqué.

The underlying history to each sampler is that it is also a documentation of the education of girls at a time when girls were seldom educated, and when they were, it was a focus on domestic arts that often dominated their studies. For it was said in an early Italian proverb; “A girl should be taught to sew and not to read, unless one wishes to make a nun of her”.

The study of samplers is an immense field with numerous texts written on everything from the way a sampler was produced, to similar sampler themes and elements which make it indicative of a certain region, to the methods of stitching, and the list goes on and on. 

Historic samplers and mourning embroideries, conservation, repair and restoration of antique textiles by professional art conservator
A mourning piece c. 1864.  Notice the willow tree?  It appears frequently in this kind of sampler.
SAC has had the pleasure of working on countless samplers from nearly every decade from the late 1700’s through the mid to late nineteenth century when the dominance of needlework in education came to a close. Not to say that samplers first appeared in the late 1700’s, in fact they begin to appear as a “graduating accomplishment” in the century before and early samplers can be traced back to Renaissance times. The late eighteenth to mid nineteenth century was signified by a time when girls were sent to be “educated” in a way that made them suitable for a domestic future. Needlework was clearly important, reading might be taught, however writing was not always deemed necessary. Girls may also have received instruction in history or arithmetic, but equally important would be painting, drawing, and perhaps dancing and piano. This all depended of course on how much a family could afford, or if they could afford to send a daughter to school at all. 

Conservation of historic embroideries and samplers, textiles
A beautiful pictorial work.  Notice the original frame and the painted glass.
historic embroidery, antique textiles, before art conservation
Another pictorial piece prior to conservation.
Many times SAC receives samplers that are “incomplete”, meaning all that exists from the original is the linen and the thread in which it was worked. Gone are other key elements that include the stretcher, the glass (which is often edged in black paint and guilding), and the original framing, which if you are lucky, has the stamp of the framer who put the entire thing together. Samplers were the culmination of a young girl’s study. The family would provide the linen (or in some cases, the silk), the thread (mostly silk, and sometimes wool, but almost never cotton as it was incredibly expensive) and then the family would have the work framed and it would hang in the home as a testament to the abilities of their daughter and her completion of an education of propriety and piety.
Here the framer has documented his work "picture put back in the original frame Oct. 1st 1908".

While each sampler is different, the conservation of samplers often presents the same problems. So often a sampler has gotten wet in some way; either it was stored improperly, damaged in a flood, or the humidity levels were too high. This results in the dye of the thread beginning to “bleed” into the other colors or on to the linen. Moisture in/on samplers can also lead to tide marks in the linen.

Damage to samplers can also be “self-inflicted” in that the thread used to create the sampler contained tannins, which due to their own acidic nature, became brittle and then disintegrate. 

Embroidery and samplers, textile conservation of historic and antique needlework
Front side exposed to constant light. 
A sampler that has been displayed for years can also have light damage. The threads become faded and the linen darkens. Dust and dirt collect on the stitches and linen, furthering a dark, faded appearance. Turning a sampler over will reveal a glimpse of what it originally looked like. The reverse, particularly on samplers which are in their original frame, shows the original color of the linen and the vibrant colors of the thread.
Light damage to textile, historic embroidery and samplers, art conservation
Reverse side that had been protected from light - notice the difference in color.

Regional samplers come from a particular geographic location and can often be identified simply by what is in the picture. It has been speculated that this is simply because the schoolmistress gave out the same pattern to her students year after year. Particular style elements or unique stitches have been attributed to an individual teacher and can be traced to her as she moved from one school to another, therefore influencing the samplers of the towns in which she taught.

Dudley castle, Albany New York
Dudley Castle, which is now the Dudley Observatory in Schenectady, New York 
Hair samplers and mourning embroideries, historic and antique textile conservation
A mourning piece done in hair?
The Capital Region of New York has a unique feature to some of its samplers. Unlike samplers from other regions, these were worked in a small, fine, stitch that appears to be a brown or black thread. Here’s the rumor – it is said that the thread is actually the hair of the girl who created the sampler. Now that’s really putting yourself into your work! If it is hair, shouldn’t there be “blond” or “red” works?
mourning piece typically of those found in the Capital region of Albany New York, art conservation of textiles
A close-up of a "traditional" Capital Region piece 

Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

What do you think, is it possible, is it probable?

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