Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Temptation Tuesday - Samplers

Kate Walker talks about her fascination with history, embroidery and the very beautiful pieces of work that combine both interests - and tell little stories of their own.

I may write Modern Romance, with its sophistcated, cosmopolitan settings, its billionaire businessmen heroes and contemporary storylines, but I have a very strong interest in and love for history. So much so that when I first started writing I thought that historical ficiton/historical romance would be where I would make my mark. I still have moments when I yearn to write something set in the past, but Modern Romance
/Presents is where I've made my mark and my career. So the history remains a interest but not a source of fiction.

I also love embroidery. I have a table cloth covered in flowers that I worked myself, some napkins too, and several embroidered pictures that I've turned into cushion covers. But where these two interests combinr is in my fascination with and collection of embroidered samplers.

The oldest surviving samplers were constructed in the 15th and 16th centuries. As there were no pre-printed patterns available for needleworkers, a stitched model was needed. Whenever a needlewoman saw a new and interesting example of a stitching pattern, she would quickly sew a small sample of it onto a piece of cloth - her 'sampler'. The patterns were sewn randomly onto the fabric as a reference for future use, and the woman would collect extra stitches and patterns throughout her lifetime.

16th Century English samplers were stitched on a narrow band of fabric 6–9 in (150–230 mm) wide. As fabric was very expensive, these samplers were totally covered with stitches. These were known as band samplers and valued highly, often being mentioned in wills and passed down through the generations. These samplers were stitched using a variety of needlework styles, threads, and ornament. Many of them were exceedingly elaborate, incorporating subtly shaded colours, silk and metallic embroidery threads, and using stitches such as Hungarian, Florentine, tent, cross, long-armed cross, two-sided Italian cross, rice, running, Holbein, Algerian eye and buttonhole stitches. The samplers also incorporated small designs of flowers and animals, and geometric designs stitched using as many as 20 different colours of thread.

The earliest dated surviving sampler, housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, was made by Jane Bostocke who included her name and the date 1598 in the inscription. However, the earliest documentary reference to sampler making is recorded in 1502 The household expense accounts of Elizabeth of York record that: 'the tenth day of July to Thomas Fisshe in reward for bringing of concerve of cherys from London to Windsore ... and for an elne of Iynnyn cloth for a sampler for the Quene'.

A border was added to samplers in the 17th century, and by the middle of the 17th century alphabets became common, with religious or moral quotations, while the entire sampler became more methodically organised. By the 18th century, samplers were a complete contrast to the scattered samples sewn earlier on. These samplers were stitched more to demonstrate knowledge than to preserve skill. The stitching of samplers was believed to be a sign of virtue, achievement and industry, and girls were taught the art from a young age.

The Victorian samplers that most people see now usually have the full alphabet, sometims with numbers up to 10 as well. Then there are pictures - houses, animals, trees, bible symbols, an usually some verse from the bible worked in cross stitch. Most Samplers are in diferent colours though some are worked in just one colour, often black or red.

I started my collection of embroidery and samplers about 20 years ago and now have over forty pieces in it. My very first sampler, created in 1889 by little Hannah Sykes aged seven (seven! Can you imagine any seven year old today sitting quietly stitching at her embroidery?) mwas rescued from a bundle of rags sent to be pulped. I just couldn't bear the thought of all that nwork, all that time in a small girl's life being destroyed. And this is one

of the reasons why I love samplers so much. As well as being beautiful things in themselves, they are so very personal. Some young girl sat for hours, perhaps beside the fire of in candlelight, stitching away without a pattern or the motifs printed off on a chart as they are today. The creators of these items held them in their hands, peered over them to embroider, perhaps pricked their fingers on a needle and maybe left a tiny spot of blood on the linen.

They chose the colours, worked out the design, and finally picked out the verse from the bible to complete their work. Some of them had long, pious passages several lines long - but my personal favourite of my collection is the one by little Selina Dyson aged just 8 who clearly thought about this and found the shortest possible verse in the bible - Jesus wept! she embroidered back in 1850. Today that sounds rather like an exclamation of just how she felt as she finished it!

The oldest sampler I have is dated 1789 and was embroidered simply by EB. Then there are the samplers worked by two young sisters Dorothy Oliver aged 12 and her younger sister Sarah who was eleven in 1844.

There is one particularly sad sampler, done in dull gold and black because it is a mourning sampler, embroidered after the death of a young girl exactly 117 years ago today. There is no alphabet on this one, only an urn and a weeping willow tree with an inscription :

Sacred to the memory of Lizzie Hindmarsh who died at Edinburgh on 19th October 1893 aged 18 1/2 years

and then a poignant little poem:

We have to mourn the loss of one

We did our best to save

Beloved on earth

Regretted gone

Remembered in the grave

I've embroidered some of my own samplers to go into the collection. Starting with a simple one that came as a special kit through some magazine - I think it was Woman's Own - over 20 years ago. Then there's one with many different types of herbs embroidered arond the edges and one that I bought in another kit and then was horrified to find it didn't have the design printed on it but I had to count out all the pattern and shapes just as the Victorians would have had to do. It gave me a whole new respect for these little girls trying to do this with small unskilled fingers, working by candlelight.

Not all samplers are colourful and ornate. Two of my favourite samplers are the ones embroidered by Charlotte (in the red) and Emily Bronte (the back design) These combine two of my personal

favourite things in life- the Bronte sisters and embroidered samplers. But I only get to look at them behind the protection of glass whenever I visit the Haworth Parsonage Museum.

And not all of my embroideries are samplers. The most prized piece in my collection is probably the simplest - a tiny, lace-edged bookmark embroidered in tiny pink cross-stitch - from Katie to Dear Mama. This was embroiderd by my maternal grandmother for

her mother some time in the late 1800s. And that Katie was later to become Kate Walker, the grandmother I was named for.

Kate Walker's latest Presents title is The Good Greek Wife? which is out in the Presents Extra line-up this week in The Greek Tycoons mini-series.
This book is part of a special collection of stories updating the ancient Greek Myths and turning them in to Presents romances. If you want to read more about how Kate wrote this story you'll find the details on her web site. You can also find all the most up to date information on her blog.


  1. I'd love to see pictures of your tablecloth - that is something I've never attempted though I enjoy cross stitch. We have a sampler done by my grandmother's mother, in red and green - quite course fabric and thread, as that would have been cheap to provide for a school. She has embroidered the initials of her family at the top, and there are some we're still trying to disentangle!

  2. Oh, Kate, what lovely examples! I love samplers for the same reason you do, though I've never made one. One day when I was ten, my grandmother said, "It's time you learned to embroider," and she stamped pillowcases for me. His and Hers with the couple in their nightshirts performing a strange dance with their candles. Apparently, so tired, they couldn't stand! I hadn't embroidered anything in years, but a friend was talking about her love of embroidered linens and I felt the hunger again. So I found a set of patterns from the 1940s on ebay. Mind you, I then lost the courage to actually use those patterns (history!), so I bought a kit for pillowcases again. How timely!

    Some of my favorite memories of my grandmother are those days we spent on a quilt under the trees in my yard as she taught me to embroider my tumbling, sleepy couple! Thanks for letting me visit those memories again!

    Does your good Greek wife do needlework--like Penelope before her? :-)

  3. Ah Kate, this is a lovely post... I used to have a real passion for needlework myself in my early teens. Because I spent so much of my time watching movies, my mum thought I should do something useful while I was doing it (little did she realise I'd end up making a living out of watching movies) so she used to buy me embroidery kits. There was something so wonderfully relaxing about watching Marlon Brando or Jimmy Dean or the Saturday Night Western and creating these embroidered pictures at the same time.

    Unfortunately I got a bad case of RSI in my early twenties and had to give it up, but I'm sure I've still got my hoop and all my threads somewhere in the attic, never had the heart to throw them out!

  4. Alison - the tablecloth is white linen with a wide border of flowers all around the edges. My M-I-L always used to tease me that I wold never finish it because she had started one that lay half-finished in a drawer. But I always wanted to make one as we used to have a big table cloth that my mother had embroidered when she was ill with TB - sadly that disintegrated. I'd love to see it now

  5. Anna - did you ever use those His and Hers pillow cases? I love the image of you and your grandmother sittng under the trees, embroidering. One of my first ever projects was a cushion cover that I made for my grandfather when he was 80 and I can still remember how it was in his special chair for years until he died.

    Penelope and her embroidery - yes, I wanted to put something like that into the story but I felt that just sitting waiting, embroidering wasn't quite 21st century - and Penny's other suitors wouldn't wait for her to finish that. So I gave her something slightly different to do. You'll have to read the book to find out!

  6. Hi Heidi - I'd never have associated you with embroidery. How interesting that we share the interest. Like you I still have my hoop and some silks in a box at the top of my wardrobe but I never had time to use them now. Like you, I used to embroider while watching TV - or listening to the radio. My mother used to sit with me and knit too - very productive evenings! I remember my husband feling quite left out. ;-)