Education, Education, Education: Samplers as a Teaching Tool.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, samplers not only demonstrated an ability to do simple embroidery techniques, but they could also teach the stitchers literacy and numeracy, as girls almost invariably stitched alphabets and numerals on their sampler.

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Elder Girls Learning to Sew in the Bristol Orphan House, c.1905. Image taken from Centenary Memorial 1805-1905 (Bristol: J. Wright and Co., 1905). Copyright, and reproduced by permission, of the Bristol Central Library.

Furthermore, the moral texts they worked allowed the girls to reflect and ponder on religious and ethical sentiments. The extracts were usually taken from the Bible, hymns or poems, with the most popular verses being by Isaac Watts (1674-1748), Charles Wesley (1707-1788) and William Cowper (1731-1800).

Contemporaries believed that teaching needlework greatly benefitted girls from impoverished backgrounds as it prevented idleness and gave them employable skills. Girls could start sewing as young as 5 or 6, as long as they could hold a needle and a piece of fabric. They might make their first sampler as young as 8, possibly continuing with further ones into their later teenage years.

But samplers can be used as an educational tool today, as a way to inform young children about schooling in the past. I intend to run an activity workshop next month, providing an interesting and engaging session on sampler making in 18th– and 19th-century schools. I also plan on telling them some of the life stories of the makers, explaining to the children that needlework skills could provide young embroiderers from the past with an occupation.

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University of Cambridge Museums

Archive of projects, events and news from 2012 to May 2017

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