Needlework is one of the most personal expressions of mourning art, and this is due to the lack of a mainstream industry surrounding it. Pieces were constructed in the home, making their sentiments genuine and heartfelt, unlike the established memorial cards whose biblical verses and poems were already chosen. Being an primary part of the education of young women, weaving and needlework are essential in the personal creation of mourning items, specifically samplers and their evolution. Indeed, it was in the final exams at Dame School where samplers were tested, often taking a year to create.
Many of the techniques had their origins in Europe (England and France) with quite advanced stitches. Metallic, silk and chenille’s are all common materials found within a piece of quality. As written by Olberding, US mourning samplers involve more crewel work than cross-stitch, with some of the stitches being tiny long-and-short and chain stitches that give the appearance of engraving. Some of the backgrounds were painted instead of stitched and many silks came from China and fibres from England or France.
As the base fabric, velvet, silk or linen were incorporated. Designs were then put onto the base fabric (often by an instructor) while the students would fill in the lines and choose colours and threads with guidance.
When looking for styles in construction of samplers, DeLorme describes these techniques; “the simple cross stitch, most commonly employed in a young girl’s first sampler, was later to include satin stitch, French knot, running and outline stitches, seed and bullion, couching and crewel.” Mourning samplers with water colour painting in the piece, as well as coloured silk, wool, or chenille thread on silk or satin background are also prolific, according to DeLorme.
America, from around the 1780s inherited much of the needlework technique being done in Europe, and as a largely puritan society, their samplers reflected much of the neoclassical symbolism of their time. American and European samplers still quite easy to source due to the practising of folk art. Much like the hairworking industries, needlework is area specific and different areas reflect different work. Something in regional Germany may display quite different techniques than an English piece of the same time. At its core, however, the prerogative of the stitching and content are at the creator’s whims. Often religious symbolism is displayed in samplers, and with death as the constant in mourning samplers, religious motifs are not unusual. They hold a powerful connection to the upbringing of a person within their household and the beliefs of a household and community, hence anything from the alphabet to heavy symbolism are employed.
In the coming weeks, we’ll be taking a look at some magnificent needlework pieces and try to find a distinction between different ethnicities and styles in art!