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Embroidered Welsh Samplers
Last Friday I headed over to the National Museum of Wales at St Fagans to visit the Textiles department. The Curator for Textiles, Elen Phillips, had kindly agreed to let me examine some of the old embroidered samplers in their collections.
The museum has hundreds of these creations but there are less than a handful on display – in no small part due to the current re-development project that is in progress and due for completion in 2016.
Whilst these embroideries might not be on public display at present you can make an appointment to view parts of the collection. Elen kindly dug out three boxes full of embroideries for me to look through which kept me entertained and engrossed for hours.
One of the first things I noticed about these embroideries was just how many of them were created by young girls aged from 7 – 11 years old. The scale and complexity of the designs that have been stitched by these young girls is quite staggering. I could never imagine a child of that age today undertaking the amount of work that would be necessary to complete one of these samplers.
The other thing that initially struck me about these creations was the size of the stitches that have been used. They are absolutely tiny!
I’d have to set myself up with a string daylight bulb and a magnifying class before even considering embroidering something with such small stitches.
The word ‘sampler’, or in French ‘essamlaire’, indicates that these works were intended to be exemplar pieces. Needle workers would use them as models from which to stitch. This is perhaps why so may of the samplers contain varying strings of alphabets and numbers often in different fonts.
That said many of the samplers are created as testimonials in remembrance of lost loved ones and others contain religious messages.
A large number of the samplers were completely monochromatic; completed using only one colour of thread. This is perhaps understandable if these works had been created by young girls wanting to practice their stitches. Choosing to perfect ones stitches before introducing another layer of complexity in terms of colour makes sense.
There was however, only one example of black work embroidery (above) which is a shame. Black work tends to appear particularly stylised and given that a lot of my own embroideries are very monochromatic I’d have liked to have been able to examine a bit for of it up close.
This recumbent stag created by Elizabeth Harvey in Penarth (1815) was one of my favourite images from those that I was able to examine. Like the majority that I looked at it was created using mostly cross stitches.
I found it interesting that so many of these works were created using cross stitch given the fine linen they were sewn upon. I think the combination of a fine ground and the cross stitch is a cause for some of incredibly tiny stitches. Upon closer inspection it looked as if the stitchers had tried to use the fine weave of the ground as guides for theor stitches in the same way that a cross stitcher might use Aida fabric.
The collection provided exactly the kind of inspiration that I was looking for as I’m starting to thing about beginning a new series of embroideries. If you have the inclination and opportunity I would definitely recommend booking yourself an appointment to view some of these works for yourself.
Find out more about St Fagans here: www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/stfagans/