The role of needlework in women’s lives with exhibition curator Helen Wyld


HELEN WYLD: Hello. I’m Helen Wyld,
and I’m the curator of the exhibition
Embroidered Stories at National Museums Scotland. The exhibition includes around
70 samplers made in Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries. All of them come from the
collection of Leslie Durst. All household linen
and undergarments were made by hand,
and often in the home. And this sampler
reflects the skills that were needed to make
these kinds of objects. This is a sampler of what’s
known as plain sewing, which is things like making hems
and joins and button holes. Plain sewing would have
been taught to most girls before they did any
decorative needlework, but this example is interesting
because it’s actually based on a sewing manual printed
in the early 19th century. Manuals teaching
plain sewing started to be produced in
response to fears that as more women were in
full-time employment in things like factories, they were
losing the traditional skills of sewing and needlework. So a number of
different techniques are visible in this sampler,
and the first one here is just basic hemming
of a piece of cotton. This one includes
quite a complex frill, which is something
that you might apply to the edge of a
shirt collar or cuff. Here we’ve got
some button holes, and this one shows
actual buttons which have been made
from scratch using pieces of card and
wire, which then have cotton stitched over them. And there is a
sense that samplers themselves, when
displayed in the home, were a kind of
advertisement of a girl’s suitability for marriage. That seems to be particularly
clear in this sampler, made by Magdalene Faulds in 1796. The sampler includes two
figures of a woman and a man, and at the top, there is a
quote saying “Let the woman hear a wise man’s counsel.” This seems to be suggesting
that if she were married, Magdalene would listen
to her husband’s advice. Sewing was seen as a useful
pastime for some children more than others. This sampler was
made by Jane Milton in the early 19th century in the
Orphan Hospital in Edinburgh, and that’s the building that’s
depicted on the sampler. In the Orphan
Hospital, children were taught a range of
skills which would allow them to earn a living
when they grew up in order that they wouldn’t
be a burden on society. Boys were taught weaving
and spinning of cloth, and the girls were taught
to make household linen, and sewing was a large
part of their education. The girls at the
orphanage actually made all of the undergarments
and linen for use in the hospital, and some
was sold externally as well. Many of the samplers
in the exhibition include religious verses. And these verses
often emphasise a link between the idea
of female virtue and the practice of needlework. This was a link which had
existed in Christian thought since the Early Medieval
period, and it was still very strong in the 18th century. The sampler behind
me by Maria Mair includes one of the most
common of these verses, which reads “Favour is deceitful,
and beauty is vain, but a woman that feareth the
Lord– she shall be praised.” And then it goes on– “Give her the fruit of her
hands, and let her own works praise her in the gates.” So the first part
of this quote– which actually comes
from the Proverbs– is warning of the dangers of
being beautiful and charming. And then the second part
advises women to fear the Lord and to work with their hands– i.e. to practice needlework. Stories like Maria’s
aren’t immediately evident when looking at
the sampler, which is an interesting
element of these objects. They were aspirational
objects which demonstrated a
level of education, and didn’t really reveal the
personal situation of the girls who made them very often. Discovering women’s
personal attitudes to sewing in this period
is quite difficult, but one way in that we have
is an essay written in 1815 by a woman named Mary Lamb. Mary became a writer,
but in her early life, she’d made a living as a
mantua maker, or dressmaker, and actually supported
her family by doing this. The essay that she wrote,
called “On Needlework,” was the first ever analysis
of the role of needlework in women’s lives,
and it was really an attack on the necessity
that many women felt to practice needlework–
not just women who needed to earn
a living by sewing, but the more monied middle class
women who didn’t need to sew but felt socially
obliged to do so. Embroidered Stories is on at
the National Museum of Scotland until the 21st of April,
and entry is free. You can find out more
at www.nms.ac.uk. Please come along. There are many more
stories to be discovered.