A little red and white

I made a little red work sampler for my Ellen Mahon-inspired sampler book. Ellen herself didn’t make a sampler in this style for her book, probably because it wasn’t yet a popular form of needlework. Red work samplers began to be made by girls at the Bristol Orphanage Schools during the 1860s-1880s. Their work is very fine, often around 30 cross stitches per inch, and the range of original designs is astonishing.

I drew some of the motifs after looking at the work of the Bristol orphanage girls, particularly this example by Mary Jeffries, and I stitched the sample with one strand of DMC thread on 22-count hardanger fabric. The stitched area measures about 5″ x 6″.

red work embroidery sampler

I haven’t done counted cross stitch since the 1990s, and I have to say I wasn’t much looking forward to making this, but I did enjoy it in the end. Unlike the plain alphabet marking samplers, which would have been made to practise marking household linens and clothing, these designs would have been purely decorative.

red work embroidery sample

I can totally understand that plain sewing would have been an essential skill to learn in the days before we had sewing machines, and I can see how decorative embroidery would have individualised garments and linen. Having spent many hours on this sample, I can also see that sewing a single repetitive stitch of the same size in the same colour over and over again may incidentally have functioned as a means of keeping girls still and quiet and out of the way. You have to concentrate in order to ensure the correct placement and size of stitches, and you need relative quiet in order to focus and count. This is fine, and quite enjoyable, for introverts like me, but I can imagine that extraverted girls might have become bored or frustrated by this kind of activity.

red work embroidery sample, single DMC thread on 22-count hardanger fabric (detail)

Author: Karen

Textile and mixed media artist

12 thoughts on “A little red and white”

  1. love that you are making the sampler book “your own” … drawing motifs from a range of samplers was something I enjoyed for many years, a sampling of samplers I suppose one would call it

    and as I read this I wondered if you have ever dabbled in stitching on perforated paper … very Victorian

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    1. Ha, perforated paper is not something I’ve been tempted to try (yet!) Yes, my sampler book is inspired by Ellen Mahon’s but won’t be identical. I love your description a sampling of samplers. I’m seeing it as an opportunity to try some nineteenth-century techniques and possibly to see life through the eyes of a distant past.

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  2. This is stunning work, Karen. I know counted cross stitch is not for me – I know that about myself! – but I really appreciate looking at your precision and inventive patterns. And also – such a legacy of women stitching, that feels important.

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    1. Ha, thank you – yes, it’s the connection and legacy I find interesting. I’m not exactly enjoying the cross stitch, and it’s not something I would choose to do for myself, but in the spirit of kinship with 19th-century girls and women I thought I should probably include some in the sampler book.

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  3. I definitely agree that this kind of stitchwork was a form of physical and mental control over women. I admire it very much, and seek out what I can find here in Normandy, but I couldn’t begin to imagine the labour involved for each woman to have had to create clothing and household linens for her future family. Girls were taught these skills from such a young age, but it’s mind boggling to imagine my wilful daughters even attempting a fraction of this!

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  4. 40 years ago I taught 11 and 12 year old girls (usually 3 or 4 at a time) how to make silk-on-linen samplers as we sat in the garden at the Geddy House in Colonial Williamsburg … we were all dressed in 18th-century clothing and I wish you could have seen the looks of concentration on the girls’ faces … they were so totally into it

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  5. There’s a lovely variety of patterns there. I’m not particularly keen on cross stitch myself, but oddly I find this sort of decorative pattern more appealing than pictures. And isn’t it astonishing to see how round those circles are, when the stitch itself is square!

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    1. Likewise, I am not a huge fan of cross stitch and am only doing it in honour of Ellen Mahon who had to work numerous samplers – but yes, I too was fascinated to see how the patterns use the straight lines to create curves. Square stitches that look round, to misquote the great Willy Wonka 🙂

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  6. Your counted cross stitch is lovely. I have done very little myself, mostly names and birthdates on Christmas stockings. I am impressed by the small size you are able to work!

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    1. Thank you for your lovely words and for stopping by, Nancy 😊
      I’m not a huge fan of counted cross stitch myself. I figured my samples have to be quite small because in the end they will have to fit on the pages of a book. I generally have to use a magnifying glass as my eyesight is not what it was!

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