Sampler shirt

Of all the examples of fine needlework in Ellen Mahon’s sampler book, it’s the tiny clothes I find most fascinating. One of my favourite stories as a child was ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’ because I loved the idea of making tiny clothes for elves.

Here is a page showing Ellen’s example of a basic shift and a more complex shirt:

Page from Ellen Mahon’s sampler book

The shirt in particular is impossibly detailed. I have emailed the V and A to ask them for the dimensions of this book but haven’t had a response yet, so I can’t tell how big (or small) these examples might be. As I mentioned in my last post, it is often difficult to get a sense of scale just from looking at pictures – this book might be foolscap or bigger, or it might be much smaller than that and more like a pocket exercise-book. I’d like to know, just out of interest.

I’ve been using The Workwoman’s Guide as my main source for nineteenth-century sewing. Written by ‘A Lady’ and published in 1838, it has a baffling amount of information about what, and how, women were expected to sew. Most daily needlework would have been functional rather than decorative. I am astounded every time I think about how much sewing there would have been for a household before people had access to sewing machines. Every item in the house made of cloth would have been cut and sewn by hand – so that’s everyone’s clothes, towels, sheets, curtains, table linen, bed covers and quilts. The Workwoman’s Guide gives cutting instructions for six shirts, as it’s more efficient to cut and sew six shirts than one. That’s about 22 yards of fabric, all to be cut by hand.

Plate 17 from The Workwoman’s Guide, showing cutting layouts for shirts

Measurements are given in nails (a nail is 2.5 inches), and the book lists the nineteen useful parts of a shirt. Apart from the body, sleeves, cuffs and collar, there are various kinds of gusset, plus binders and shoulder straps.

It was therefore with quite a sense of trepidation that I embarked on an example of my own.

miniature shirt in progress with cuffs pinned on

In the end my poor effort only has 7 parts – a back, a front, two sleeves, two cuffs and a collar. I used a bit of vintage cotton sheet and in this scale it looks and feels like fine wool or flannel, so definitely a labouring man’s garment rather than anything a gentleman would consider suitable. The sleeves are rather too voluminous, on reflection, and the body is probably too short, but as a sample, and as a learning experience, it’s as good as it’s going to get. I did manage to get a few little pintucks into the front, and I found some very tiny beads that will do as buttons.

Cotton shirt sample, about 3″ x 4″

Don’t zoom in, it doesn’t bear close inspection. It is kind of cute though.

A Little Needlepoint (1)

A few weeks ago I made a small sample of needlepoint for my sampler book inspired by the 1850s one made by Ellen Mahon (here). She has a couple of examples of needlepoint, but I’m making a few more. I’m not setting out to make a copy of her book; I’m just seeing this exercise as an opportunity to try some of the techniques learned by my nineteenth-century predecessors.

I have a copy of the excellent Samplers, by Rebecca Scott, which I’ve used for reference. The design below appears at least twice in the book – as a motif on a cross-stitched sampler and also as a knitted motif on a pincushion. This suggests that this design was probably commercially available during the nineteenth century. By enlarging the photos I’ve been able to make an approximation of the charted design:

I do like a challenge, so I stitched the design on 40-count silk gauze, with a single strand of DMC embroidery thread.

It looks huge here but in real life it is very small. A sense of scale is often hard to convey in the virtual world. I find that very interesting.

Darning

I made some darning samples a few weeks ago, inspired by the darning samples created by Ellen Mahon in her sampler book

(left page) darning samples by Ellen Mahon, 1852-4

I’ve never done darning before. I have mended clothes, obviously, but have never done ‘proper’ traditional darning, which is basically weaving. I am not a weaver. I had to draw a diagram to stop me getting confused about all the unders and overs.

darning sample in progress

I used a single strand of DMC embroidery thread on hand-dyed evenweave (32 count, I think). You can see that my attempts are nowhere near as fine as Ellen’s.

darning sample with different colours

If you follow the instructions in nineteenth-century needlework manuals, you are supposed to leave a little loop at the end of each row to allow for shrinking in the wash. As these are only ever going to be decorative, I didn’t bother doing that. I tried a few different patterns, and made a few mistakes, but overall I think it will do. I was a bit concerned about the tension, as I didn’t use a hoop or frame, but a quick (careful) press with the iron seems to have sorted it out. The rather shoddy-looking example top right below was my first attempt.

five darning samples

This sample overall measures about 7″ square.

Sampling

A while ago I became fascinated by samplers, and in particular by the sampler books made by nineteenth-century schoolgirls. These consisted of little samples of various kinds of needlework, like seams, hemming, cross stitch, embroidery, darning, etc, and were pasted into exercise books as a record of the skills they had learned.
In fact I remember making something very similar as a schoolgirl myself. In the olden days, by which I mean the 1970s, in our secondary school boys and girls were separated for some of the lessons. The boys were herded off to do woodwork and technical drawing while the girls did needlework and cookery. We learned to sew using very old cast iron Singer treadle machines, and we stapled samples of flat felled seams and French seams into our exercise books.

I thought it might be an interesting exercise to connect the past and present by making my own version. The example that started this train of thought is in the V and A museum and can be viewed here:

Sampler book by Ellen Mahon, V and A Collection

This is a sampler book compiled by Ellen Mahon, when she was a student at Boyle School in Ireland in the early 1850s. It is filled with examples of fine needlework.

First page of Ellen Mahon’s sampler book, worked in cross stitch on linen

I still can’t sew, of course, but I’m thinking about how I might create something similar, and how that might be a good opportunity to sample some varieties of needlework that I wouldn’t normally do. There’s always something to learn, right?

A place of my own

I am still settling myself here. If you’ve been with me a while you will recall that I abandoned my blog nearly ten years ago to go wandering in the wilds of academia. During that time I did a PhD, taught some undergraduates at university, and then fell sideways into a job providing admin support for postgraduate research students. I am still doing the day job for three days a week. It pays the bills but my heart is still here among the tangled threads and bits of old quilt.

I’ve been spending my two free days a week focusing on my textile and mixed media work, and posting it on Instagram fairly regularly over the last few years. What frustrates me a little about Instagram (and social media in general, from the little of it I engage with) is that the pace is very, very fast.

Quite often I want to say more about the work I post on Instagram, but it feels as if there isn’t the time or the space there to slow down enough. It seems to be all about likes and views and follows. If you put more than one photo on a post, they get stacked up so that you have to swipe through them, and there isn’t any sensible way of writing about each picture at length unless you do it in separate posts. The whole thing seems to be designed for scrolling at speed. Maybe I am getting older and slower, but increasingly I want a quiet, calm space that is mine, where visitors can drop by if they want to and be still for a while.

I figured the best thing to do would be to come back here, where I have my own space, where I can be as slow as I like and say as much as I want to about a single image. I have started a fairly lengthy adventure making a nineteenth-century-style sampler book and I will have a lot to say about that. I still can’t use my hand for sewing so I probably have a couple of weeks to set this up the way I want it. It’s kind of exciting, in a quiet slow sort of way.

Shop update

Just to say you can now buy the textile interpretations of pottery shards (see my Exhibition page for more information about these) via the shop link in the top menu bar.

They are ready to hang – I’ve stitched each hand-embroidered fragment to a fabric-covered 5″ square with a hanging loop on the back – but you could also display them in a small box frame.

Thanks for taking a look.

Time in hand

A couple of weeks ago, I had a slight mishap during which this happened:

I can tell you there is no graceful way to fall headlong off a kick scooter onto very hard pavement, and pavement + right hand = fractured metacarpal. This, of course, means No Sewing, which is a Disaster.

Except it isn’t. In fact it’s been a useful, if somewhat painful, experience. I’ve ended up with a little time on my hands, to think and reflect and wonder about where I am and where I’m going next. It will be another few weeks before I can sew again but in the meantime there are plans, one of which is to be here again. This site is still a work in progress and there are still a few things to add, but I’ve made a start and everything is, as it were, in hand.

%d bloggers like this: