In the interests of keeping busy, I made a start on the cover for my sampler book.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to tackle the cover. I considered various kinds of needlepoint, cross stitch (really didn’t want to do any more of that) and a variety of seams. In the end I went for my usual style of book cover, which is layers of strips laid on a foundation fabric. I used modern, vintage and antique silk and cotton fabrics, mostly hand-dyed.
I really like old lace and ribbon, but I don’t tend to use it much. I thought this was probably a good place for it.
A couple of weeks ago I acquired a few old wooden bobbin reels – more on that later, there are plans afoot – all of which came with very old dusty thread still in place. Most of the thread was unusable, very brittle from age and light damage. But on two of the bobbins, once the outer layer of damaged thread was removed, the rest of it appears to be sound. I’ve dyed some, and have road-tested the finer of the threads on this cover. It breaks quite easily so wouldn’t be any good for sewing seams, but it seems fine for surface decoration.
As with the sampler book itself, I found myself wondering whether Ellen Mahon would like the cover I’ve made. I wanted to make it pretty for her.
I wondered about whether I should label the cover with words, whether I should stitch the words ‘sampler book’ somewhere on it. I decided not, in the end. For one thing I’m not very good at stitching lettering, and for another thing I didn’t think it needed words. I really like the way stitching conveys its own meaning without the need for words as well. I always think hand-stitching is more like writing than drawing. I often find myself recognising artists’ work by their stitching the same way I might recognise the handwriting on an envelope.
I’ve now compiled and assembled the pages for my nineteenth-century style sampler book that was inspired by this amazing example by Ellen Mahon. You might want to go and get a cup of tea and then make yourself comfortable. There’s a lot to look at today.
The pages are about 7″ square, and I’ve chosen to use cotton rag paper, 150gsm. I like the handmade look and the ragged edges. I also chose to stitch my samples to the paper as I didn’t like the glue stains that you can see on some of Ellen’s pages.
I kept my title page as close as possible to Ellen’s, in appreciation of her skill and dedication. It’s worked in cross stitch on 32-count even weave linen with one strand of DMC thread, and it has a drawn thread hem around the edge.
Pages 2 and 3 are based on plain sewing, which would have taken up most of a nineteenth-century needlewoman’s sewing time. Clothes, sheets, towels, table linen, curtains – all would have been made entirely by hand before the arrival of sewing machines. On page 2 I have included a sample of cotton flannel hemmed with herringbone stitch, and a sample of pleats and gathers, stitched to a plain cotton cuff. The hand-worked button holes are functional but they ain’t pretty. I’ve added some etched mother-of-pearl buttons and a packet of vintage needles. The modern tape measure ribbon is a bit corny but I like it. Page 3 includes a selection of fabrics and trims that might have formed the basis for making clothing.
Pages 4 and 5 focus on darning and mending. Page 4 is a set of darning samples; on page 5 I have attached a very ragged fragment of 19th-century linen to show mending and patching. If you lift the paper you can see the vintage darning needles.
Pages 6 and 7 are all about patchwork. I really like patchwork. I like the way lots of fragments can make a whole, the way lots of years make a life. I’ve used some of the treasure from my little collection of antique fabrics, including a fragment of unfinished patchwork made by someone probably in the later 19th century. The fragment still has the papers attached, and I’ve used some of the papers from other fragments on the page too. You can see that one of the papers has come from a letter that has been crossed (written across both axes of the page) to save paper.
Pages 8 and 9 show samples of clothing. The shirt is made from vintage cotton, and I’ve also attached to the page some vintage/antique samples of (I think) French printed cotton. The fabrics have come from a sample book as they still have their labels attached. Page 9 is an 1850s-style day dress, made from a vintage silk sari. I’ve added a fragment of block-printed cotton to suggest a shawl, along with some hand-dyed silk ribbon and lace that might have been used for trimming.
Pages 10 and 11 show samples of tent stitch needlepoint on canvas. All the designs were taken from mid-nineteenth century sources. It’s really amazing how the designs come to life when you see them in thread on canvas. The tiny samples were stitched on 40-count silk gauze; the larger one on page 10 is based on a sample in Ellen Mahon’s book. The thread-wrapped card is made using some of the threads I used on page 11, mostly hand-dyed cotton and silk perle.
Pages 12 and 13 are both worked in counted cross stitch on 22-count hardanger fabric. The red work sampler is inspired by those worked in the Bristol orphanages from the 1860s onwards. The alphabet sampler takes the alphabet and numbers from the anonymous The Workwoman’s Guide (1838) and the floral band motif from the Antique Pattern Library.
The final page is based on simple hand embroidery, designed by Sarah Bland in the mid-19th century. I’ve used a vintage cotton handkerchief as the background, and I’ve attached a Victorian mother-of-pearl thread winder. The embroidery samples are worked on silk taffeta and 22-count hardanger fabric.
The book collectively looks pretty much as I imagined it. There is still quite a bit to do – I need to sew the pages together, back to back, so that it works like a book, and then I need to bind the pages. I will probably need to use felt spacers between the pages in the binding margin to prevent the samples getting too squashed – the day dress in particular is worrying me a little because it is very bouncy and sits quite high off the page. Then of course I will need to make a cover for the book. But most of the work is done, and I am pleased with the result. I made most of these samples in the evenings, which is when women would probably have sat down to sew, after all the chores of the day had been done. I am used to sewing by hand – I sew every day, and I don’t use a machine – but even I am amazed and impressed by the sheer amount of work that it would have taken to clothe a family in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Or, as I prefer to describe it, trial by cross stitch. Ellen Mahon has several cross-stitched samples in her sampler book (you can see the whole thing here) – whether that is because she particularly enjoyed cross stitch, or whether she was made to do a lot of it, we will probably never know. Having done it myself, I suspect the latter rather than the former.
I drafted a chart on A3 graph paper, which in itself took longer than you might think. I used an alphabet from The Workwoman’s Guide (1843) and a floral band motif that I adapted from a design in the Antique Pattern Library – set aside plenty of time if you follow this link, you can easily lose a few hours looking at all the vintage and antique needlework patterns.
I stitched it on 22-count hardanger fabric with one strand of embroidery floss. It measures about 5″ x 6″. Lots of people out there enjoy counted cross stitch. Regrettably, I am not one of them. I don’t generally like following charts and patterns, I prefer to set out with a vague idea and let the thing evolve in its own way. I made a fairly significant mistake and didn’t spot it until quite late on in the proceedings, by which time I had neither the patience nor the inclination to unpick a whole section and re-stitch. This is not a good attitude, but there we are. I decided life is too short, and getting shorter by the day.
More optimistically, I have quite a collection of samples now and will soon be able to think about how I’m going to combine them in book form.
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″.
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.
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.
I thought I would have a go at a little dress for my 19th-century-style sampler book. Ellen Mahon’s sampler book contains some truly adorable little dresses:
My version has turned out to be a little more three-dimensional than either of these, but I will flatten it later when I attach it to a page. I haven’t decided yet whether I will use paper or cloth pages to display my samples – there are advantages and disadvantages to both methods, but I’ve got a lot more to make so I don’t need to decide yet.
I decided on a vaguely 1850s-style flounced day dress, using some vintage sari silk fabric and some fine silk thread. The Workwoman’s Guide is quite sketchy on dress patterns, and tends to stick to basic instructions for children’s clothes and plain dresses for servants and the working classes. The anonymous author says that making as much as you can at home will save money, but “it is strongly recommended to all those who can afford it, to have their best dresses invariably made by a mantua-maker, as those which are cut out at home seldom fit so comfortably, or look so well, as when made by persons in constant practice.” I had to make a few concessions, but it has turned out more or less as I intended.
There was no way I could make it wearable, but it’s doing a fairly convincing impression. Under the subtitle ‘Order is the best economy of time’, The Workwoman’s Guide advises, very sagely, “it is of great consequence that dresses should be carefully and neatly put away, as their preservation depends much on the attention paid to this: a gown smoothly folded, and laid by directly it is taken off, will last half as long again as one that is thrown about upon dirty chairs, or tumbled and creased in the wrapping up.” I have taken her advice and placed it in the box with the other samples.
Another sample of needlepoint for my Ellen Mahon style sampler book. This one is taken from a design by Sarah Bland (1810-1905), who created many designs for canvas work and embroidery. You can read a little more about her here, and you can see more of her work at the V and A Collections here.
The great thing about antique canvas work and samplers is that it’s relatively easy to replicate the designs and motifs by zooming in to a photograph and transposing the stitches onto graph paper. I really like this little stylised flower motif:
It isn’t an exact copy, but it’s near enough. I like the idea that women were designing their own work despite the fact that embroidery patterns were commercially available in vast numbers. To me that suggests a recognition of self-worth and individualism, finding a voice through which to express a lived experience. Needle and thread often seems to me more like writing than drawing. Hand stitches in particular are as characteristic as hand writing, whether they depict text, shapes, or abstract patterns and lines.
I worked this one very small as well, like the last one – single strand of DMC cotton thread on 40-count silk gauze:
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:
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.
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.
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.
Don’t zoom in, it doesn’t bear close inspection. It is kind of cute though.
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.
I made some darning samples a few weeks ago, inspired by the darning samples created by Ellen Mahon in her sampler book
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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?