For my 19th-century style sampler book, I tried out some designs from Mrs Henry Owen’s The Illuminated Book of Needlework (1847) which you can read online here. Clockwise from top left are Berlin stitch, Perspective stitch, Darmstadt pattern, Willow stitch, Diamonds, Double pointed star, Point stitch, Feather stitch, and (centre) Sutherland stitch.
I don’t know much about Mrs Henry Owen, but she certainly knew a lot about needlework. I’ve worked these samples on 22-count mono canvas, with various silk and cotton perle threads, mostly no. 8 or 12. The space-dyed threads are particularly effective when worked on canvas like this.
I particularly like the centre design, which Mrs Owen calls Sutherland stitch:
I also like the double-pointed star:
And this is Perspective stitch, surprisingly effective and quite modern:
I wouldn’t normally choose to do this kind of counted canvas work, and I don’t normally enjoy following charts, but I did enjoy making this little sample. It’s very satisfying how the stitches come to life as they are worked. Soon I will be able to start compiling the pages of my sampler book to bring all the samples together.
It seems impossible that we’re just over halfway through January already, which means I have completed 18 blocks of my stitch journal.
I worried that it might be a chore to work on this every day, but in fact I look forward to stitching a daily section. I sew every day anyway, so it’s just a matter of making a separate space for it. I don’t always like what I’ve stitched, but it surprises me to find that I don’t mind that so much. These are days, and some days are great, and some days are not so good. Most days are a mixture of the two.
I set out with the premise that this would be just thread on a single piece of cloth, so no lining, backing, applique, paint, dye, or patching. I hardly ever sew on a single layer, and whereas I usually bury thread ends etc between layers, I really wanted the back to be visible on this one. I’m already finding it challenging that the background is always white, which is also unusual for me. Some days I have wanted to stitch a white thread on a coloured ground, but I said no paint or dye, so the only way to colour the ground is to fill it with stitch and then stitch over it. That has been working just fine.
I see this as less of a personal diary and more as a universal marker of time, a record of the passing days, the turning of the wheel. We all live through the same day, at the same time if we’re in the same time zone, and the days mean different things to all of us. I find there is something very moving about witnessing the passage of time in this way, and to see it recorded on a roll of cloth.
I look at the blank outlined blocks and think of the days and weeks ahead, and wonder what they will bring.
The third sample of miniature needlepoint for my sampler book comes from a chart in the Antique Pattern Library and, like the previous samples, is worked on 40-count silk gauze. I used spun silk thread and tent stitch.
This is the original nineteenth-century charted design, which I printed:
I wasn’t keen on the colours so I changed them.
It’s amazing how different it looks for being worked in an alternative colour scheme. I adapted the original design by leaving off the outer border and adding a more simple satin stitch edging.
I don’t know why I have decided to make these samples so small, but I do enjoy miniature needlework. Since this little venture is purely for my enjoyment, I figure I can make my own rules, right?
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 small sample of embroidery for my 19th-century-style sampler book, based on patterns drawn by 19th-century designer Sarah Bland. You can see more of her designs at the V and A Collections here.
I am no expert embroiderer but I should do more of it because it’s enjoyable and very satisfying. I found that using two colours in one needle gave a nice variegated effect on the daisies (grey with white) and the French knots (red and apricot).
I had a bit of left over hardanger fabric so I did a few random freestyle stitches.
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.
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: