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Samplers and what they tell us about Scottish social history

a photo of an embroidered sampler with large house motif at its centre

Margaret Eiston. Courtesy National Museum Scotland

The National Museum of Scotland delves into the fascinating world of samplers to tell the stories of young lives lived centuries ago

What is it about samplers that fires people’s imaginations? After all, the name ‘sampler’, which is derived from the French essamplaire, means a work to be copied or imitated and to the uninitiated they can at first site seem a bit uniform and formulaic.

But as anyone who has studied or collected them knows, not only do they offer insights into the ever popular history of embroidery and of the development of patterns and stitches through time, they also offer rich social histories.

At National Museum Scotland they are showing a collection of Scottish needlework from the 18th and 19th century loaned by the American collector Leslie B Durst, an American philanthropist and supporter of the arts who has amassed one of the largest and most comprehensive private collections in the world. The Leslie B Durst sampler collection includes over 500 Scottish samplers, dating from the early 18th to the mid-19th century.

Mostly made by young girls as part of their education, samplers were primarily a demonstration of sewing skills, so every sampler is both a study in needlework but, moreover, a window into personal histories and young lives lived centuries ago.

a photo of a sampler with alphabets and trees in a frame

Catharine McPherson. Courtesy National Museum Scotland

a photo of an embroidered sampler with flowers, peacocks and a house motif at its bottom

Mary Hay, Courtesy National Museum Scotland

And it is the stories stitched into the samplers that interest Durst who says “I feel that giving each and every sampler maker the chance to tell their story again is my life’s calling.”

Durst undertakes extensive research into the background of the girls and their families. Using the initials, names and motifs that the children have stitched into their work – including their names and those of their extended families Leslie identifies the girls through church and census records from all walks of life and from all over Scotland.

A sampler marked the attainment of skills and social graces, and sometimes recorded further milestones. Anne Raffan’s sampler of 1789 shows her siblings’ baptism dates and, in 1792, aged 23, she added the date of her own marriage.

Another sampler begun by Jane Hannah of Garlieston has this touching addition by her friend: “the above lies sleeping in her grave; finished by Jane Murray”, and below the words “Time Flies; Death Reigns”.

“Each story is different,” says Exhibition Officer Maureen Barrie, “some celebrate, others commemorate, many depict a sense of duty and care to family. Some are funny – comical cats stitched by little hands, and exotic zebras decorating Scottish landscapes.

“From the Scottish Borders to the Western Isles no story is the same – we even have a sampler from a girl called Catharine McPherson, whose parents immigrated to America where she was born. At first glance it was assumed the sampler was from Scotland, but look closely at the ship in the corner of the sampler you will see an American flag.”

a photo of a framed sampler with a house at its core and trees around the edges

Jane Milton. Courtesy National Museum Scotland

a photo of a framed embroidered sampler with an alphabet at the top and flowers towards the bottom

Anne Raffan. Courtesy National Museum Scotland

These details make the collection a unique archive of Scottish social history from the early 18th to the mid-19th century, and a valuable glimpse into the lives of ordinary families. By the 18th century, samplers were intended to demonstrate a girl’s education through the inclusion of alphabets, multiplication tables and religious verses, but they can also reveal other details of their makers’ lives.

References to towns, buildings and events are common in Scottish samplers, giving a sense of what was important to the young girls stitching these pictures.

The arms of the Flesher’s company appear in the sampler of Mary Hay, daughter of an Edinburgh flesher (butcher), while the now-ruined Dalquharran Castle in South Ayrshire appears in a sampler by Margaret Eiston. Durst’s research has revealed that Margaret’s father was a mason in Ayr who may have worked for the castle’s designer, Robert Adam.

Jane Milton sewed hers while growing up in the Orphan Hospital of Edinburgh – in such institutions sewing was seen as a useful skill to equip girls with a means to earn a living.

“This exhibition isn’t just about needlework,” says Exhibition Curator Helen Wyld, “it is about the fabric of life in 18th and early 19th century Scotland.

“Made by girls often from fairly modest backgrounds, samplers give us an alternative view of Scottish history, one that does not appear in the history books. They are therefore an invaluable and fascinating slice of Scottish social history.”

a photo of a sampler with a large house at the bottom

Hannah Jane Murray.

Embroidered Stories: Scottish Samplers is at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh from October 26 2018 to April 21 2019.


National Museum of Scotland

Edinburgh, Lothian

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