Date of this Version
Published in Hidden Stories/Human Lives: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America 17th Biennial Symposium,October 15-17, 2020. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/
Until the middle of the nineteenth century most American girls embroidered as least one needlework sampler as part of their education. A first sampler demonstrated the girl had learned to sew a few different stitches, copy the alphabet, and “write” her own name in thread. If instruction continued past these basics, subsequent embroideries might reveal more advanced needlework techniques and the girl’s expanding literacy. Each sampler was considered a significant accomplishment—by the girl herself, her teacher, her family, and even potential suitors. Embroidered samplers were treasured objects, framed and displayed in the home or tucked away safely for posterity. When parents moved to new locations, their daughters’ needlework traveled too, packed carefully within the folds of a dress or laid on top of extra bedding.
Many American women traveling west with their husbands also chose to take along their girlhood embroideries—objects embedded with memories of the home they were leaving behind, their childhood friends, and the family members they might never see again. This presentation focuses on four “displaced samplers”—schoolgirl embroideries that ended up thousands of miles from their places of origin. Specifically, it will uncover the lives of the two pioneering women who stitched the samplers, revealing how, when, and why their girlhood needlework traveled “by land and by sea,” packed safely within their makers’ trunks amidst other treasured belongings and the necessities for starting a new home. One of the women died in route, never realizing the family dream of starting fresh in Oregon Territory—but her needlework made the trip unscathed. The fact that schoolgirl samplers “made the cut” of what women felt was important to take along when traveling across the American continent speaks volumes about their value to the women who stitched them and the descendants who inherited them.