Date of this Version
Crosscurrents: Land, Labor, and the Port. Textile Society of America's 15th Biennial Symposium. Savannah. GA. October 19-23. 2016.
The title of this article is taken from a line of a poem by the 19th-century Georgia poet Sidney Lanier and is presented as an homage to the location of the 2016 TSA conference. “And the marsh is meshed with a million veins” is Lanier’s description of “The Marshes of Glynn” in his poem of the same name, Glynn being one of the Atlantic coastal counties south of Savannah. I have taken this alliterative evocation of the sinuous verge of land and sea as a metaphorical point of embarkation for a discussion of the distinctive needlework of another, more distant, coastal region with broad marshlands also emmeshed with a million veins, the county of Norfolk in eastern England, fronting not on the Atlantic Ocean but on the North Sea. From the latter half of the 1700s well into the second quarter of the 19th Century, the schoolgirls of Norfolk produced vivid and imaginative samplers, combining floral borders and geometric frames in creative compositions, which nonetheless adhered to an unmistakable regional design schematic. These samplers are a reflection of the cultural geography of the county, the influence of trade, invasion and travel via its North Sea ports and Norfolk’s ancient mercantile history as a pre-eminent producer of woolen textiles. The fundamental elements of the Norfolk sampler, the lush floral border, the stepped lozenge cartouche, and the linked octagon inscription band can be connected to indigenous needlework traditions shaped by “a million veins”, the networks of the textile trade upon which the fortunes of the region were founded. Norfolk, on the east coast of England with ports on the North Sea, was historically well positioned to take advantage of commerce with Scandinavia, Germany and the Low Countries, and through them to the Baltic and to traditional trade routes to Eastern Europe, Anatolia, Asia Minor, North Africa and the Levant. Before the road improvements of the mid-18th Century it would have been as easy to travel from Norfolk to the European continent as to London. Even in the 20th Century the reputation of Norfolk as a land apart was summed up by the saying that “Norfolk is cut off on 3 sides by the sea and on the 4th by British rail.” Despite or perhaps because of its relative isolation Norfolk was historically both politically and commercially powerful. Until the latter decades of the 18th Century, when superseded by the industrial bases of the Midlands and the North, Norwich, the capitol of Norfolk, was England’s second largest city. Norwich was a town whose fortunes were based on textiles, most of the 18th and early 19th-century sampler-makers were from families associated with either some aspect of textile production or as suppliers of commodities such as grocers, bakers or brewers. The area’s earliest participation in the textile business was founded on the qualities of the wool from the local sheep. During the Roman period, Norfolk wool would have been used at the textile production centers located along both the North Sea and English Channel.2 Following the decline of Roman influence in England, Norfolk was part of the Kingdom of East Anglia and before 1066 subject to incursions and occupations by the Danes, who settled dense pockets of the Broadlands, the marshy areas in the north and east of the county. These Danish settlements broadened and deepened the spectrum of cultural influences on the area and served as another conduit for the influence of Roman and late antique textile production practices.