I visited the wonderful Fitzwilliam Museum and galleries in Cambridge, (UK) this weekend. I specifically went to see the exhibition ‘Sampled Lives’ in a gently lit exhibition space full of cabinets with embroidered and woven cloth dating from the early 1600’s.
The panels were full of intricate work that sprang to life with the magnifying glasses provided, close up delicate patterns, made in the days of candle light revealed their complexity with layers of texture that surpassed anything I had imagined possible. Some of the embroiderers were as young as 10 years old.
The samplers are stitched documents that tell stories about “female accomplishment, of a girl’s growing sense of identity, of a desire for education and the changing attitudes to, and opportunities for, employment in adult life.” The cabinets were arranged by theme from white work and lace making to the decorative and utilitarian, including the hidden messages in the pictorial symbolism of 17th Century samples and Quaker needlework.
The detached motifs known as spots were full of flora and fauna, some organic in shape others geometric, many had no names but if stitched with high quality silk then it is likely that they were produced by girls from a prosperous background and if in coloured silks then the work was usually for an affluent family cabinet or other decorative panel. Lace work on the other hand could have been used by some of the young women to “pursue an apprenticeship”, displaying their skills for future employment – one of the few routes poorer girls could use into paid work apart from domestic service.
Tellingly during the 18th Century the growing population of an uneducated ‘underclass’ were often taught needlework that was much less decorative, the emphasis lay in simple cross stitch, marking and mending to care for the clothes and textiles of the non-servile classes.
Without these stitched records we would know very little about girls and women’s ordinary lives, if you were female information about you was not recorded unless you were one of the elite. This exhibition was an eye opener and a valuable social commentary, it is worth a visit!
The exhibition has been extended to October 2018: