A Century of Giving
linen embroidered with light brown silk, 21.9 x 21.6 cm
The Fitzwilliam Museum: T.15-1939
This humble linen sampler (above left), embroidered with light brown silk (perhaps faded from an original pink or red colour) shows 5 examples of pattern, or damask darning.
Before the spread of mechanisation in the 19th century, much clothing and household linen was still made at home. Needlework played a central role in girls' education. Fine embroidery, and mending and darning skills, were highly valued. Young girls going out to work in service, or to teach, produced working samplers like this as a kind of CV or reference, to show potential employers.
The sampler is signed by Jane Brady, a scholar at Ackworth School in Yorkshire, and dated 1785. Several members of the Brady family attended Ackworth, a Quaker boarding school which is still in existence. Quaker schools in Britain and America produced much distinctive needlework in the late 18th century, favouring particular patterns, stitches and forms of lettering.
Painstaking fine darning, used for making invisible repairs to household and personal linen, was a particular test of skill with a needle. It became even more important as lighter cotton and muslin gowns dominated fashion in the late 18th century.
Over the years, the Friends have made occasional contributions to the Museum's large collection of textiles. It currently contains over 1,600 objects - predominantly of embroidery - including one of the best sampler collections in the world. However, due to requirements of space and conservation, few of these textiles are ever on display. As the only examples of high quality signed work by children in the Museum, the sampler collection certainly deserves to be more widely appreciated.