Needlework in Schools

‘Those who are entrusted with the care of schools for the poor, and the education of children therein, should use all diligence in teaching and practising the girls in the use of the needle’.

A Lady, ‘Preface’ to The Sampler; or a System of Teaching Plain Needlework in Schools (London: G. C. Caines, 1850), v.

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Infant Orphan Girls Learning to Sew in One of the Bristol Orphan Houses, c. 1905. Image taken from Centenary Memorial 1805-1905 (Bristol: J. Wright and Co., 1905). Copyright, and reproduced by permission, of the Bristol Central Library.

Contemporaries believed that teaching needlework greatly benefitted girls from impoverished backgrounds as it prevented idleness and gave them employable skills. Girls could start sewing as young as 5 or 6, as long as they could hold a needle and a piece of fabric. They might make their first sampler as young as 8, possibly continuing with further ones into their later teenage years.

Most samplers demonstrated an ability to do simple embroidery techniques, particularly those which would be used for marking (simple stitching) the initials or other forms of identification onto personal items. In addition, they sometimes included plain sewing techniques and darning. Plain linen cotton and wool were the usual ground fabrics. The girls were encouraged to make items of clothing, such as shirts, petticoats, vests and pinafores, as well as hemming and marking tablecloths, napkins and pillowcases. These items could be used within the school or sold to members of the public, usually during annual charity sermons or school sales to benefit the school and sometimes the stitcher.

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Needlework Prices, National Society: Instructions of Needlework and Knitting.

Aside from the practical aspect, girls could learn literacy and numeracy, as they almost invariably stitched alphabets and numerals on their sampler. Furthermore, the moral texts they worked allowed the girls to reflect and ponder on religious and ethical sentiments. The extracts were usually taken from the Bible, hymns or poems, with the most popular verses being by Isaac Watts (1674-1748), Charles Wesley (1707-1788) and William Cowper (1731-1800).

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Elder Girls Learning to Sew, c.1905. Image taken from Centenary Memorial 1805-1905 (Bristol: J. Wright and Co., 1905). Copyright, and reproduced by permission, of the Bristol Central Library.

While there is scant information concerning how needlework was taught in the schools included in this exhibition, there are needlework instruction books that shed some light onto teaching methods:

1) Bristol and District Teachers’ Association, Draft of the Needlework Scheme Drawn up by the Needlework Sub-Committee (n.d.).

2) Manual of the System of Teaching Needlework in the Elementary Schools of The British and Foreign School Society, 2nd ed. (London: J. and A. Arch, 1821).

3) National Society: Instructions of Needlework and Knitting, 2nd ed. (London: Roake and Varty, 31 Strand, 1838).

4) A Lady, The Sampler; or a System of Teaching Plain Needlework in Schools (London: G. C. Caines, 1850).

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Opening paragraph, Manual of the System of Teaching Needlework.

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Extract, Manual of the System of Teaching Needlework.

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Specimens of Needlework, Manual of the System of Teaching Needlework.

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Manual of the System of Teaching Needlework, pp. 22-23.

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Button-Holes and Shirt-Making, National Society: Instructions of Needlework and Knitting.

Even though the books are for different schools, they are very similar in their instruction, suggesting that there were standard methods of teaching needlework to children. They are essentially prescriptive text books for school mistresses, monitors or pupil teachers.


The Fitzwilliam Museum : Needlework in School

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