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The Fitzwilliam school samplers are starting points for a journey of discovery into the lives of eight ordinary girls. In some cases, the girls’ whereabouts and occupations after they left school have been traced, suggesting the skills acquired during youth helped Mary Ann Tipper, Jane Reeder Cole and Ann Bowler Calton to earn a living. Indeed, both Ann Bowler Calton and Jane Reeder Cole lived into old age, and Ann died with some money to her name, proving that she was not destitute. The samplers are also evidence of these young girls’ lives- in some instances the only proof that they existed. Putting their examples in a historical context illuminates issues of gender and education in the 18th and 19th centuries.

For some, needlework represents the oppression and exploitation of women, particularly seamstresses of 19th-century London who were grossly underpaid, sometimes abused and over-worked. Thomas Hood’s poem ‘The Song of the Shirt’ (1843) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s epic poem/novel ‘Aurora Leigh’ (1857) both depict the distressed and oppressed needlewoman. The emphasis in the past on teaching every young woman how to stitch has often provoked comments that this time-consuming activity prevented them from fully developing their mind and intellect, as expressed in Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). It has to be remembered, however, that before the introduction of embroidery and sewing machines knowing how to stitch was an essential skill.

Even though sewing is rarely taught in schools today, we are now witnessing a renewed interest in needlework as a hobby rather than a necessary craft or a means of survival. Television programmes on the subject, stitching courses and after-school activities have further encouraged this sewing renaissance.

Schoolgirl samplers are not only invaluable historical documents worthy of research and study, but they are also a source of fascination, enjoyment and inspiration.