Book Review: New Zealand’s Historic Samplers – our stitched stories, by Vivien Caughley

Vivian Caughey is an Honorary Research Assistant at Auckland War Memorial Museum. cv_new_zealands_historic_samplersShe received the Creative New Zealand research grant to locate research, write and speak about samplers and their related history. Vivian spent 10 years researching New Zealand’s Historic Samplers.

On receiving this book to review, I did wonder how I was going to review a book on a subject I knew very little about. The conclusion I came to over the time I spent reading this book was that you never stop learning.

There are more than 80 samplers photographed with the history of each one alongside. We get a glimpse of our cultural history through the stories behind the samplers featured in this book.

To the uninitiated a sampler is a piece of cloth that is embroidered, usually by a woman or child. The alphabet and numerals with various stitching techniques featured. They can vary in size from large to small and can have either complex or simple designs. They may also have been signed and dated or even anonymous. They were often framed or rolled with some never been shown. Some were also folded and hidden away and others were never finished.

A number of the samplers photographed for this book were in very poor condition but, considering the age of some of them, this is not a surprise. How they were stored also played an important part of the condition they were found in. Silverfish and damp from poorly vented houses would have also played a part in this. Many samplers have disappeared in families. My late mother-in-law, my sister-in-law tells me in a conversation, had one that she did at school and is framed and on the wall of her retirement village.

I found reading the history of the various embroidered samplers absolutely fascinating. Some for me stood out:

1. A sampler attributed to Elizabeth Cook – an embroidered map of the Western Hemisphere showing the track of voyages of Captain James Cook. Date 1784?
2. Elizabeth Marsden King, Te Puna Mission, Bay of Islands 1853. She was born in 1832 and baptised by the Reverend Samuel Marsden on his last voyage to New Zealand. She was 15 or 16 years old when she signed this sampler.

3. Hughey Memorial, unknown maker (pictured above). This sampler honours Robert Ambrose Port Hughey (aged 7 years and 3 months) and his younger brother David William (Campbell) Hughey (aged 2 years and nine months) who both died within days of each other in 1866. This sampler has been embroidered and edged in black thread. These two sons were the sons of David Huey and his wife Elizabeth. They lived in Taita in the Hutt valley near Wellington.

Samplers sometimes marked commemorative events such as births, death and marriages. The early samplers were made by missionary women in Northland and farmers daughters in Southland as well as many places in between. It was also part of the New Zealand school curriculum. There were even school inspectors, usually men, who visited schools to see that the quality of the work was up to the standard required by the school system of the time.  Embroidery and samplers were part of the school curriculum until the middle of the 20th century. I vaguely remember learning cross stitch and daisies at primary school level in the late 1950s. I think from memory we used hessian (sacking which was widely available and cheap). I think the finished article was an oven cloth.

This skill I have used over the years, along with following illustrations and instructions in books to finish off clothing I made for our daughters when small, so it was quite a useful skill. If samplers were then made by the women in my family and I suspect they were, none remain today. I do, though, have many examples of their prowess with a needle and thread. I am in total awe of the complicated stitches and patterns and of their skill.

The advent of the domestic sewing machine was one of the reasons for the decline in making samplers.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book on the history of sampler making. Even though there are 80 samplers and their histories are featured I was quickly absorbed with the fascinating facts surrounding these works.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

New Zealand’s Historic Samplers – our stitched stories
by Vivien Caughley
Published by David Bateman Ltd
ISBN 9781869538668

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