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Seventeenth Century Needlework

By Anne Johnson

Women's lives and their needlework in the 17th century. Samplers are a form of needlework that help us learn about how the needlearts affected the lives of women during this early period.

To put the role of needlework during the seventeenth century in perspective we first need to look at the lives of women during that period. Motherhood occupied much of a woman's life. Women gave birth, nursed and gave birth again and again. They were also expected to be an obedient companion to their husbands. All but the privileged classes not only had to sew all clothing for their family but first needed to spin and weave the fabric. Those fortunate enough to have any formal education were taught to do needlework and perhaps to read. If they were taught to read it was so that they could read devotional books and other approved literature.

Many women of the seventeenth century were too busy with survival to even consider having time for needlework. Nevertheless the 17th century was a golden age of needlework especially in the making of samplers . Originally most needlework samplers were created by older women as an example of different stitches. In fact the word 'sampler' comes from a Latin word meaning an example or model to copy. Later samplers became projects for school girls learning the art of embroidery. Some samplers demonstrated letters of the alphabet and numerals. Biblical themes were common and verses meant to teach and inspire were eventually included.

Samplers sailed to America with the early settlers. A sampler made by the daughter of Captain Myles Standish about 1653 is on exhibit at the Pilgrim Hall Musuem in Plymouth, Massachusetts. This sampler by Loara Standish displays the following verse.

"Loara Standish is my name
Lorde guide my hart that
I may doe thy will also
My hands with such
Convenient skill as may
Conduce virtue void of
Shame and I will give
The glory to thy name"

It is hard to imagine what it would have been like to be a woman living in the 17th century. Doing needlework was probably the only way those women who did have the necessary time and education could express their creativity. For most women there was not even that opportunity.

Anne Johnson has a Bachelor of Science degree in Home Economics. She has almost 20 years of experience teaching in the public schools. Anne has published several well-researched articles on quilt history and is also an enthusiastic quilter. She has a great deal of online experience including editing the topic “Women and Creativity” on Suite 101 and leading several online workshops on Compuserve. To learn more about the history of quilts, visit her site America's Quilting History

This article was first published at Suite 101 - Women of Creativity



 
 
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