Sew What?

Stitching Among Friends: Early Quaker Needlework

May 06, 2021 Isabella Rosner Season 2 Episode 14
Sew What?
Stitching Among Friends: Early Quaker Needlework
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Isabella discusses the subject of her PhD, Quaker women's needlework before 1800.  She explores the stitching aesthetic of Quakers, also known as Friends, in and around London in the 17th century. 

As always, images and sources are available at @sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The podcast has a website,, and a Patreon,

Whatsup stitches!! Welcome to Sew What?! I’m Isabella Rosner and it’s episode 14 of season 2 and it’s a needlework party up in this here pod. Today’s episode is about my PhD research, so we’re gonna get into Quaker needlework from the 17th to the 19th century. Some listeners have asked me to talk about my PhD stuff so here we gooooo. For those of you who are into samplers and schoolgirl stitching, you probably know about how stylised and specific Quaker needlework was from the 19th century onwards. But what you probably don’t know is how crazy decorative and bright and over the top Quaker samplers were before that, in the 17th and 18th centuries. So we’re gonna get into it!! Are you quaking with excitement? I AM!!

 As always, images and sources are on the Sew What? social media and website! You know it, you love it, you probably already follow it but if you DON’T, @sewwhatpodcast on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook. And Aaand the podcast has a Patreon if you wanna support me and it! That’s You know I gotta say it every week! Gotta stick to that brand. 

Before I begin, since this episode is all about Quakers, I should probably explain what Quakerism is for those who are unfamiliar. Quakerism, also called the Religious Society of Friends, was founded by George Fox in the north of England in the early 1650s. Fox had a vision on Pendle Hill in Lancashire in 1652 and it was after that that he travelled around England and to the Netherlands and Barbados to preach and try to convert people to his faith. Quakerism is a sect of Christianity. Quakers believe that everyone has the ability to experience and access the Inner Light, which is Christ’s light shining on or in them. The group practices silent worship. Historically, people have viewed Quakers as very plain and separate from worldly fashions and interests. Perhaps the biggest cultural connotation which aligns with that view is the Quaker oatmeal man, who looks an awful lot like what we imagine the ye olde Puritans to look like. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many Quakers emigrated to Pennsylvania, a colony established by William Penn, a Quaker. When I tell people about my PhD project, the response is usually “like the Quaker oatmeal guy?” or “I thought Quakers were only in America?” Not correct but I very much understand why those are the two questions I’m asked most. Quakerism is still an active Christian denomination today, practiced around the world. 

Okay, onwards, on to actual needlework. How the heck did I come to study Quaker women’s art? Well, let me start by saying loving samplers meant I had come across a lot of Quaker samplers since they’re really popular in the sampler loving community. There are maaaaany extant Quaker samplers, mostly from the 19th century. That’s because Quakers, from their beginning, really valued equal education for boys and girls and were biiiig fans of literacy. So Quaker girls and even non-Quakers who attended Quaker schools were taught to stitch and by the time 1800 hits, there’s a very specific, distinct Quaker needlework aesthetic. To put it very simply, there are two main styles of Quaker sampler. There are medallion samplers, which feature a series of separate, stylised, often octagonal lil patterns and motifs. Some of these images are decorative geometric shapes that are symmetrical and others are stylised flowers and swans in geometric frames. These samplers often feature dates, maker’s names, and sets of initials of classmates. They are usually monochromatic, in black or dark brown, but sometimes feature a colour palette of multiple muted thread colours. Then there are extract samplers, which feature pious and moral verses with no imagery. They all feature the same serifed font and almost always use only black thread. Basically, the majority of Quaker samplers that survive and that are known about date from the late 18th century and later and nearly all of those samplers are very stylised, quite sombre, and really plain. That’s what we’re all led to believe! But I had an experience that made me realise my conception of Quaker needlework, as well as Quaker women’s art making more generally, was SUPER wrong. 

 So, during my internship at Colonial Williamsburg, someone emailed my boss about the museum’s collection of objects made out of shells. My boss mentioned two shellwork pieces, these big, really detailed diorama-like-things in passing after she got that email. One of the boxes featured a landscape scene and one a Biblical narrative. Both of the scenes were in these wooden boxes, behind glass. The scenes were absolutely full of structures made out of shells and miniature figures made out of wax. When I looked these boxes up on the museum database, they both had Quaker provenances. They were supposedly made by Quaker women in the Philadelphia area. I was confused, as I had always thought Quaker art was plain and sombre. But this stuff was very, VERY decorative. And it   of a group of 17th-century band samplers I had seen at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Carol Humphrey, the museum’s honorary keeper of textiles who I mention a lot on the podcast, researched the samplers and found they were all made by Quaker girls in and around the City of London. Those pieces are really decorative, too – super bright and detailed and honestly just quite fancy. Really, really not plain and not what I was led to believe Quaker needlework was like. It seems like the Quaker sampler aesthetic that’s really famous came along around the time of the founding of two major Quaker schools. These were Ackworth School in England in 1779 and Westtown School in Pennsylvania in 1799. This shift and the craziness of the art that came before it kept me up at night and made me really want to do a PhD to understand what happened with Quaker women’s art production. 

 This all, of course, led to my PhD topic, which is Quaker women’s art before 1800. I’m focusing on needlework made in and around London in the 17th century and wax and shellwork made in Pennsylvania in the 18th century. I’m not gonna talk about the shell and waxwork in this episode because that’s not needlework and we are here for needlework! Anyhoo, I’m focusing on this stuff because I cannot understand what the heck was up with Quaker women’s art making before Quaker samplers adopted the style anyone who loves sampler is familiar with?? And why was Quaker women’s art so decorative from the founding of Quakerism? How was this allowed, since Quakerism placed a lot of importance on plain speech, clothing, decoration, and behaviour from the mid-17th century onwards? HOW WAS THE ART BEING MADE IN THIS RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY SO UNPLAIN GIVEN THE IMPORTANCE OF PLAINNESS AND WHY AND HOW THE  HECK DID THAT CHANGE!!! Riddle me that, friends and fam!!! What the heck! So yes, now here I am, getting paid for four years to try to answer these spooky questions. 

 Now, let me get into what we know about early Quaker needlework. First of all, it’s shockingly bright, vibrant, and decorative. Very much not what you would expect from a religious group all about plainness and simplicity even from its very beginning. Most of the Quaker needlework that survives from the 17th century was made by girls in and around London and most pieces are samplers. There are exceptions to both. A sampler that descended through the Steevens family of High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, was perhaps made in that area instead of in London. The Steevens were some of the earliest Quakers in the area and remained Quaker for more than 200 years. It’s not known who in the Steevens family stitched the sampler, as its undated and unsigned, but it may have been made by Mary Steevens, who married famous Quaker clockmaker Daniel Quare. The sampler their daughter, Sarah Quare, made in 1700 survives and features what I call the wiggly flower motif, which I will get into in a few minutes. The Steevens sampler is unfinished. Of the part that is completed, most is needle lace made of cutwork and drawn thread work. The maker has removed portions of the ground fabric to craft lace flowers and geometric designs. The remainder of the sampler consists of narrow bands of border designs in rust, green, and blue. That colour scheme appears on other Quaker band samplers – I do not know why but I am desperate to resolve that mystery. If you have any ideas, lemme know. Anyhoo, another example of Quaker needlework that may not have been made in the capital is Mary Whearly’s 1673 band sampler. The Whearlys, or Whorleys (the name changes a lot), were a Quaker family that was kinda all over London and Buckinghamshire. The Mary Whearly who may have made this sampler was part of the Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire branch that was cosy with major Quaker figures such as Thomas Ellwood, who was the right hand man of author John Milton, and William Penn, who founded the colony of Pennsylvania. So, it’s possible she was taught to stitch closer to home in Buckinghamshire. 

 The remaining samplers, boxes, and needleworked accessories known to have been made by Quakers were made by London Quakers. This isn’t surprising, as a large percentage of London Quakers were merchants who had the money to send their daughters to the best schools and London was, as the capital of England, the site of the most Quaker schools. That’s not to say there weren’t Quaker schools elsewhere in England, there were. There were actually loads – by 1671, there were 15 boarding schools kept by English Friends. That’s a lot!!! I do have a lot of thoughts on the connection between Quaker merchants and Quaker education but I’m not gonna get into that in this episode because that’s an integral part of my PhD and I gotta keep my secrets and even if I did get into that connection we’d be here all day. 

 The first official Quaker girls school was called Shacklewell and it was founded by George Fox in 1668. It was in Shacklewell, which was a lil village in Hackney. Fox hired a widow named Mary Stott who was an upstanding Quaker and a personal friend of Fox, to “Instruct younge lasses & maydens in whatsever thinges was civill & useful in ye creation.” It’s not known how long Stott taught at Shacklewell for, but we know from Quaker records that Jane Bullock was the head of the school by 1677. Bullock passed away in 1687, and it’s unclear who led Shacklewell after her or for how long the school lasted. Luckily for us, two sets of needlework made by Quaker girls at Shacklewell survive. One set was made by Hannah Downes, whose needlework is dated from 1681 to 1684. The entire suite, which also includes needlework made by many generations of her Quaker descendants, is at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The suite includes but is not limited to two samplers dated 1681 and 1684, a workbox dated 1683, two embroidered boxes, two matching pin cushions or tape measures, beadwork fruits, hairwork pendant, tape sampler, a single garter, and several purses made by Downes during her time at Shacklewell and in the years following, as well as pin cushions, embroidered pictures, needle cases, purses, wallets, and toys made by her descendants. Her box is entirely covered in laid and couched stitches to create stylised floral imagery. It involved the use of A LOT of thread. We know Downes attended Shacklewell because she stitched on her 1684 sampler “Hannah Downes wrought this at Shacklewell.” Interestingly and importantly, needlework scholars have for a long time asserted that needlework cabinets and caskets were the final project of a 17th-century schoolgirl’s stitching education, and assumption based on the production dates of Martha Edlin’s samplers and casket, which I have talked about on this podcast quite a few times. Hannah Downes’ needlework set proves this untrue -- she stitched her second sampler after stitching her workbox. So that explodes a long held assumption about early modern English needlework education, which is very cool!

 I can’t share images of the two samplers Hannah Downes made at Shacklewell, as the images I have are just for research purposes, but I will say they use a boatload of thread colours and are really well done. All of Hannah Downes’s needlework is VERY bright, colourful, vibrant, and made of really fine materials. Like the rest of the Quaker needlework I’ll be talking about in this episode, the opulence of Hannah’s needlework was really at odds with Quaker plainness, which was advocated for and followed by Quakers from the very beginning of Quakerism itself. There is a second group of needlework made by another Shacklewell student which will be the subject of an upcoming exhibition and book at Witney Antiques. I’m working on the exhibition and book with Becky Scott of Witney Antiques which is a real thrill for me and a huge honour. Get excited about that because THAT NEEDLEWORK WILL BLOW YOUR MIND JUST YOU WAIT. It, too, is super over the top decorative and bright and DEEPLY unplain.

 And now, a tiny bit more about other Quaker schools in 17th-century London and the surrounding area. There was Waltham Abbey, the boys school founded by George Fox at the same time as Shacklewell, which actually had female students too. Then there was a girls’ school run by Ann Travers in Chiswick, founded between 1685 and 1690, and Bridget Austill’s school in Southgate, North London, which moved to Tottenham in 1689. There were also schools associated with Quaker meetings, like the Bull and Mouth school in London run by John Field, but it’s not clear if these schools were co-ed and, if they were, what kind of stitching was taught there. The most distinct example of these meeting house schools is the Devonshire House school, which was established in 1674 for poor Friends. 

 While there are quite a few surviving seventeenth-century Quaker samplers, it’s really difficult to determine which ones were made under the instruction of the same schoolteachers because there are groups of similarities that go in so many different directions. These samplers exist in the world’s most complicated venn diagram. So let me explain what motifs and compositions are most common in Quaker samplers. The most common bands are “Grape, 3 arcade doubled, with leaves” and “Dianthus knot, five arcade doubled with flowers and curls,” with “Rose quincunx, 3 arcade twisted” seen often but slightly less frequently. These bands were named by Jacqueline Holdsworth in a book about the needlework collection of Elizabeth and Micheal Feller. I simply call the bands the grape band, the Celtic knot, and the wiggly flower. Love to be sophisticated and professional. Examples are up on the social media pages, but let’s see if I can describe each band in words. Wish me luck. The grape band features, well, grapes. The bunches of grapes grow from a zigzagging band from which leaves also grow. The celtic knot band has a four sided interwoven knot from which stylised carnations grow. These knot-flower compositions are set within a kinda zig zaggy design. The wiggly flower features three flowers growing out of a stepped kinda vine, from which leaves and acorns also grow. These stems grow out of a kinda chain-like vine. Can I just request you all look at the pictures I posted of this stuff? Describing these bands is VERY HARD. 

 Okay, onto Quaker sampler composition. Several Quaker samplers have whitework bands in between polychrome ones and always have bands of inscription in a single thread colour, usually red, interspersed between decorative bands, as well as the maker’s name stitched in red at the bottom of the piece. Scholar Lynne Anderson calls these “Integrated Text Band Samplers.” Other Quaker samplers lack verses and instead only include alphabets, names, and dates, all of which are stitched in alternating thread colours. Additionally, they feature a marked distinction between polychrome and whitework bands, with polychrome bands at the sampler’s top and whitework at the bottom. And then other examples have qualities from both of those subsets I just mentioned, including integrated text in alternating colours and a distinct split between polychrome and whitework bands. So clearly, there are lots of similarities but also lots of subtle differences. It’s a delightful mess. 

 The use of colour in Quaker samplers is also really interesting. I mentioned quite a few Quaker samplers use exclusively red thread for their texts. Other Quaker samplers use rust, green, and blue threads. And others use primarily green and pink. While the grape and Celtic knot bands can appear in all sorts of colours, the wiggly flower band is almost always in the same colours. The central flower has red and white petals, as do the upside down facing flowers on the ends. The flowers in between, which look like pinwheels, have alternating blue and white petals. The stem is light brown and the leaves are green. The colours of the wiggly flower band stayed consistent across almost all Quaker samplers from the 1690s through at least 1700, when Sarah Quare made her sampler. That suggests to me that either all these girls were taught by the same teacher or that several teachers were taught by the same teacher and then passed it on. 

 Within the larger group of 17th-century Quaker samplers are several groups of samplers made by sisters. There are the Mackett pieces – a sampler made by Mercy Mackett in 1688, a sampler made by Elizabeth Mackett in 1696, and a sampler made by Parnell Mackett in 1690. Parnell also made a workbox in 1692. All three Mackett band samplers mix together polychrome bands, white work, and needle lace. Mercy Mackett’s sampler has fewer colourful bands and is unfinished. The Parnell and Elizabeth Mackett samplers have the same polychrome bands in a slightly different order. Clearly, they were taught by the same teacher. Parnell made her workbox in 1692. It’s covered in large stitched flowers. On the top, amongst the needlework, is the date 1692 and the initials “PM” in the centre. The box is entirely edged in walnut or kingwood. It’s fancy as heck. The fabric ground is entirely covered in queen stitch, also called rococo stitch. Every inch is stitched. Also, as a personal aside, I have a tattoo showing the female personification of the senses of sound or harmony, taken from an embroidered casket at the Met. I lovingly call this lil tattooed embroidered gal Parnell Mackett because I think it’s a really good and weird 17th-century Quaker name. So thank you for your name, Parnell. 

 The other group of Quaker sisters whose samplers survive are the Jennings. Alice Jennings made her sampler in 1692 and Margaret Jennings in 1695. A third unsigned and undated sampler was definitely made by another Jennings sister, which we know because it’s really REALLY similar to Alice and Margaret’s examples. The three Jennings samplers fall under the category of integrated text samplers I mentioned earlier, with bands of red text and floral motifs interspersed. They are very similar to samplers made by Mary Milner at the Cooper Hewitt and Mary Wilson at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. All of these samplers have not only similar compositions and bands, but also similar verses, like “Love thou the Lord and he will be a tender father unto thee.” While the Mackett samplers tended to be stitched primarily in green and pink, these samplers use a wide variety of colours, from blues to reds to peach tones and everything in between.

 The Mackett and Jennings made their samplers at roughly the same time, so there were clearly at least two schools, but there are other contemporaneous samplers that have some qualities from both groups, which suggests even more schools or schoolteachers, all of whom had a similar needlework aesthetic. It’s clear that there were quite a few teachers instructing London Quaker schoolgirls how to stitch in the second half of the 17th century, but where they learned their skills and their overlap is still mysterious. Did all of these teachers go to Shacklewell or learn from each other or was there just a more general shared Quaker needlework aesthetic? What we have are the products of this needlework knowledge but not the ingredients, the teachers and how they got their knowledge and their needlework preferences and all that good stuff.

 Now, here’s the glaring question that arises when one looks at all this Quaker needlework: where is the plainness?!?!?!?! These things are NOT plain, as I keep saying. They are actually some of the most vibrant and decorative examples of needlework from this period and they all involve really fine material – tightly woven linen and really high-quality silk threads in a huge array of colours. The Shacklewell work boxes also involve patterned brocades and many of the accessories found in them involve intense amounts of metallic threads. None of these things are plain!!!! They are expensive and SUPER DECORATIVE. This contradiction is jarring and absolutely keeps me up at night. It’s especially spooky when one knows about what was being said and written about needlework by Quakers in the 17th and 18th centuries. They all talk about the benefits of plain needlework and how people have to avoid making needle lace and using figured brocades. In 1760, a Quaker named Sophia Hume published a book called Extracts from divers antient testimonies of Friends and others, corresponding with the doctrines of Christianity. Her section on Quaker needlework is loooong, so here are just a few passages from it: “Friend H—'s Grandmother, a School-mistress, could not teach Works of divers Colours, &c. but Plain work. […] Lucy Bradley's Mother, on her Death-bed left a Charge, her Daughter should not learn fine Works, but Plain-work and Marking. […] Sarah Morris. Her Mother would not suffer her Children to learn fine Needle-works of various Colours, Lace-work nor Cut-works.” 

 What the heck!! As we can see, needle lace is ALL OVER Quaker needlework. No plain work or marking from Quakers during this time survive. They were not making samplers just to learn how to do basic stitches that would serve them as housewives or servants. They were stitching band samplers rife with floral and geometric motifs, a far cry from just the simple alphabets and numerals they would stitch on household linens. How do we account for that difference between what is being preached and discussed versus what is being stitched? I’m not gonna get into my theories because they are lengthy and messy, but I have just got to point out that very glaring difference in early Quakerism in theory and early Quakerism in action. The contradictions present in Quaker women’s art before 1800 is a HUGE theme throughout my PhD, because it’s not just limited to 17th-century needlework made by London Quakers. 

 That very decorative needlework is not limited to London Quakers, either. It was actually brought to the American colonies, likely via a woman named Elizabeth Marsh. Elizabeth was from Worcestershire but likely went to school in London, as evidenced by her attendance at London Quaker meetings during her early teen years. She had an uncle who lived in London so she likely lived with him and her cousins. The idea of Elizabeth Marsh being the connection between English Quaker stitching and American examples was first raised by Carol Humphrey of the Fitzwilliam Museum and Becky Scott of Witney Antiques, but I have no reason to disagree with them. There is a sampler made by a girl named Susanna Russell in 1713, likely stitched in Worcester, England, under the direction of Elizabeth Marsh, a Quaker. Elizabeth Marsh, nee Allibone, was likely educated in London and then returned to her home in Worcester to become a schoolteacher. She moved to Philadelphia with her family no later than 1725. She became a schoolteacher in the city, teaching the daughters of some of Philadelphia’s most important Quaker families. Susanna Russell’s sampler is just like the samplers made under the tutelage of Elizabeth Marsh and then under that of her daughter Ann, who took over her mother’s school and taught the Philadelphia elite for almost 60 years. This Quaker needlework aesthetic moved from England to the American colonies via Elizabeth Marsh, the hero of my life and existence. This Marsh sampler aesthetic was different from earlier Quaker samplers but equally decorative. The samplers became less long and narrower but still featured geometric and floral bands. Even the blue pinwheels of the wiggly flower band are still present in these later samplers. Decorative bands and lines of text are interspersed and later examples list family members. While some of the motifs and compositions changed, Quaker needlework was still VERY decorative and un-plain as it traversed the Atlantic Ocean.  

 But then, toward the end of the 18th century, everything changes. A Quaker institution called Ackworth School was founded in the north of England in 1779, which was followed by Westtown School being founded in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1799. These two institutions, as well as a third institution run by Esther Tuke in York, usher in a really different, very sombre and stylised type of Quaker needlework. It’s the Quaker needlework you’re likely more familiar with, the medallion samplers and extract samplers. But why? Where do these medallion motifs come from? No one has been able to figure that out yet. And that’s the next step in my PhD research, understanding how this very stark Quaker sampler style came out of a century and a half of super decorative, opulent Quaker needlework. Decades upon decades of vibrant, polychrome, floral needlework changed quickly into an aesthetic that platformed muted colour palettes, simplicity, and stylised floral and geometric motifs. There’s a story there, a shift from heavy decoration to plainness, I just need to find it. 

 So, yes. There is a teeny tiny trip through Quaker needlework before Quaker needlework became the Quaker needlework we know today. Does that make sense? Basically, this is the stuff I spend all my time thinking about during my day job when I’m not making a podcast for you fine people. But this is the tiniest lil overview. There’s much more. These contradictions between plainness and decoration are really fascinating and spooky and mysterious and I so want to know how and why Quaker needlework was so opulent. I have lots of ideas about that I’m not gonna get into in this podcast because it’s stuff I spend pages and pages on in my PhD. But to be honest, probably one of the big reasons for that contradiction was simply because people are complicated and people like pretty things and oftentimes religion and its rules are not cut and dry! Basically, the reason for this needlework is complicated because people are complicated. I love being able to explore those complexities and inconsistencies in my dissertation. And this episode is merely the beginning! Quaker women’s art is full of surprises and secrets – hopefully eventually I’ll be able to turn my PhD dissertation into a book so you, too, can learn all about those joyous, intriguing surprises. 

 I could talk about Quaker needlework for truly hours at this point but I hope this abridged version was informative and fun and flirty! That’s all I got this week. Thank you for listening and if you haven’t already, please subscribe and rate and review the podcast because it helps me out a lot. Now go out and stitch some stories and bring back the name Parnell. Bye!!