In this special holiday episode, Isabella discusses studying family history through needlework. It's the perfect subject for a festive season focusing on friends, family, and community. Happy holidays to all!
Whatsup stitches! Welcome to episode 9 of season 3 of Sew What? aka the holiday season special! I am your host, Isabella Rosner, and today I will be taking you on a teeny tiny but hopefully entertaining tour of family history through needlework. I thought that’d be a good theme for this festive season, when lots of people spend time with families. And when I say families, I don’t mean just people related by blood! Chosen families are families too, of course. This is an episode that celebrates communities and lineages and legacies and the winter holiday season seems to be a good time to think about all that. The subject of family history through needlework was suggested by Sew What? listener Estelle, so thanks Estelle!
Before I delve into the subject at hand, several things to go over. 1. Social media. As always, images of what I discuss in this episode are on sewwhatpodcast.com and at sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. 2. This episode, like every other episode this season, is a mini episode, so expect something short and sweet! Love to provide historic needlework content but also to give you all and myself a chance to actually celebrate and take a well needed rest because we all really need some rest I think! 3. This episode is gonna be a speedy tour through a bunch of different types of stitching from a bunch of different time periods all loosely strung together by the theme of family history and needlework. Lez go!!
So while this is going to be an absolutely wild ride through a bunch of different places and things, all of this stuff can be roughly separated into two groups. First are the pieces in which a maker explicitly records their family’s history, whether it be multiple generations or just one. In these examples, bringing family into needlework is the maker’s choice. Second are the objects where there is no family history in the object itself, but rather in how the objects have been passed down over time or rediscovered. So the family history isn’t stitched into the object itself, but is present alongside the object due to how it has traversed the past decades and centuries. I’ll start with the first group, the more straightforward one, first.
Perhaps the most obvious example of telling family histories through needlework is family record samplers. Family record samplers were especially popular in America in the 19th century. According to the Benton County Historical Society, “In the early to mid 19th century it was popular in certain regions of the country to document a family's genealogy. The tools and materials varied - calligraphy on paper, carvings in wood, or embroidered stitches on fabric or paper. The documents, regardless of the medium used, were often labeled with words like "Genealogy", "Family Record", "Family Tree", or "Family Register". Family Record samplers were especially popular in New England, where regional variations have resulted in a variety of designs and layouts. One of the most common was to stitch birth, marriage, and death dates in columns, starting with the sampler maker's parents and then listing the children in the order of their birth. The intention was to add dates over time (as individuals married and died), but these Family Record samplers frequently remain incomplete. Particularly poignant on these samplers is seeing the names and dates of children who died young, often within their first two years.”
There are examples that survive from outside that time and place, from before the nineteenth century and beyond America, but that’s where it hit its peak. I don’t know if there’s been anything scholarly published about the reason behind this trend, but I think it may have something to do with this desire to feel like part of a lineage, part of a community in this burgeoning country. I think there’s also pride there, this idea that sampler makers are saying something like “this is me and my family. We are here, in this new land, and we are surviving and thriving.” But I could totally be wrong. One of my favourite family record samplers is one at the Met stitched by Julia Ann Fitch in Hatfield, Massachusetts in 1807. On it, Julia stitches the birth dates of her parents and siblings, as well as the death dates of her siblings who died in childhood. At the bottom, tucked amongst the names and birth dates of her siblings, is the birth and death information of George Washington and the date American independence was declared. I love that, that this hugely important American person and this lifechanging American event are tucked into this needleworked familial artifact. It shows that for girls stitching these family record samplers, their families and their nation were intimately tied and of equal importance.
My favourite example of a family record sampler made outside of the United States is one currently at Witney Antiques and it’s especially poignant. It was made in 1802 by Mary Denham, aged 10, at Mrs Shaw’s School on St Aubyn Street in Devonport, Plymouth. Mary stitched the initials or full names of all of her siblings, children of Henry and Elizabeth Denham, as well as their birth or baptism dates. 22 children are listed on this sampler, so clearly not all of them are the children of Henry and Elizabeth, I would think and hope, for the sake of Elizabeth’s body. Unfortunately and yet not surprisingly for the nineteenth century, several of the children died very young and their burial places are listed. What makes this sampler super poignant is that, amongst the delicate embroidery are tiny watercoloured portraits of children. I am assuming that these are Mary’s depictions of her siblings. It’s not clear if they are depictions of her siblings who lived or though who passed, but it is amazing and slightly emotionally overwhelming to see the childhood renderings of other children, painted with such delicacy and minuteness and care. It both makes your heart swell and feels like a punch in the gut. Mary’s sampler is one of those instances where the lives of these girls feels SO close, so near us, so rich and complex and dynamic. It gets me GOOD, clearly.
Mary’s sampler leads well into the next big trend in historic familial needlework, which is mourning embroidery. Not all pieces of mourning embroidery, which hit the big time in the 19th century, again primarily in America, include family names, but sometimes they do. Sometimes girls stitched mourning pictures in honour of a specific family member, so tucked amongst the typical mourning embroidery imagery of a sad lady underneath a weeping willow tree next to an urn is a family member’s name. For example, an 1816 sampler at the National Museum of American History stitched by Susan Winn features on the urn’s plinth an inscription which reads, “Sacred to the Memory of / my dear Sister / CAROLINE WINN. / Sweet be Thy sepulchral rest / Sister dear! supremely blest! / May the ties which us unite / Be renew’d in realms of light! / Erected by / Susan Winn.” Records tell us that Susan’s sister, Caroline, died in infancy in 1806. Susan moved from Baltimore, Maryland to Lilitz, Pennsylvania for her education and hundreds of miles away and 10 years on, she still dedicates her embroidery to her sister who never got to grow up. By commemorating Caroline in her stitching, Susan gives her a chance to live, to be remembered. The survival of needlework that involves including family members results in us modern viewers remembering and learning about and getting to know not only stitchers who are otherwise absent from the historical record, but also the siblings they grew up with and the parents or others who raised them, allowing us to imagine these girls not in isolation but in their homes, at their dinner tables, in their cramped or spacious bedrooms, etc.
While family record samplers and mourning embroideries are the most frequent examples of stitching that involves family trees and multiple generations, there are also samplers that include family names more casually. I’m thinking of samplers made under the tutelage of Elizabeth and Ann Marsh in 18th-century Philadelphia. Much of my PhD is about that delightful mother-daughter duo. We love them!! Anyway, many of the samplers made by their students include lists of family members. They don’t list dates or locations, but simply names – my research has shown that these lists include parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, and beyond. I think the inclusion of these family lists in the Marsh samplers is similar to the 19th-century American family record samplers in that desire to establish a strong American familial lineage, but I also think that in this instance there is a desire to illustrate a girl’s pure Quaker heritage. Not only are her parents Quaker, but so is her extended family. In a city powered by Quakers and at a school led by a Quaker mother and daughter, I think it was important for girls from elite Quaker families to demonstrate that they were well within the bounds of endogamy and religious purity. Not all of the Marsh school students were Quaker, but I do think that is an additional factor for those girls who were.
Other samplers mention parents or other generations on a smaller scale. One of my favourite examples is a 1693 sampler by Mary Best, now in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg. On it, she stitched, “John Best * My/Father*Deare/Paid*For*This/That*I*Did*hear.” Mary is clearly writing her father’s name for different purposes than the other sampler makers I’ve talked about in this episode, but it does still put Mary in a larger familial context. We know not just her name and when she stitched her sampler, but also her father’s name and the fact that he was able to pay for his daughter’s thorough education. Mary is not just a lone stitcher, she is also her father’s daughter.
Stitching family trees or records is not just limited to samplers, as I’m sure you well know. A good example that’s not embroidery are the quilts of Gee’s Bend. I was lucky enough to interview two Gee’s Bend quilters in season 2, which was such a treat and an honour. Gee’s Bend quilts are stitched by the women who live in Gee’s Bend, many of whom can trace their ancestry back to enslaved people who lived on the plantation in the region in the 19th century. The quilts are some of the most famous and important quilts in American history and many Gee’s Bend residents are still producing stunning pieces. While Gee’s Bend quilts do not have stitched on them the names of generations of Gee’s Bend quilters, they are very much connected to familial needlework because the quilts are the product of a many-generations-long stitching tradition. This family tree is made of generations of women stitching individual objects in a communal style. Delight!
One of I think the most important examples of familial stitching that is neither sampler nor quilt is an object Emily Wells brought up earlier this season, Ashley’s Sack. Ashley’s Sack is a mid-1800s cloth sack on which is embroidered, “My great grandmother Rose mother of Ashley gave her this sack when she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina. It held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her It be filled with my Love always. She never saw her again. Ashley is my grandmother. Ruth Middleton 1920.” This object, which is so brutal, is such an important example of familial stitching. But in this instance, the bag was originally bare. Its family history was added later and it needed to be added later, since it’s not like Rose had time to stitch her story for her daughter Ashley. Every other stitcher I’ve talked about in this episode thus far has had the time, resources, education, and privilege to be able to stitch their family histories onto fabric. Rose did not have that opportunity, so her great granddaughter, Ruth, did it for her. The family history present in this sack would have disappeared, gone forever and never shared, if Ruth had not stitched upon it. Ashley’s Sack is an important reminder of whose stories we’re usually hearing when we look at historic needlework. As you and I both know, it’s not usually stories like Rose and Ashley’s. The time and resources needed to study and think about historic needlework puts us in a privileged position and most of the time that study is of pieces that were made by girls and women who themselves were privileged. The vast majority of needlework that has connections to familial lines and legacies was made by a very small, very specific group of people.
Now, onto the second, smaller group of objects, the ones that have gained familial significance over time. Family heirlooms, the samplers or needleworked pictures or quilts or whatever else that has been passed down to you falls into this category because it is your family history. Tied up in its value is its personal value and the fact that it was made by your ancestor. Now, I think most people don’t have samplers or other needleworked objects made by how ever many great grandmothers chilling in their attics or on display in their homes. I sure don’t. But for those of you who do, these objects don’t need to have family records or trees stitched onto them to be intimately tied to family history. An object still tells a family history because it has been passed down, generation to generation, to you. The family history lies in its journey and history of ownership, not in its content.
This same idea of family history through an object’s journey through many generations of a family leads us to some iconic suites of needlework. When I say suites, I mean a big, many part collection of stuff – it’s not just one object but a whole series of related stuff. Martha Edlin’s suite from the 1660s and 70s, which I’ve talked about on the pod at least a few times, was passed down through many generations of female descendants before being given to the Victoria and Albert Museum in the early 20th century. So there are things like that, an object or multiple objects that have family history tied up in them because of how they moved through time. And in the case of Martha Edlin’s stuff, the family tree that emerged through those things being passed down from generation to generation is also to thank for their survival. Not sure if that makes sense, but what I’m saying is that Martha Edlin didn’t stitch family histories into her objects but the family history that came after her is the reason why her stuff survives today.
There are other suites of needlework like that, which have descended through families and survive to give us a really good understanding of an elite English girls’ needlework education at a specific point in time. The suite I write a lot about in my PhD thesis, that made by Hannah Downes, is an example. But in the case of the Hannah Downes suite, the objects inside are also the result of an attention paid to family history. While Edlin’s suite is just her own work, Downes’ suite includes at least four generations’ worth of needleworked stuff. Downes’ box and needlework, made in the 1680s and 90s, got passed down to subsequent generations who added their own needleworked objects to the collection. What resulted is nearly 200 years of a single family’s stitching. That collection of objects shows a family tree not through names stitched on a single textile, but through many different textiles made by many different hands, all united by blood and/or marriage.
So there you are, a whistestop tour through how family histories and needlework intersect and interact. This is not a definitive list though, obviously. There are also things like album quilts that feature multiple generations of makers or Victorians making alterations to their early modern ancestors’ needlework and beadwork or groups of friends or communities making quilts to be auctioned off for charity. There are also things like the AIDS memorial quilt, where friends and family members commemorated their loved ones who fought AIDS and in the process created an extended family tree of sorts, made of friends, family members, and strangers brought together into a many-branched network. Because, like I said at the beginning of this episode, you don’t need to be connected to someone by blood or marriage to by family. Family is what you make of it, it can be any community you want to be a part of or are part of naturally, I guess.
What is so cool about finding familial records or networks or connections in historic needlework is that it adds such rich context to a stitcher’s story. This person, decades or centuries ago, obviously didn’t stitch this sampler, quilt, needleworked picture, or whatever in a vacuum. She stitched it as a memorial to a sibling, a record of a past family event, or because a family member could pay for her education. These stitchers did not exist alone, they were part of complicated, loving, confusing, frustrating, joyful, cosy families, just like we are. Familial stitching helps us remember that though when we look at a piece of needlework it is usually the work of just one person, there was a whole community of people behind the scenes, the family members, friends, and networks that maker was a part of. None of us is ever truly alone. The company we keep is present in every stitch.
And on that saccharine note, that’s it from me for this 2021 holiday special! I hope that wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, this period is a cosy and comforting one.
Now go out and stitch some stories and go try to find your great great grandmother’s sampler in the attic. Bye!