The Story of Sarah's Sampler

Gay Ann Rogers  Needlework

The Story of Sarah's Sampler

Part 1, Speculations and Correlations

About the time that I started working in earnest on my portrait of Queen Victoria, I found this little sampler stitched by Sarah Radburn in 1857.

This is what interested me: Sarah's Sampler is a marking sampler showing a very simplified crown and several coronets for English nobility, not as I would stitch them today, but as someone envisioned needlework patterns in mid-19th century England, about 20 years into Queen Victoria's reign.

I am guessing that Sarah Radburn was a young girl in training to go into service, and by stitching the sampler she learned her letters and the order of English nobility. If I am right, she would have completed her training and gone to work in the downstairs of a house, much the way some of our favorite characters worked downstairs in Downton Abbey, albeit at an earlier time.

As I thought of Downton Abbey, I began to wonder,  how old would the Dowager Countess of Grantham (played by Maggie Smith) have been in the series?  I read that her character "was born in 1842". If so, she would have been 15 years old when Sarah stitched her sampler. Would you guess that Sarah would have been between 8 and 11 at the time?

Here I am, 160+ years later, having a grand time spinning a story of what Sarah's life might have been like. I bought the sampler from an English dealer who sells mostly lace and whitework, not samplers. She wrote to me that she came across the sampler in a sale and was intrigued by it the same as I am.

I wrote and asked recently if she might ever come across a cap or perhaps some remnants of a 19th century English maid's costume. She replied that she would keep a look out but that she didn't think many were saved. Unlike the grander clothes of the 19th century the clothes of the servants had no value.

The Story of Sarah's Sampler

Assessing the Condition of the Sampler

With a king's crown and the coronets of a duke, marquis, viscount, and baron, and as an example of a small sampler in the prime of Victoria's reign, I thought it a good addition to my collection of Victoriana.

The sampler is 7.5" wide x 14" tall on a linen ground approximately 24 threads to an inch. The stitches are all Cross Stitch over 2 threads in what looks like a single strand of thread in three colors, a blue, a green and a gold. There is a single row of Four-sided Stitch and the hem is turned under and hemstitched.

While I don't think the sampler was abused, it wasn't handled with care either, and its 160+ years have left their imprint. I am guessing the color of the linen fabric has darkened and dulled with age, the threads also dulled and faded, particularly the gold now an ecru.

Without much contrast between the gold-now-ecru thread and the darkened linen, the gold stitching doesn't stand out. While I am a devotee of whitework, the effect doesn't work on the sampler because of the blue and green contrast which shows up well.

As I mentioned, the edges of the sampler were turned under and hemstitched, and there are no traces of any mounting. I am guessing the sampler was rolled up and/or folded for most of its life.

The Story of Sarah's Sampler

Caring for the Sampler

I have left the little sampler as it first came to me. I keep it on some acid free tissue, flat in a box, that's all. As a rule I don't do anything to anything, I just leave it as I found it.

Eventually Sarah's Sampler will go to a small collections library that is part of a college consortium.  They have climate-controlled rooms and a professional archivist and I leave the decisions up to them.

I guess an appropriate question to ask is this: with all the wonderful, large, intricately and beautifully stitched samplers from the past, is this little sampler worth saving? It is such a humble little sampler in comparison and I don't know the answer. To my eye it has a great deal of charm and it speaks eloquently about its possible origins.  Morever, as you will see, I had a super time tinkering with the design, a lot of nice hours of stitching my updated versions (there are three).

The Story of Sarah's Sampler

My Plans for the Sampler and Why They didn't Work

I have never reproduced a sampler from the past. I have often used design elements and stitch patterns from old samplers, after all, I spent several years living close to the Victoria and Albert Museum when all of the embroideries were still in Cromwell Rd., and I whiled away hours looking at the samplers there and charting their motifs. I learned to do whitework by sitting at a table with whitework samplers in front of me, trying to figure out how to make the patterns work on my much coarser ground.

But I never reproduced an old sampler, and now here was my chance.

I spent quite a while looking at different grounds and threads. I got as close to the original, as close as I thought I could find, and I started stitching the alphabet at the top. I got across the top row and thought, all mine does is clash with the original.

In short, I didn't like any part of my choices: I didn't like the ground, I didn't like the thread choices and most of all, I don't like to do Cross Stitch over 2 Meshes. Guess what: I flunked reproduction.

Now what?

I will leave that part of the story for next week. Suffice it to say, I had a wonderful time with Sarah's Sampler!

The Story of Sarah's Sampler

A Postscript, a Recommendation of a Favorite Video to Watch

If you have never watched the many hours of Simon Schama's History of Britain series, I highly recommend it. I think it is in the first of the two hours on Queen Victoria that Simon Schama visits a museum with some tiny trifles of poverty, small bits of ribbon or whatever that impoverished mothers left for their babies. It is a touching scene.

The whole series is well worth watching: good accompaniment for parking oneself and stitching.

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