Stitches from another time

13th May 2005 at 01:00
PATTERNS OF CHILDHOOD: Samplers 1640-1900. Scotland Street School Museum, Glasgow until September 26 tel 0141 287 0500

Every picture tells a story, they say. In the case of a new exhibition at the Scotland Street School Museum in Glasgow, it seems that every embroidery sampler tells a story too.

Patterns of Childhood features 40 of Glasgow Museums' renowned collection of more than 200 samplers, dating from the 17th to the 20th century. Most of the panels on show originated in Scotland, many from Glasgow, and a lot were produced by girls destined to marry rich men or to work in the homes of rich men.

Rebecca Quinton, curator of the exhibition and of costume and textiles for Glasgow Museums, says: "Samplers played a particularly important role in the education of poor or orphaned girls to help prepare them for future work as maids or seamstresses. Many samplers include, as well as the alphabet, rows of embroidered crowns of different ranks of royalty and nobility. This would enable girls who found work with aristocratic families to sew the relevant crown and personal initials of her master and mistress on to the household linen."

Girls from affluent homes produced samplers of fine embroidery that a demanding prospective mother-in-law would expect of her son's future wife.

A perfect miniature adult's shirt (the equivalent of an apprentice piece) was sewn at school by a girl who had been abandoned as a baby and later found work, at the age of 12, as a lady's maid to the 11-year-old daughter of an earl.

Many of the pieces in the collection were treasured family heirlooms and were donated to the city, the first being given in the 1890s, the most recent last year. Samplers often include details of births, deaths and marriages and are increasingly used now to trace family histories.

Although the show looks scholarly - with the walls of the gallery painted dark green, the lights low to prevent textile damage, and magnifying glasses supplied for visitors' use - it has been designed to attract all kinds of visitors, including school groups.

"The exhibition fits in perfectly with a Victorian topic, because that's when samplers were most popular. Every schoolgirl in Scotland produced at least one during that period," says Ms Quinton, who has written a book about the museums' collection.

One of the samplers on display was produced at Robert Owen's school for children at the cotton mills at New Lanark. Margaret Sheddon was 11 when, in 1812, she produced an embroidery that features the 10 Commandments including the words: "Honour they father and mother true. And see that thou no murder do."

Embroidered maps and even a multiplication table - immaculately stitched by an 8-year-old from Dunkeld in 1832 - show that samplers were also used to teach geography and arithmetic.

Another piece was "Done in her exile by I. McK". The prisoner, believed to be a Scot, was being held in London in 1837, awaiting transportation to the colonies. It features the interior of her prison cell, complete with shackles, and the defiant claim: "I am happier in my lonely cell than any Queen on Earth can be."

At that time, prison reformer Elizabeth Fry was visiting women and girls in jail and providing them with materials to produce needlework that could be sold or shown to prospective employers, once they arrived in the colonies.

Events to complement the exhibition include illustrated talks, guided tours and weekend workshops.Patterns of Childhood: Samplers from Glasgow Museums by Rebecca Quinton, Herbert Press, pound;9.99

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