Reviving our needlework heritage through samplermaking

Many people would love to leave city life and hectic jobs and escape to the tranquility of the country and the independence of self-employment. Most of us, however, are bound by financial obligations and, let's face it, a reluctance to ``make the big change.'' A little over seven years ago Marsha Van Valin overcame that reluctance. She left the neon of New York City for the woods of her native Wisconsin. She was unsure, however, of exactly what she wanted to do.

But she had always loved old textiles, and when her sister gave her a needlework kit, Ms. Van Valin was hooked. Eventutally, designing kits for other people grew into a thriving business. ``I built it up from absolutely nothing,'' she says. Van Valin named her mail-order sampler business, ``The Scarlet Letter,'' drawing on Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous novel, in which the beleaguered heroine, Hester, earned her living by doing fancy needlework.

Most of Van Valin's work is reproductions of existing American, English, and European antique samplers. She carefully graphs the old sampler, and matches the color and texture of the fabric and thread as closely as possible. Using 100 percent natural linen, and linsey-woolsey (a mixture of wool and flax) fabric, and cotton, silk, and wool threads, the reproductions are embroidered in exactly the same stitches used by the original sampler-maker. Many of the stitches are now long-forgotten by most needlewomen, but Van Valin includes complete instructions with each kit, so that the original sampler is true to the last detail.

The reproductions can be bought either finished (by Van Valin or one of the 10 needlewomen who work for her around the country), or in kit form, where they are marked by skill level. For example, an 1826 reproduction kit, for an intermediate stitcher, is $27; the finished sampler, not including the frame, is $375.

Do people mistake her reproductions for original samplers? ``Anyone familiar with modern material can tell the difference,'' Van Valin says. In old samplers, the linen is fragile and uneven, and the vegetable-dyed twisted silk floss is fine and faded - age and wear just can't be duplicated.

She is not trying to pass the new samplers off as old ones. Antique samplers are simply too expensive, and reproductions are a less costly alternative. The new samplers provide the charm of the old pieces, while blending well with country antiques.

Van Valin buys antique samplers at auctions across the country and in Europe, and sells these along with her reproductions. She also does appraisals, and she has made it a policy never to buy a family heirloom, no matter how much someone may be determined to sell it. ``I try to encourage them to keep them in the family,'' she says.

Their historical significance is what makes antique samplers so fascinating to collectors. The samplers express, often through children's eyes, the religious, social, and political mores of a period in a way that history books cannot.

Although the earliest known dated sampler is from 1598, sampler-making is believed to have its begun as early as AD 400. Originally made as records of fine stitches and complex designs, samplers eventually became part of the domestic education of genteel young ladies.

The early 17th century, often referred to as the ``golden age of sampler-making,'' is characterized by exquisitely beautiful and varied stitchery, elaborate designs and color schemes. Samplers at this time were mainly composed of spot motifs - flowers, animals and people - worked in a huge variety of stitches.

Band samplers were increasingly popular later in the century. These samplers consisted of colored bands of intricate patterns, and were quite long and narrow. Some samplers from this time were worked from opposite ends. In the 18th century, many samplers were made by girls of 10 or 11. Proud of their accomplishments, the young makers began to date the samplers, including their age and full names. When they grew up into modest young women, they sometimes picked out the last two numbers in the date, and so it is not uncommon to find antique samplers with these missing stitches.

Teaching needlework in schools, which continued into the 20th century, was inspired by the Protestant ethic which saw it as a good way to discourage idleness in young girls. Sampler-making could be combined with religious instruction, mathmatics, grammar, and geography. Rows of alphabets and numerals appeared on almost every sampler from the mid-18th century, often along with a moralistic verse.

Many popular verses were concerned with death, and some were amazingly morbid for children of such a young age: When i am dead and worms me eat, Here you shall see my name complete. Occasionally, a child shunned the common pious verses, as this young girl did in 1800: Patty Polk did this and she hated every stitch she did in it. She loves to read much more.

From the mid-18th century on, many samplers were fringed with a border, indicating that they were now seen as decorative pieces rather than something to keep in the embroidery basket. Young women were considered marriageable only if they were skilled at stitchery. For those less-fortunate women who were obliged to go into domestic service, samplers served as a `practice sheet' for all sizes and varieties of alphabets. These girls needed to be able to mark household linens, which were very valuable then, with her mistress' family initials.

While modern-day, machine-woven linens may not be so valuable, their homespun antique counterparts , along with all other forms of antique needlework, are highly treasured by collectors. ``You can never really tell what some samplers will go for,'' she says. At an auction last year, an undated and unsigned American sampler sold for over $100,000.

For a copy of the catalog, send $2 to The Scarlet Letter, PO Box 397, Sullivan, WI 53178.

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