Threads of History

By Jo Verso

A Note from Jane Greenoff

It is now many years since Jo was killed in a car crash, leaving us all in deep shock. I can still remember her threatening to dye my fringe purple and also being at least, partly responsible for the worst hangover in my life!

Jo Verso was the patron of the CSG when we launched in 1996 and she contributed in many ways in the short time before her accident. This article was much appreciated by the CSG team and our Members and it is with pleasure and regret that we continue to include it. Over to you Jo..........

To trace the history of cross stitch, we must look back to the very beginnings of embroidery, since it is only relatively recently that cross stitch has been used as the sole stitch in a piece. Ancient wall paintings and sculptures show that embroidery was worked on clothing from the earliest times. An ancient Peruvian running-stitch sampler has been dated to 200-500 AD. The earliest fragment of embroidered cloth includes cross stitch and dates back to the sixth or seventh centuries AD. It was found in a Coptic tomb in Upper Egypt, where it was preserved by the dry desert climate.

It is known that cross stitch embroidery flourished during the Tang dynasty in China (618-906 AD), when it may well have spread westward along the trade routes. By the eleventh century, the most famous of all early embroideries, the Bayeux tapestry, was being worked. This is not actually a tapestry in the strict sense (that is, a woven textile), but an embroidery, depicting the Norman invasion of England in 1066.

In Spain, under the influence of the Islamic civilisation of the Moors (756-1492), blackwork was popular - this technique is thought to have influenced the development of cross stitch. Blackwork featured geometric designs on white linen, using the wool from black sheep, and it is believed to have been brought to England in the sixteenth century by Catherine of Aragon, the Spanish first wife of Henry VIII.

In Eastern Europe at this time, folk art was flourishing, and cross stitch was used to embellish household items using geometric and floral patterns still found in pattern books to this day. But cross stitch really came into its own with the working of samplers.

The earliest printed pattern book was produced in Germany in 1524, but it was many years before pattern books became readily available. So stitchers would record samples of their favourite stitches and patterns on long strips of narrow cloth, hence the name "sampler". These were not intended for display, but were rolled up and kept in a drawer until needed for reference. They became family assets. Often, an intricate stitch would be worked next to the stages used to compose the stitch. Early samplers were often completely covered, with examples of stitches and patterns crammed together, showing the stitcher's need to make use of every square inch of her precious linen.

In the sixteenth century, the popularity of embroidery in Europe was helped by the invention of printing. Early pattern books offered designs for cross stitch and other forms, such as blackwork. Cross stitch patterns were printed as black squares or dots, leaving the choice of colours to the embroiderer. The stitcher could count the pattern onto the fabric or detach the pattern, prick holes through it and pounce the design through the holes using coloured powder.

The earliest surviving dated sampler was stitched by an English girl, Jane Bostocke, in 1598 - just over 400 years ago. Jane's sampler contains floral and animal motifs, samples of patterns and stitches, and an alphabet (the alphabet lacks the letters J, U and Z as was common at that time). There is evidence from the motifs that Jane had access to an early pattern book.

As pattern books became more readily available in Europe and America during the seventeenth century, the function of samplers changed. They evolved into educational instruments, stitched by children to teach them the needlework skills essential to young girls who would be making and marking household linen and clothing. By stitching alphabets and numbers, children were also taught basic literacy and numeracy.

Samplers became a popular way to instil moral virtues, so we frequently find verses of a highly pious tone. One poor little soul was made to stitch:

Lord, look upon a little child
By nature sinful, rude and wild.
O lay thy Gracious Hand on me
And make me all I ought to be.

High infant mortality being a fact of life at the time, there is a preoccupation with death. Mourning samplers were stitched, and many verses of a lugubrious nature were incorporated into samplers. One wonders what satisfaction, let alone pleasure, could have been derived from stitching the following:

When I am dead and in my grave
And all my bones are rotten,
By this may I remembered be
When I should be forgotten.

Further evidence of the educational value of samplers can be seen in those worked in the Müller orphanages of Bristol, where samplers evolved a recognisable style. In monochrome red, they feature alphabets and numbers in many sizes and styles, to display the stitching skills that girls would need if employed in domestic service. The samplers served as useful references for potential employers.

As years passed, girls began to learn needlework skills in school rather than at their mother's knee. In addition to traditional samplers, they would stitch map samplers and even stuffed globes of the world (charmingly, place names tended to be squeezed in where they fitted rather than in geographically accurate positions). Darning samplers of great complexity were used to teach the skills needed by wives and mothers for making and maintaining clothes.

Sampler making flourished in Germany, Holland, Britain and America during the seventeenth century, but during the eighteenth century samplers began to change. They became more decorative and were displayed in the home to show off a young stitcher's prowess with a needle, to visitors or even prospective suitors. By this time, cross stitch had become the main stitch used, and stitchers were more creative, producing individual designs inspired by events and objects in their own lives. They included houses, local scenes, naïve and simple figures taken from the real world, and these designs now give us an invaluable insight into the social history of the period.

During the nineteenth century, sampler making and cross stitch went into decline, due mainly to the craze for Berlin woolwork which took over from the 1830's. Ornate designs from nature were painted or printed onto canvas in Berlin, then sold throughout Germany, Britain and America. Stitchers would cover the designs with woolwork, often in tent stitch or half cross stitch but sometimes in cross stitch, to produce many articles for the home - footstools, bellpulls, purses, cushions, firescreens, pincushions. By 1840, 14,000 patterns for Berlin woolwork were available in England, all simple to stitch from a coloured chart, but offering subtle shading and increased realism. When improvements in dyeing techniques produced vivid new thread colours, such as purple, magenta and violet, the increased scope and excitement gave further impetus to the widespread craze for Berlin woolwork.

But embroidery as a pastime was to lose popularity rapidly in Europe and America later that century, in spite of the efforts of William Morris (1834-96) and his Arts & Crafts Movement, and especially William's daughter May, a leading exponent of embroidery. The death knell sounded for domestic embroidery, and the hand stitching of clothing and household linens, when in 1828 the first embroidery machine was invented by Joseph Heilman, then American Elias Howe invented the domestic sewing machine, manufactured by Isaac Singer from 1851. As women began to acquire factory-made and machine-embroidered clothing and linen at a reasonable price, their skills went into decline.

World Wars I and II consolidated the decline in Britain as women were needed to support the war effort, and embroidery featured less in schools. Those who still had some leisure time and a love of needlework would produce patriotic samplers commemorating events such as the coronation of King George V1 in 1937, though the preference was for free-style embroidery rather than cross stitch. In Britain, cross stitch hung on through the thirties, forties and fifties, with the help of pre-stamped cross stitch kits: crosses were printed onto the fabric, then stitched over.

Cross stitch as we recognise it today was re-discovered in the sixties, when increased leisure time was a factor in the revival of counted cross stitch for pleasure. Once again, stitchers were working from charts, and early kits from this period offered copies of traditional samplers, taking cross stitch back to its roots. Happily for us addicts, over the last thirty years the explosion of interest in the craft has seen a flourishing of every conceivable type of design - offering something of interest for all tastes and skills.

Further Reading

Sebba, Anne Samplers: Five Centuries of a Gentle Craft
Weidenfeld and Nicholson (1979)

Colby, Averil Samplers
B.T. Batsford Ltd. (1964)

Don, Sarah Traditional Samplers
David & Charles (1986)

Beck, Thomasina The Embroiderer's Story: Needlework from the Renaissance to the Present Day
David & Charles (1995)