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A Stitch in Time

Growing up, I was surrounded by beautiful needlework, crochet and knitting done by various members of my family (including my grandfather), and so it doesn't seem that strange that I eventually learned to embroider as well. Like novice embroiderers before me, one of my first big projects was a sampler. 

Samplers are, quite literally, samples of embroidery. Before pattern books were available, the sampler was used like a reference for embroidery techniques and designs. Beginning embroiderers (often, but not always girls), worked samplers to learn techniques and designs, some of which were passed down through families and between friends. The use of text in samplers was also a way of teaching young embroiderers to read as well, and a lot of older samplers contain verses from the Bible, alphabets, or old proverbs.

I can't help but remember it when I look at this sampler here (HT 2003.92), stitched by eight-year-old Caroline Tucker in 1836 and brought to South Australia by her daughter Annie in 1890. After all, both feature pastel colours, pretty baskets of flowers and decorative borders. There are differences, however. For one, while mine had a very cheery alphabet, Caroline's has a melancholy orphan's lament.

The Orphan is one of those features of Victorian culture that sticks in our popular imagination, but it also reflected a wider reality in nineteenth-century Britain.  The twist with this sampler is that Caroline wasn't actually an orphan.

It's not really clear why she worked a poem about an orphan in her stitching, but sentimental tales of orphans were popular, if the novels of the era were anything to go by: Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist and Becky Sharpe might all have been fictional orphans, but their situation wasn't that uncommon for a lot of children in the nineteenth century were unlucky enough to lose both parents through illness or accidents.

Caroline's sampler isn't just an exercise to learn cross stitch with. It's a window into the cultural and social history of nineteenth-century Britain. I wonder what people would learn about us if they looked at things we stitched? 

 By Vedrana Budimir, Migration Museum Curator

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