Friday 26 March 2010

James Wilson - Boy Stitcher 1828

Haslemere Educational Museum is a private museum and has a very special sampler collection. It was the second museum collection we imaged in order to raise money for the collection. I can still remember the joy of working there, and not just because of the samplers, but also because of the excellent curator and volunteer staff - amongst them Freda Chapman who for a time was also Chair of The Textile Society. I have seen a number, though small, of samplers worked by boys, and this one by James Wilson which was worked when he was 12 in 1828 is the most carefully worked I have seen. We discussed this sampler considerably without forming any conclusions while taking the photographs. How exactly did a boy come to make a sampler? In the Chicago Institute of Arts there is a lovely image of 5 year old Jean Renoir, painted by his father Auguste, showing the long-haired little boy stitching. It has to be remembered that many schools established in the 18th century and into the 19th century had as their objective little more than to ensure technically skilled crews for the British navy. Workhouse schools at the time had masts in the playground where it was expected boys would learn the ropes and rigging and, early on, develop a head for heights. This practice continued into my day at junior school when climbing on ropes and rope ladders to what felt like dizzying heights was part of a daily exercise regime. Talking to male work colleagues, I discovered that many believed they had been trained at school specifically for war. It is hard to describe just how ingrained this gendering was.


  1. What a wonderful sampler! Thank you for sharing 'him' with us.

    For the past eleven years I have had the great good fortune, and pleasure, to work among over 170 samplers in a private collection owned by friends in western Pennsylvania. It has been a fabulous education, needless to say.

    One of the loveliest was embroidered by John Reed, aged 14, in 1844, in 'Brendon'. John's sampler is large - 13" x 18", and perfectly symetrical. The focus is a grand manor house, above which is the following: O Lord, I would delight in thee, And on thy care depend, To thee in every Trouble flee, My best, My only Friend. Perfectly matched 'pairs' of birds, deer, lions, foxes, dogs, butterflies, stars, crowns, and bee skeps (John also embroidered 24 bees!) surround his dwelling, and a delicately-colored carnation border frames all this.

    Working with John for several months, the thought occurred to me that he may have been an invalid; that the sampler may have been a way for him to fill lonely days in bed. I don't know many teen-aged boys, in any day and age, who'd sit still long enough to work a sampler, let alone thread a needle! Also, it appeared to me that two hands had worked on the sampler: the right hand side was stitched with a surer, firmer hand. Perhaps John's mother or sister or nurse (?) added a motif on the right and John repeated it on the left... And the verse he chose to add seems very tender and sad.

    I'll send you a snap, Jacqueline. Again, thanks for such a wonderful 'blog'!

  2. That is so interesting and it would be lovely to see your John, thank you. We believe have found so many examples now of two hands on one sampler, that it is reassuring that others have also submitted samplers to this close inspection and come up with the same conclusion. Brilliant!

  3. I didn't know about stitching boys, thanks for this wonderful lesson.

  4. i love the boy samplers. thanks for sharing this one. i have taught cross stitch in my childrens elementary schools here in the States in years past and it always seemed to me that boys did the most exact work and always seem to complete their projects. not sure why that is but it was for me and my classes. it is great fun to teach young 3rd or 4th graders cross stitch. pass it on.

  5. I know this is an old post but just wanted to say that boys do stitch even at early ages. My brothers and I were taught to stitch when we were very young and I continued to do it.