The Biggs Museum of American Art is offering a rare chance to see samplers created by Delaware girls 200 years ago.
History buffs, needlework devotees and art enthusiasts alike all have something to celebrate with the Biggs Museum of American Art’s presentation of a special kind of early American art, “Wrought With Careful Hand: Ties of Kinship on Delaware Samplers.”
Samplers were pieces of embroidery stitched together by young women in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a demonstration of their sewing skills. They often included letters, figures, names, decorations and even small scenes of daily life.
“Samplers would show the different types of stitches a young lady had mastered, and showed her mastery of the alphabet and numbers,” said museum Curator Ryan Grover. “They could show her genealogy and even connections to popular ideas of fashion.”
The museum has gathered together 60 of these 200-year-old, extremely delicate works of art for the exhibition, which will include a three-day symposium of lectures and demonstrations on how to reproduce and preserve samplers.
The exhibit, which will be open through April 20, is a collaboration between the Biggs and a number of public and private collectors and owners throughout the state, he said.
It’s also part of an effort to create a digital library of sampler images on the Internet via the Sampler Archive project, which has the backing of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Delaware and the University of Oregon.
The Biggs exhibit is particularly important because it centers on the First State, Grover said.
“To have this comprehensive a collection together in one place hasn’t happened before and probably won’t happen again anytime soon,” he said.
Samplers were a source of pride in those Colonial families that could afford the cost. Textiles in early America were laboriously made by hand, and young girls from affluent families were sent off to expensive schools, many of which had Quaker-based curriculums, to get their education, which included the art of needlepoint.
“It wasn’t the only thing they were learning, but they were things that were tangible,” Grover said.
“One of our researchers likened the sampler to a diploma; it was a demonstration of what you had learned,” Grover said. “But it also signaled a girl was able to work in and outside of the home.”
Because of their expense, samplers were rare even when new; today the Sampler Archive project is aware of about 100 examples, 60 of which are on display at the Biggs.
Grover estimates there may be as many as 300 more samplers throughout the state, most of them tucked away as family heirlooms.
There’s only one word to describe why existing examples have survived: luck.
“They’re made of really fragile materials and they’re also very light sensitive. Some are very faded,” Grover said. Many families had their daughters’ samplers framed and put on display in their homes, well-intentioned acts not necessarily good for preservation.
“In rare cases, many weren’t displayed,” Grover said. “It’s just luck that someone had the wherewithal to not put them on display or to hang them in direct sunlight.”
And the samplers also have a certain appeal, harking back to a time when many household objects were one-of-a-kind items, each made by hand.
“Remember, these were made by little girls,” Grover said. “You’ll see mistakes in some of the choices they make, in some of the things they did. But that’s what’s so charming about them.”