by Kimberly & Jeff Saward
In times past, the women and girls who stitched intricate and delicate samplers would not have considered themselves artists, and accordingly they left little, if anything, of a biographical insight into their personalities and lives. Generally, we have only a name, a date, and the legacy of the designs they chose. These designs, with their specific motifs, verses, arrangement, and colour, serve to provide insight into the life and times of their nearly-anonymous makers.
Stories, poems, songs – even the scantiest of jottings of families and loved ones – contributed to the composite life story of the Anonymous Women who ornamented every phase of her experience from girlhood through old age with handiwork of startling power and invention.
The earliest surviving English samplers date from the late 16th century, and by the mid-18th century girls, often as young as five years of age, would stitch simple samplers. Working designs of increasing complexity as they became older and more experienced, their needlework skills would accompany them throughout life. Instruction often took place in schools and female academies where “elegant accomplishment” sometimes took precedence over scholarship. They sourced their designs from collections that were regularly published and stored in the libraries of schools and teachers where they would be available to the students who passed through on their way to adulthood.
A recent addition to the Labyrinthos collection of labyrinthine artefacts is a late 18th century embroidered sampler, approximately 50 cm (18 inches) square, created by Ann Lewis “at Mrs Lees Dewsbury yorkshire in the year of our Lord 1798 Aged 12 Years” Rather faded, but otherwise in good condition for a piece of fabric over 200 years old, the sampler is decorated with two large birds (probably meant to be parrots), a number of heraldic devices, biblical figures in the form of Noah and his Ark, and Adam and Eve standing either side of the Tree of Knowledge, complete with serpent wrapped around its trunk. To the right of the tree is a rectangular labyrinth 8 x 5 cm, probably originally embroidered in blue silk. Winding its way between the various designs and devices (technically known as spot motifs) embroidered on the fabric are the lines of a poem Whenever I take my Walks Abroad written by Isaac Watts (1674-1748), a prodigious hymn-writer and theologian and author of various volumes of hymns, including Divine and Moral Songs for Children, published in 1715, in which the poem on the sampler first appears.
While searching for further information on the author of the sampler and who her teacher may have been, we were rather surprised to find an almost identical sampler preserved in the important collection of samplers in the Kirklees Museum Collection, held at the Tolson Museum in Huddersfield, Yorkshire. This example, embroidered by Mary Blackburn in 1785, was also created at Mrs. Lees in Dewsbury and has very similar design elements including birds, biblical figures and an almost identical, slightly rectangular, labyrinth stitched in black, floating directly above Noah in his Ark. This time the text woven around the motifs is from a verse entitled “O that the Lord Would Guide my Ways,” and once again the author is Isaac Watts – clearly his uplifting moral rhymes were popular on the bookshelf where these two girls were taught their needlework skills.
The fact that two samplers survive with remarkably similar designs, from 13 years apart, and both created at Mrs Lees in Dewsbury, would suggest that Mrs Lees (or Lee, there is no apostrophe to indicate either way on the samplers) was a teacher, either at a ‘Dame School’ (a private elementary school, often located in the home of the teacher) or at one of the charitable schools in the town –Dewsbury, as a wealthy milling and mining town, had a proud tradition of providing education for its children from the early 18th century onwards, long before the introduction of compulsory education– although we have been unable to trace her in the early trade directories, first published in the early 19th century. Wherever her classes were held, Mrs. Lees was surely providing her girls with patterns for them to copy motifs for their embroidery projects. Such patterns were available in pattern books, and also in publications of the time, especially the fashion monthly Lady’s Magazine, published from 1770 to 1837. Clearly one of the books or magazines in her library must have contained the labyrinth design that appears on both of the surviving samplers.
The design of the labyrinths is at first sight rather unusual – rectangular, with protrusions at the four corners – but the pattern of the pathways is in fact a familiar seven-circuit medieval design, first found in Serlio’s influential book Libri cinque d’architettura, a design used in circular form for the pavement labyrinths at San Vitale, Ravenna and the Castel Sant’ Angelo in Italy, and for the turf labyrinth in England, at Clifton, Nottingham, this time rendered in square form. This square design, with the same protrusions, or bastions at the corners that appear on the samplers first appears in Thomas Hill’s famous English-language gardening book The Profitable Art of Gardening (also the source of the design of the Saffron Walden turf labyrinth), first published in 1579 and widely reprinted thereafter.
A copy of Hill’s engraving was surely in one of the pattern books or magazines on Mrs. Lees’ bookshelf in Dewsbury in the late 1700’s. Whatever the exact source, it further proves how widespread the labyrinth symbol had become in 18th century England, at all levels of society – even schoolgirls would have known the designs!
A Third Example Discovered – Updated 2020
A third sampler decorated with the same labyrinth design, and again produced in Dewsbury, has recently been brought to our attention. Purchased in 2017 and now in a private collection in Iowa, USA, this small sampler was created by Mary Parsons “In The Year Of Our Lord 1780 in Dewsbury Yorkshire” and along with the usual alphabet and numbers (one to fifteen) is decorated with a popular verse:
Whats in thy mind let no one know
Or to thy friend no secret show
For when thy friend becomes thy foe
Then all the world thy mind must (k)now
The lower panel of the sample is filled by a square labyrinth and a depiction of Noah standing on the deck of his ark, complete with dove and olive branch. Both the ark and the labyrinth are identical in form to those on the two previously documented samplers, and interestingly the labyrinth contains the same distinctive quirk – a slight offset of the pairs of turns on the right-hand side, not present on any of the engravings in the gardening books. This surely suggests that Mary Parsons was using the same stitching pattern as Mary Blackburn in 1785 and Ann Lewis in 1798, and that maybe she was also a pupil of Mrs Lees?
With three samplers decorated with identical labyrinths now on record, stitched over a period of nearly 20 years, it seems likely that more might yet be recorded, although to the best of our knowledge, none have ever been documented from anywhere other than Dewsbury. Might this suggest that this specific design was a speciality kept in Mrs Lees’ library for her girls, rather than a template in a more widely available work?
Our gratitude to Kathy Andrews for her information and photos of the Parsons sampler.
- Bank, Mirra. Anonymous was a Woman. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1979; p. 9
- ibid, p. 10
- Photograph courtesy of Kirklees Museums & Galleries, accession no: KLMUS 2011.18 (www.kirkleesimages.org.uk/Samplers.php)
- Kern, Hermann. Through the Labyrinth. Prestel, 2000; p. 248 (no.470)
- ibid, p. 248 (no.471-472)
This article first appeared in Caerdroia 43, 2014 © Kimberly & Jeff Saward.
Photos and illustrations © Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos except Blackburn Sampler © Kirklees Museums & Galleries and Parsons Sampler images © Kathy Andrews