Thursday, April 15, 2010

Poignant sampler

I was browsing through the digital archives of the V&A (Victoria and Albert museum, London) looking at quilts in their current exhibition and other textiles, when I came across this amazing sampler that I just had to share.

It is a unique piece of embroidery so poignant that it brought tears to my eyes. Apparently it is the confessions of a young woman about her lot in life, done entirely in cross stitch, embroidered with silk on linen in tiny stitches. The young woman, Elizabeth Parker, was born in 1813 and was working as a nursery maid when she committed her thoughts to fabric.
According to the description on the web-page:
“She describes what she sees as her own weaknesses and sins, and the trials she had to face from employers who treated her 'with cruelty too horrible to mention', in this deeply personal confession of her temptation to suicide. As the text continues her desperation increases, '..which way can I turn oh whither must I flee to find the Lord wretch wretch that I am …what will become of me ah me what will become of me'.”
I find it amazing that she would choose to use fabric and thread to express her thoughts. The slowness of the process must have given her time to work out what she wanted to say, and weigh her words accordingly, and still she felt the urge to pour it all out for the world to see. Or maybe her choice of medium actually made it more private than a journal would have been for her? I’m thinking that maybe a woman’s embroidery held so little significance for her contemporaries, that it was the best way of keeping her thoughts to herself? It was just a piece of cloth stuffed in her work basket, after all. Or maybe it was just the opposite -that she felt so angry and bitter that she wanted the world to see what she was going through, so this was actually an early piece of subversive cross-stitch? Whatever the reason, we’ll never know, and although her sampler breaks off in mid-sentence with the words “What will become of my soul “, we can at least take comfort in the fact that historians have discovered that Elizabeth lived to be 76, became a schoolteacher, raised her sister’s daughter and lived what is described as “a moderately comfortable life”. We’ll never know what went on in her mind, in those later years though.
You can look at other interesting textiles in the V&A archives here.


Lily Boot said...

that's extraordinary - almost bizarre. I agree with you about the words being so carefully chosen - of course they would be if they were to be stitched, you'd have a lot of time to think about it. It also strikes me as having a heightened sense of melodrama! Thinking about all the teenage girls I've worked with other the years, their passions run so deep and when they feel despair it is truly wrenched from the bottom of their souls. I wonder if she looked back at it in her older, more settled years and shook her head with mirth at her sentiments! Amazing! My favourite creepy stitching is a quilt I saw in a book that was made by a family to record the family deaths. There was a "graveyard" as the central medallion, then various borders of blocks etc. The final border was plain with appliqued coffins - when a family member died, a coffin was removed from the outer edge, the deceased's name and dates was embroidered on it, and then it was "interred" on the centre graveyard medallion. Clearly it wasn't a family favourite, 'cause there were way more coffins on the border than in the graveyard!

mathea said...

Yes, you're probably right - she might have been a bit of a drama queen. Let's hope this was just a stage in her life that she got over quickly!
The graveyard quilt sounds creepy, I can understand if her family weren't too happy about it!
I always find it interesting to come across pieces of crafting from the past that show a bit more of what was going on in somebody's mind, because the makers seem so much more real and interesting when their thoughts "shine through" somehow.