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Monday, January 18, 2016


Today we’re happy to have back Maine author Lea Wait who writes the Mainely Needlepoint Mysteries and the Shadows Antique Print Mysteries, as well as nineteenth century Maine-set historical novels for young people. Learn more about Lea and her books at her website.

American School Girl Samplers

“Take your needle, my child, and work at your pattern; it will come out a rose by and by. Life is like that – one stitch taken patiently and the pattern will come out all right, like embroidery.”-- Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894) from The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table

A number of readers of my Mainely Needlepoint mystery series have asked me about the quotations I put at the beginning of each chapter. Some, like the one above, are from books printed in the nineteenth century or before, but most are moral verses embroidered by American girls as young as six on samplers stitched in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Samplers made during this period usually included several alphabets (in different stitches,) and numbers, a verse, a (usually floral) border, and perhaps a scene, or a family tree. They were works of art often preserved by the young woman or by her parents. Although most girls were taught sewing and embroidery skills by their families, the larger, more elaborate samplers seen today in museums and private collections were often designed by skilled teachers and taught to girls as part of their education in private schools in the mid-Atlantic and New England states. Populations in other areas were sparse at that time, and girls living there didn’t have the luxury of time to create what were really works of art.

Samplers from states outside Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington.D.C., Maryland, Delaware and the New England states are today especially valued by collectors because far fewer of them have survived.

Verses found on samplers may be from hymns, from songs of the period, from poems, or from religious texts. Primers, whose reading exercises were often moral lessons, were also a source of verses for many girls. And because of the high mortality rates of the period, verses about death were common.

For example:
“Beauty and virtue, when they do meet,
With a good education make a lady complete.”  (1774 sampler)

“This work in hand my friends may have
When I am dead and in my grave
And which when’er you chance to see
May kind remembrance picture me
While on this glowing canvas stands
The Labour of my youthful hands.” (1752 sampler)

Perfect epilogues for a mystery series!

(If you’re interested in more information about the history of schoolgirl samplers and needlepoint, Lea has compiled a bibliography of sources. There’s a link to it on the home page of her website.)

Thread and Gone
When a priceless antique is stolen, murder unravels the peaceful seaside town of Haven Harbor, Maine. . .

Angie Curtis and her fellow Mainely Needlepointers know how to enjoy their holidays. But nothing grabs their attention like tying up loose threads. So when Mary Clough drops in on the group's Fourth of July supper with a question about an antique needlepoint she's discovered in her family attic, Angie and her ravelers are happy to look into the matter.

Angie's best guess is that the mystery piece may have been stitched by Mary, Queen of Scots, famous not just for losing her head, but also for her needlepointing. If Angie's right, the piece would be extremely valuable. For safekeeping, Angie turns the piece over to her family lawyer, who places it in a safe in her office. But when the lawyer is found dead with the safe open and ransacked, the real mystery begins. . .

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Angela Adams said...

I'm amazed that someone had the patience to sit and for so long and create something so lovely. Thanks for the post.

M. Johnston said...

What a great idea for a mystery. The samplers are so worth preserving.

Anne Louise Bannon said...

Fascinating. I somehow got the idea that samplers were literally samples of different stitches that a student was learning. Sounds like they were an end unto themselves. Thanks for the info!

Claire said...

An intriguing mystery wrapped in history. That is something I'll have to check out. Thanks for the short lesson on those needlepoints we see but many of us know little about.