For years now, we have had a set of three 19th century samplers adorning the walls of my mum’s kitchen. Like many things in a family home, you get so used to them being there that you rarely pay them any attention.
But since I’ve been spending more time there, and because we have almost every meal at a table in front of them, I have begun to wonder more about them. Two were done by ancestors on my mum’s side of the family. Mary Atkinson, who was 12 when she created hers in 1876, was my mum’s maternal grandmother, while Jane Lacy, who was 10 in 1837 when she created her sampler, was Mum’s great great aunt on her mother’s side. The third sampler is by a little girl called Hannah Raw, who was only nine when she created it in 1835, but about whom we know nothing. How we came to have her sampler is a mystery, but it was kept rolled up with Jane Lacy’s at my Nana’s home, and my mum kept them once her parents had passed away.
Judging by Hannah’s age, it is likely that she was a contemporary of Jane Lacy’s, but were they friends? Why did Hannah not take her sampler to her own home? By the time Hannah and Jane were embroidering these two little pieces of family history, the sampler had become an established part of their education, and would have been a common feature in school rooms across the country. They were used to help youngsters learn their letters and numbers alongside the necessary skill of sewing.
But before that, the sampler played a much broader role in people’s lives. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a huge collection of them from all over the world that date as far back as the 14th century when competence with a needle and thread was absolutely essential. Samplers were a way of recording topical and family events, often through the use of pictures and imagery, and in the days when few people could read or write, and even fewer had access to things like paper and ink, they were also used like pictorial reference books and instruction manuals, to store information and instructions on how to do certain things from which others could learn.
The most famous piece of embroidery in the western world has to be the Bayeux Tapestry. Despite its name, it is not a true tapestry (that is when strings of thread are woven together to create a final image. Embroidery is when patterns or letters are sewn on to a backing cloth, which is what the Bayeux Tapestry is). In a series of 58 panels, it depicts the shenanigans from 1064 that led up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when William the Conqueror defeated King Harold II. The tapestry, which is a whopping 230 feet long and 20 inches tall, was believed to have been created in 1070s England, having been commissioned by William’s half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, to decorate the walls of his brand new cathedral in the Normandy town.
Despite it being it well-known for illustrating the Norman Conquest, it is also an excellent catalogue of military and civil life from the 11th century. Thanks to this work, we can see what type of armour was worn (chainmail and helmets with nose plates) and what kinds of weapons were used (swords, spears, axes, fire, bows and arrows), how castles were constructed (motte and bailey), how battles were fought (with boats, horses and infantry) and how ships were designed (Viking longboats) alongside snippets from civil life too, such as the kinds of foods eaten (a lot of game) and the vessels used at mealtimes (bowls and drinking horns). It’s an incredible and virtually contemporaneous record of 11th century life.
It is now housed at a dedicated museum in the town of Bayeux, but you don’t have to go that far to see it. The museum has a website where you can see the whole tapestry in all its glory.
Lastly, if there is anyone who is descended from the Raw family from the Lealholm and Glaisdale area of the North York Moors, I’d love to find out if you know what happened to young Hannah and see if we can work out why we came to have her sampler.
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 25th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 23rd November 2022