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Blog and News

A stitch in time

Lady Emma Barnard recounts how Parham’s fine collection of needlework reveals a touching insight into what life was like for young girls during the 17th and 18th centuries and also later during the Great War. 

19th June 2020

Parham’s delightful collection of samplers reveal stories from the past

Parham’s beautiful collection of needlework would have been in pride of place this month, had we been able to open, but instead it is resting, much of it covered by its winter covers and safely stowed away. My great-grandmother Alicia Pearson, encouraged and helped by her mother Ethel, Lady Brabourne, collected it; both were fine needlewomen themselves.

Lady Brabourne embroidered several pieces, on display in the “open” side of the House. In the early 1920s, Alicia and she stitched, for fun, a replica of an early 18th-century chair covering in the Saloon; both chairs stand together, and, notably, the “modern” dyes have faded while the original vegetable dyes remain much more vivid.

She also embroidered a panel (pictured above), in the style of King Charles I, featuring Alicia and her husband Clive in period dress, with their little daughter Veronica (my great-aunt) standing between them, and four lambs as a symbol of possible children to come.  Veronica, of course, inherited Parham, and one of those lambs, two years later, turned into my grandmother Lavinia.

The dark days of the Great War

I am struck that this piece is signed and dated 1917, so it was done during the dark, terrible days of what was known as the Great War.  It is very moving to contemplate the many, many hours she must have spent doing it, and how the subject matter looks forward to better times with hope and a quiet willing to “come through”.

Thinking about it, this panel links both forwards to the anxious times we are living through at the moment, and backwards to the times when women and little girls were expected to embroider, make and mend as a given of their education. Sadly I did not inherit any of my ancestors’ skill in needlework, but if I had been living here at Parham in previous centuries this is what I would have been doing, whether I had the skill or not.

Isolation fuelled creativity then and now

Lockdown has produced many examples – you can see them all over social media – of people producing beautiful things at home, having taken up all sorts of crafts, including decorative needlework, to fill the time profitably and therapeutically.

Years ago, needlework was essential for the proper running of the domestic household. Household items had to be identified, clothes mended and adorned. The samplers we have all over the House date mainly from the 17th and 18th centuries and were stitched by little girls as practice for learning these particular skills. “Sampler” comes originally from the Latin word “exemplum”, meaning example, or the old French word “essamplaire”; stitches were learnt and recorded in this way as a reference, long before printed designs were widely available; they were, of course, passed down in practice from person to person.

Samplers were stitched by children

It is the ages of the little children who stitched these beautiful things with such skill that are so astonishing. The exquisite ones we have at Parham were produced, painstakingly and so often in appallingly bad light, by girls as young as six years old. Their alphabet letters, numbers, animals, flowers, houses, and Biblical quotations and mottoes are finely wrought in all manner of stitches and colours, and they are mainly signed and dated. One can only imagine the levels of effort and the hours they must have taken to produce.

A very touching example hangs in the Long Gallery (see picture above), worked by Esther Sleepe (1725-1762) when she was seven years old. It says: “Esther Sleepe is my name and in my youth I wrought the same and by this work you may plainly see what care my parents took of me November the last in the year 1732.”  Esther was the mother of the novelist Fanny Burney (1752-1840), who has written the inscription: “Sampler of my own dearest Mother, Given to me by her precious self, when I was 8 years of age.”

How old objects speak volumes

This plainly shows not only the very close bond between mother and daughter but also the sentimental importance of the little piece of needlework for the two women. The little Esther is justifiably pleased and proud of her achievement, and what she has achieved is clearly considered both right and proper within the family; it’s a testament to “what care my parents took of me”.  That she died when she was only 37 (early death being all too common then) must have made that cherished piece even more poignant and precious to Fanny.

Old objects speak, and they often tell volumes. These little pieces of needlework are simple but so personal; it’s impossible not to marvel at them and be moved by them. I’m glad they have survived because through them it’s possible to glimpse the stoicism, even bravery, of the ordinary lives lived then. Time may change standards and circumstances, but we are more linked to previous generations through our emotional experiences than sometimes we realise.