I joined a small group of Brontë Society members on a sunny afternoon at East Riddlesden Hall, a seventeenth century manor house on the outskirts of Keighley, and we were in stitches. You may be forgiven for thinking that the group had gone to watch an Ealing comedy or to take part in some hilarious game show but the stitches in question were of a far more serious nature and had been worked nearly four hundred years ago.
The Parsonage Museum director, Professor Ann Sumner, shared her expert knowledge of the seventeenth century samplers which were on display in the Hall. She explained that, after the growing emergence of the middle classes in the seventeenth century, needlework really came to the fore and it was really the golden age of sampler making. These samplers demonstrated the skills, in needlework, of young girls, skills which started quite simply at around the age of five. After hours and hours of practice and work, the girls were producing such things as embroidered mirror frames and book bindings and beautifully worked panels for caskets. These panels were sent away to be made into the caskets which had small drawers and secret compartments.
Seventeenth century sewers would buy kits for their samplers from pedlars and these kits contained all the sewing material required and pattern books which would be resplendent with flowers, birds, leaves, fishes and animals.
The three samplers discussed were all different. The oldest, surrounded by an authentic tortoiseshell frame, had a biblical theme, which was very common - this one featuring probably Rachel at the well - and was embroidered with butterflies and caterpillars. These two things were a symbol that the sampler had probably been worked in a Royalist household. The second was thought to depict Charles the Second with his wife Catherine of Braganza because the royal lion and stag could be clearly seen. All the samplers were worked in ‘stump’ work or ‘raised’ work and after surviving so long were very faded, but originally the colours would have been extremely bright.
‘She overwhelms me with oceans of needlework, yards of cambric to hem, muslin nightcaps to make and, above all things, dolls to dress.’
Charlotte to Emily from Stonegappe- written in June 1839.
In a later age all the Brontë sisters were proficient needlewomen and it is known that Charlotte made her first linen chemise at the age of five, probably taught by Sarah Garrs, the servant, and each girl made a sampler, following in the footsteps of their mother and their aunt. Aunt Branwell instructed the girls in sewing, thinking that really it was only the culture they needed, and when there were plans for a school at the Parsonage needlework was planned to be part of the curriculum.
We can see in all the Brontë novels that sewing is a theme running through them all - Grace Poole mends in an upstairs room and Nelly Dean sews as she narrates her story to Mr Lockwood. Caroline Helstone bemoans the fact that the sisters of local men have no earthly employment but housework and sewing.
Brontë samplers are on display today in the museum and it is remarkable when looking at the intricate and delicate work of them, and indeed of the seventeenth century ones we saw at the Hall, that all this beautiful work was produced without the aid of our modern electricity.