Tales of stitching samplers and the Bronte sisters

By Ardeana Hamlin, BDN Staff
Posted Feb. 14, 2011, at 6:36 p.m.

What would the Bronte sisters sew? They stitched samplers long before Charlotte grew up to write “Jane Eyre,” before Emily wrote “Wuthering Heights” and before Anne wrote “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.”

A sampler is a piece fabric, often linen, embroidered with designs, and text in a variety of stitches, usually done by a child to learn stitching skills.

Charlotte completed her sampler at age 13 in April 1829. Emily was done with hers at age 11 on March 1, 1829. Anne finished hers at age 10 on Jan. 23, 1830. They stitched their samplers at their home, Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire, after the girls had returned from school where their older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, had died from privation and illness suffered at the boarding school.

It is easy to imagine the sisters sitting together, hoops and needles in hand, making row after row of cross-stitches to fashion each word. Perhaps the sewing was an occasion to sit together and talk about life in the village or to remember their sisters. Or perhaps the sewing was drudgery, an onerous task to be got through until they could go out to the moors where they let their imaginations run wild.

As might be expected of the daughters of Patrick Bronte, a clergyman, the Bronte sisters’ samplers consist of lengthy passages from the Bible, from Proverbs and Psalms.

Photographs of the Brontes’ samplers are included in “Samplers and Tapestry Embroideries” by Marcus Huish, first published in 1900 in London. Huish describes the samplers: “They show a strange lack of ornament, and a monotony of colour (they are worked in black silk on rough canvas) which deprive them of all attractiveness in themselves.” Judging from the photographs, it’s easy to see how Huish might arrive at that conclusion, but the samplers, to my eye, have an almost architectural beauty of composition.

Huish says in his book that the owner of the samplers at that time was Clement Shorter, a journalist who collected manuscripts, books and materials related to his favorite authors, including the Bronte sisters.

Each sampler differs somewhat from the others. The top verse in Charlotte’s sampler reads: “A house divided against itself can’t stand.” But horizontal bars of stitching separate the seven verses in the sampler. Did she intend that as a bit of drollery? It can be argued that “Jane Eyre” has the “house divided” idea as one of its themes. Rochester was certainly a “house divided against itself,” given the fact that he had a madwoman, his wife, living in the attic, while falling in love and persuading Jane, the governess, who didn’t know about the wife, to marry him.

A line in Emily’s sampler says: “Surely I am more brutish than any man, and have not the understanding of a man.” Was this line from a verse from Proverbs a foreshadowing of her character Heathcliff, whose callous behavior transgressed social and moral codes, in “Wuthering Heights”?

Anne’s sampler, also with verses from Proverbs, bears this line: “She is more precious than rubies and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her.” It was Anne who created the character Helen, the wife of Arthur, the unfaithful, drunken husband who did not value his wife. Helen fled from him in “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.”

The three samplers are stitched with the same zigzag border, similar to a Greek key pattern.

I searched a long time on the Internet for images of the samplers so I could direct readers to them, but I was not successful. The only images I found are in Huish’s book.

I came across references stating that the samplers are housed at Haworth Parsonage, now a museum, but at websites pertaining to Haworth I did not find information to confirm that the samplers are, indeed, housed at the museum. I e-mailed a query but have not yet received a reply.

To see an exhibit of American samplers, take a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to see “Embroideries of Colonial Boston: Samplers” on display through March 12 in the museum’s Edward and Nancy Roberts Family Gallery in the Art of the Americas wing. The exhibition, according to the museum website at www.mfa.org “will feature a pair of 17th century samplers brought to Boston as well as two 17th century American samplers, examples clearly illustrating the connection between Great Britain and the colonies.”

If you prefer to stitch samplers, websites that provide free cross-stitch charts include www.dmc.com and www.caron-net.com. Samplers, however, do not have to be done in cross-stitch. Go to http://pineneedlesatgardnervillage.blogspot.com/2010/04/saundra-white-isback.html to view images of samplers designed by Saundra White done entirely in outline stitch.

Snippets

Pine Kneedlers Knitting Guild will hold its February meeting 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 15, at the group’s new location, Sunbury Village, 922 Ohio St., just south of Griffin Road, Bangor. The meeting will be in the activity room located in the rear building with the large portico. Park on the left near the garages just before you reach the building. Old and new members and friends are welcome to attend. For information, e-mail cheryl.zeh@gmail.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/02/14/living/tales-of-stitching-samplers-and-the-bronte-sisters/ printed on August 20, 2014