For the love of an 18th century sampler

0030_For the love of 18th c. samplersII

These two photographs are a companion to my previous post (Love, our subject:). I’m including them here to chart my progress, and to encourage myself to keep working at reproducing this intricate 18th century English sampler. Completed in 1780 by eleven-year-old Sarah Brignell, the original is on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. I chose to reproduce this sampler because of its imaginative floral border and because of the primitive cartouche that appears in the center of the piece. Within this little globe are a girl, a tree, a stag, a bird, a butterfly, a flower, a green meadow, blue sky, a smiling sun – a child’s version of Eden. I’ve never seen another historical sampler that looks like this one, and I find it charming.

0029_For the love of 18th c. samplersI

I’ve spent some of the pleasantest hours of my life with a needle, floss, and a piece of cloth. This Sarah Brignell sampler is the third and most difficult one I’ve attempted. My motive in choosing it is that I want each of our three children to have one of “my” samplers as a keepsake someday. I’ve finished two already: The Chase sampler, which was completed in 1760 in Newbury, Massachusetts by 11-year-old Mary Starker (the original of which is part of the Williamsburg collection), and an English sampler completed in 1832 by 7-year-old Ann Pasfield. (Yes – she was seven years old, a precocious child to say the least.)

As I mentioned in my previous post, the ongoing challenge of the Sarah Brignell sampler is that the words of its hymn are worked with a single strand of black silk floss over a single thread of 35 count linen – which means there are thirty-five strands of linen to the inch. In the case of this sampler, it also means there are thirty-five cross stitches to the inch – incredibly tiny. I’ve had quite a time of trying to see what I’m doing. Although I’ve worn bifocals for several years, bifocals alone are insufficient for this task. I attempted to work with a needlework magnifier perched in my lap, but found it far too cumbersome. It’s the same reason I’ve never been able to work with an embroidery hoop – it gets in my way and feels artificial. I suppose I’m a needlework purist of sorts – I want nothing between me and my embroidery. However, in the case of the infinitesimal stitches required in the Sarah Brignell, I needed help and ultimately discovered that putting a pair of reading magnifiers over the top of my bifocals worked perfectly. And that, my friends, is how I earned one of my family’s affectionate nicknames: Six Eyes.

Sometime, I’ll tell more about my love of samplers and needlework in general. For now, my embroidery chair in the sunroom beckons. I think I’ll put Ola Gjeilo (my latest favorite composer) on the stereo, unite with all the unsung embroiderers of days long flown, and focus (all six of) my eyes on a work of love.

Love, our subject:

0028_Love, our subject

With a single strand of black silk floss, I spend the better part of an afternoon embroidering the word “l o v e” in minute cross stitches  – 35 to the inch – over one thread of fine-woven, ivory linen. (The word is part of an exquisite 18th century English reproduction sampler I’ve been working on for several years.) As I work each microscopic stitch, taking care to keep my thread’s tension light and even, neither too taut nor too slack, I unchain my thoughts and let them wander. I think long on love. I wonder why this four-letter, one-syllable word can be so delicate and diaphanous, so difficult to execute on fabric, to effectuate in life. Love is what we wish to give, what we hunger to receive. It’s what we dedicate our lives to, this sacred, abstruse word we’ve sought to define from the dawn of collective consciousness. “Love, our subject:/we’ve trained it like ivy to our walls,” says the poet, Adrienne Rich. At last, I complete the word, secure my needle, and close my eyes, fabric in hand.

“L o v e.”

I am able to extend a finger, run it lightly over the tiny topography of letters, and read the word whole, like Braille. Somewhere in my heart, a poem yearns to find release. Where are the words to give it wing? I can only ask the roving wind. What I do know, what I can simply say, is that love – prismatic, manifold, undefinable, so worthy of all we can possibly give to it – is not easily captured in black and white.