Not just bits of cloth, Jennifer Shennan

New Zealand’s Historic Samplers – Our Stitched Stories
Vivien Caughley
David Bateman, $50.00
ISBN 9781869538668

Vivien Caughley’s opening definition of a sampler is “an embroidered cloth which records a stitched pattern, often the alphabet and numerals, sometimes pictures, and stitch techniques … They often commemorate events personal and national.” Through the 160 following pages, we learn much from the intriguing strands of story that Caughley draws from her selection of “self-expression with needle and thread” found in national, regional and private collections throughout the country. We readily concur with her closing ascription of samplers, not as “just bits of cloth” but as “another way history can be studied and illustrated”.

The majority of selected samplers are from mid-19th-century New Zealand, maybe by children, Māori included, in mission establishments, though mostly the schoolwork of girl pupils, guided by female teachers, with their work examined in later years, if at all, by male inspectors. There are many cameos of domestic and social life glimpsed from the contexts of these pieces, deftly assembled from Caughley’s examination of official records of immigration, of births, deaths and marriages, residency, church and school attendance rolls, newspaper accounts and the treasured diaries kept by a few individuals. Through numerous beautifully reproduced illustrations, the reader can enjoy the stitched work, but also read the subtext of the history of New Zealand education, its curriculum development, governance issues, and correspondence schooling.

“Behold the labours of my tender age … My little faults I hope you will excuse,” stitched M C S A Shannon (Sarah or Catherine, the initials are ambiguous), perhaps 10 years old  in 1853, at St Mary’s convent school in Wellington, where the nuns excelled in their standards of sewing tuition. (We learn that sibling Catherine would die within a year.) These are fragile threads of history: “A sampler may be the only words of a woman that survive.” Attending this same school, a sampler by a child from a non-Catholic family could be identified as such through the absence of a line or verse from a Marian prayer so that, in the pursuit of religious tolerance, her work could be displayed in her home without causing offence to the family.

Many times, a sampler was created to mark the death of a sibling, perhaps as consolation to the mother. The Better Land, a poem by Felicia Hemans, might be quoted. From other records, Caughley surmises that the early death of a parent might have meant the end of formal schooling for a young child whose name disappears from the roll. A family name change might disguise a record of felony or some other fall in family fortunes; a sampler to commemorate a wedding might take the opportunity to correct the misspellings of names in a newspaper account of the same event.

Women’s work? The impressively neat sampler of one lone boy is represented, five-year-old Dudley Hayhurst of Temuka, 1888, together with a description of the sporting and military prowess he developed in adult life. There is accompanying discussion of the male practitioners of handcraft and design in world history; William Morris and our own Malcom Harrison are two names that easily come to mind. One cannot fail to notice Caughley’s several references to the use of embroidery in occupational therapy offered post-war to returned servicemen in rehabilitation here.

The later development of embroidery and textile crafts in mid-20th-century New Zealand was given huge impetus and inspiration by the vision and work of French immigrant, Louise Henderson, who would later become a major painter. Her adult pupils and colleagues also elevated the standards and content of work, and Caughley traces how the Embroiderers’ Guild of New Zealand provided the national network to produce the Globe Theatre curtains that hang in the exhibition hall in London today.

There is more besides in this trove of treasures. One name I will find hard to forget is that of Ida Downard, who was only three when her father died in action in France, 1916. She always kept the handkerchief he had sent her from France, and she later stitched commemorative samplers in 1935 and 1953. (These are in Te Papa Tongarewa, and her papers in the Alexander Turnbull Library.) Mother and daughter were contacted by E Andrews, of the New Zealand Medical Corps, who had attended the dying man, assuring them he had suffered no lingering death. He wrote:

In the midst of war and death we who dress the wounded have little time for sentiment but the thought came to me that I should like to write to the wife and little girl whose photos were in the locket round the neck of your husband Corporal Downard … .

Small tokens. Big stories.


Jennifer Shennan is a Wellington-based freelance dance teacher and writer.

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