Recently, I've been lucky enough to stumble upon some books about the history of needlework in my local library, and have been reading about some very interesting pieces of work :) Some of the earliest pieces are mentioned time and again, and one of these is Jane Bostocke's Sampler, worked in a variety of different techniques, including blackwork. The JBS is considered to be the earliest dated sampler, as Jane stitched both her name and the date she finished the work - 1598 - and the birthdate and name of the intended recipient of her gift, cousin Alice Lee, born in 1596.
This is a photograph of the sampler from the Victoria & Albert Museum: Search The Collections website, item access number T.190-1960, where it currently resides:
According to Thomasina Beck, in her excellent book "The Embroiderer's Story: Needlework from the Renaissance to the Present Day" (which I'll be reviewing at length in a future post): “The complex stitches and patterns are crowded on to the rectangle of handspun and woven linen, with enough of each to show how it would have looked on a cuff or pillow cover. A strawberry pattern in detached buttonhole stitch leaves one fruit half finished and another waiting to be filled in, as if Jane were inviting Alice to prove her mastery of the stitch by completing them" (17).
Here is the black and white version of the sampler as it appears in Beck's book (19):
And the full two-page spread Beck devoted to the JBS, showing illustrations of how individual motifs found in the sampler can be combined in new formations (18, 19):
Indeed, the thing that charms me the most about the JBS is the way that Jane worked so many different stitch variations within each motif, as if to show Alice the range of possibilities! She also added embellishments - seed pearls on her own name, and what appears to be seed beads on one of the large celtic knots. She even included two small motifs in metal threads at the top right corner (V&A, "Physical Description"), which would have been very expensive at the time.
There are motifs that have been unpicked - "frogged" in today's parlance - as if to demonstrate that mistakes happen to everyone! All these careful considerations suggest a very generous spirit, and although the overall effect is a little more crowded than the band samplers more commonly worked today, there are some very interesting designs in the JBS, and it is a captivating work.
And I am obviously not the only one to think so, as I was able to find some works inspired by this sampler online! On Linda Peterson's website, there is a photo of a large blackwork piece worked from the "New Carolingian Modelbook: Counted Embroidery Patterns Before 1600", using motifs adapted from the JBS, particularly the large Celtic knot configuration.
Flickr user alexhaugland has a close-up of the JBS strawberries that appear directly below the Celtic knotwork band in the original, and a photo of a linen shirt embroidered with his own interpretation of the strawberries at the collar and cuffs. In his notes on the shirt photo, he says that the shirt is based on one in the Bath Museum of Costume. I think he probably means the shape of the shirt, not the blackwork design. Although the Bath Museum has a wonderful online archive, the only similar artifact I could find was a plain men's linen undershirt, which was possibly the inspiration, as it too has banded cuffs and a loose flowing fit.
Carol Hanson, also known as Caryl de Trecesson in the historical-recreation Society of Creative Anachronism (SCA), runs the historical resource site Dragonbear. She has a wonderful free project, Jane Bostocke's Strawberries, which is worked in a square, instead of a band as it is in the original. Carol has finished her work as a box-lid insert, but the size and shape would make a good biscornu or pincushion!
The chart is a .jpg image, in colour. Although Carol used unusual specialty padded buttonhole stitches for the strawberries (in keeping with the original), the same area could easily be adapted for simple satin stitches or a cross-stitch fill. A blackwork filling could also be used, or the outline left plain. Like in the original sampler, there are many different stitchy possibilities :) It should be noted that the central flower, the strawberry blossom, was not rendered geometrically like the rest of the pattern, but it could be evened out with a bit of creative finagling, I think!
Speaking of motif designs, I decided to play around with the pattern that first caught my eye when I saw the Jane Bostocke Sampler in Beck's book, what I'm going to call the JBS Acorn Motif, which I've tried to enlarge from the V&A photo (the museum does provide limited high resolution downloads for use with permissions, but I couldn't get the service to work for me, so please excuse the blurriness):
I actually intended to try to chart both of the reddish bands in the center, the top being the Acorn and the second being a floral motif, but without better quality photos I was unable to puzzle out some of the stitches in the second row. I've done two versions of the Acorn Motif - the first is the single motif, and the second is a repeat of that motif, to show how they might be connected. Both images are .jpgs; to downland, click on the photo - the original large upload size should appear in your window. From there, just right click with your mouse and select your save method. If you should encounter any trouble, please let me know!
Here's the JBS Acorn Motif:
You may notice that the bottom of the motif doesn't look exactly like the original - that is because the original stitched band shortened the repeat at the bottom! So I adjusted the chart to make the image symmetrical, as is generally more preferable.
And here is the JBS Acorn Diamond Repeat:
Finally, there are a few short histories which include the JBS that may be of interest: The History of 16th Century Samplers at the Victoria & Albert Museum; the Blackwork: Tudor Embroidery handout from the Guernsey Museum (available through the link in the Education section, 4th link under “Tudor”; look at the sidebar, under Education > Resources (themes)); and the Traditional Embroidered Samplers III: Jane Bostocke's Sampler article at the Posy Tree Blog. Nancy Spies of Wyvern Tales also has an interesting post about the evolution of charted cross-stitch, ending with the JBS which she states was likely worked from printed patterns.
More generally, The History of Samplers article on the Exemplum Samplers antique shop site says that: "The word 'Sampler' is derived from the Latin word 'Exemplum'. The meaning of this word being 'an example to be followed'". I did not know that! And the same site has a very interesting list of Sampler Motif Meanings; for instance, a Bee means “Hope” and a Cat means “Idleness”. I would never have imagined that a Crab symbolizes the “Unconscious”, and I have no idea why that is, LOL! You truly learn something new everyday : )
There are other Sampler Motif Meaning lists on the web (such as those found here and here); none appear to be complete, but many meanings overlap. I imagine that all are a matter of interpretation, and may not be applicable in every circumstance. I didn’t spend a lot of time delving into motif meanings, as truthfully it was the blackwork of the JBS that caught my eye and not its nature as a sampler, but I did discover that most of the motifs Jane used – the Strawberries, the Pomegranates and the Grapes – generally represent religious matters.
And a really neat blog called Worn Through, run by costume conservators, includes a photo of the JBS in its viewing frame in a post about the Victoria & Albert Museum's Textile Studies Galleries, which have closed and are being replaced by a new facility due to open next year.
On a related note, we know that the JBS was worked by Jane for Alice to learn on, but it appears that Alice never added her own stitches to the work. Or did she? A post titled "Taking Samplers At Face Value...Should We?" on the Needleprint blog raises in interesting point – historical samplers are most often assumed to be the work of one stitcher, but since they are heirlooms most often passed down through families, it is possible that later generations added their own stitches to the pieces, as evidenced by the variations in stitch quality that appear on some works. The author suggests that the crudeness of the cross-stitched figures at the top of the JBS does not correlate to the complex blackwork below, which may suggest multiple stitchers.
So! Lots of food for thought, isn't it? It is amazing to me how one single historical needlework sample can yield so much different information and provide so much inspiration! I started off thinking "hmm...that little detail there looks kind of neat" and that snowballed into a whole lot of intriguing research :) What do you think of the Jane Bostocke Sampler? Is there anything about it that appeals to you today, and would you consider using historically inspired motifs in a design of your own?
I'm really curious to hear what you think!
I'm not intending to stitch the acorns myself, but I thought that they might be nice for Autumn, suitable for a quick stitch, perhaps as a small pincushion or needlework cover for a gift. If anyone stitches up one the charts, I'd love to see it finished ;)