Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Jane Bostocke Sampler

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 ;)


CrazyStitcher said...

When you said you were planning to get back into blogging, I'd thought it was something you would gently ease yourself back into. Silly me for thinking that! Lol.

Well, you have been a busy bee with the research. You know, as soon as I saw the name 'Jane Bostocke' there was something about it that seemed familiar.

That first image really is quite impressive, and so detailed. One has to admire the time and skill that went into its creation. x

rosey175 said...

That's so interesting about the word "sampler"! I had read somewhere something similar... something like a sampler being a "sample of stitches" for young girls to learn from. I didn't know each of the motifs had a meaning though! Gosh, here I was just thinking they liked cats, lol.

The JBS is stunning, so detailed! I especially like the blue-green design at the bottom (grapes?) and the knotwork in the middle. I suppose Ms. Jane was considered to be quite an accomplished needleworker in her time, especially if she had access to special metal threads!

Aurelia Eglantine said...

Thanks so much for the wonderful comments, ladies! :)

CS: Ha! *looks sheepish* Yes, well, you know what happens when I take in interest in something! *rolls eyes* It took me three weeks to put this together, LOL. My exact thought processes when I first saw the JBS in Beck's book:

"Huh, a sampler. Yawn." (I am NOT normally a Sampler Girl, as well you know). "Hey, is that blackwork?!" "It is, IT IS blackwork!" *squints* *squints some more* "What the heck is THAT supposed to be?" *tilts head* "Flowers!!!! Pretty BW flowers!!!!" "But what's that above them?" "Ah, acorns" "Hmm...those acorns look really cute too" "They'd be nice for Fall" "But I want those pretty BW flowers!!!!!!!!!!!"

At which point I jumped online, quite sure that some kind sampler-crazy soul had already charted the whole thing and put up charts of the bands. Only, I couldn't find anything like that, besides the lovely free Strawberries project.

And so I spent a night doodling, trying to get the flowers right. No dice. And so I tried the acorns instead, out of desperation. And then I tried the flowers again, and STILL couldn't figure them out, LOL. So, there it is. Hence, what you call "research" was a lot more like a lot of fruitless fun :)

Re: The V&A image - I know right? And I was really surprised when I saw all the colours after first seeing the JBS in B&W! I imagine it would have been a lot brighter when it was first done, too!

Rosey: Isn't it indeed?! I had no idea, either, and was really surprised to discover that such ordinary things, like fruits and animals, represents such complex (and often strange) ideas!

And you are completely right! You must have very keen eyes :) It took me a while to figure that band out when I first saw it - I thought it was another version of the strawberries, honestly, LOL That blue green section at the bottom is indeed bunches of grapes with big stylized leaves. You're right about Jane being well-off too; she must have been from a very wealthy family indeed! Must've been nice ;)

Karen said...

WOW! You really do dive in! Great job!

I am a sampler girl, mainly because I love the specialty stitches and each motif/row feels like a mini-finish. I also love the history behind samplers, the meanings of the different symbols and all of that detail! To think that someone could hold a job within a household just to embroider the "Lady's and Masters" garments! At some point I read that embroidery wasn't originally just a woman's job either! I'm sure this is going WAAAAAY back in time if it is even true.

It's funny, the whole time I was looking at the JBS sampler, I was thinking it doesn't look finished. And it makes so much sense now that you say that it is believed that more than one person would stitch on the same sampler. The empty gaps at the top and the unfinished strawberries are probably from a second embroiderer. The empty gaps at the top may have purposely been left for the next person to fill in. Not a far stretch from a modern day Round Robin piece!

Thanks for taking the time to put this all together, I enjoyed it!

Aurelia Eglantine said...

Aw, thanks so much Karen! *blushes* I'm glad you think so :)

Re: Samplers - That's a very good point! I actually do love the beautiful band samplers that you like stitching so much ;) With a bit of further thinking, I think my dislike of samplers comes more from the Historical Reproduction school, because the idea of slavishly recreating schoolgirl works (mistakes and all, lol) just doesn't interest me. But I do find the sampler motif meanings very interesting, especially the prettier floral sentiments :)

And I have read that men used to stitch too! There's something about it in one of the books I read last month, actually, so I'll have to see if I can find the reference! I found it fascinating too :) And it is indeed amazing to read about the sheer amount of linens that had to be embroidered and repaired on a regular basis for large elite households!!! Definitely a full-tim job ;)

RE: The JBS - YES! I can totally see that, and completely agree with what you're saying :) And I *love* your Round Robin analogy - in fact, the assumption that if there were mutliple embroiderers sewing on one piece they would be family member, while logical and a lovely heirloom image, seems to overlook the bonds of friendship! Especially in the latter Victorian eras, when needlework seems to have become exclusively a social activity to do when "in company", it seems probable that friends might have worked on embroideries together, just like a modern-day RR! It seems silly to underestimate the power of friendship, doesn't it?! LOL

September said...


Interesting post and lovely stitching!

Cheryl Matzker said...

When I stitched my first sampler, I had to call Darlene O'Steen to ask what "Anno Domini" meant so I loved hearing where the title of "Sampler" came from as well as other characteristics you mentioned.

Oh, "Anno Domini" is Latin for "In the year of our Lord". I probably should have known that since it was always by the date. lol

In Stitches

Cheryl Matzker said...

Oooops, couldn't resist writing one more thing. I won a trip to London in a cross stitch competition in "2004" and was glued to the "Victoria Albert" museum where Jane's sampler is housed and it is spectacular to say the least. I would love to know the story of the motif removed at the top of the sampler. You can just barely make out an outline of needle holes that form an animal.

Still In Stitches

Aurelia Eglantine said...

Hi Cheryl - Thanks so much for your lovely comments and for sharing your great story of seeing the JBS up close :) That must have a been a wonderful treat! One of these days I'd like to get to the V&A for a visit myself, I've heard they have several needlework treasures there. And I see what you mean about the unpicked stitches - I'd like to know what that motif was too ;) Happy Stitching!

Cheryl Matzker said...

Thank you for sharing your post Aurelia. Hope you don't mind if I stick around a while. I can never get enough information on samplers. Oh, and thanks for the name of the book, "The Embroiderer's Story: Needlework from the Renaissance to the Present Day". I found a new copy reasonable priced and of course had to buy it. Gonna try to find another book I have in my collection all about the JB sampler by Eileen Bennett. If I find any info on the mystery animal removed, I'll share it here.

Thanks again.
In Stitches

~mj~ said...

I stumbled upon this great blog post just today, reading about Jane all over the net. I recently bought the kit to stitch Jane off of ebay and can`t wait til I have her in my hands. I visited the V&A and saw her 'up close and personal' a few years ago and I was thrilled, to say the least. The fineness of the linen and the stitches is just amazing...Jane must have had very good eyesight!

As to the missing motifs at the top, the theory has been put forward that the stitches were not picked out, but have rather disintegrated over time. Dark brown/black thread was frequently dyed using rusted iron filings and crushed walnut shells, and was very acidic, so the threads did not have a long life.

Off now for more Jane googling!!


Aurelia Eglantine said...

Thanks so much for the lovely comments!

Both of you ladies might enjoy some of the book reviews for historical embroidery books on Needle N' Thread. Especially those by Gail Marsh - I've read her 18th Century Embroidery Techniques and highly recommend it, and she has a 19th Century edition too. They rely heavily on the author's pen-and-ink sketches more than photographs, but her research is thorough and enjoyable to read!

@ Cheryl: Of course you're welcome to stay, I'm always happy to talk about needlework :) And I'm so glad you found a copy! This is an absolutely amazing book, and one I'm sure you'll love. I never did get around to posting the review, but I still have my notes so I'll see what I can do to remedy that ASAP ;) She wrote a few other books - three if I remember rightly - that all look fascinating, but unfortunately they're all out of print and very expensive these days.

Please do let me know if you do find any info on the mystery animal! I'd love to hear :)

@ MJ: Welcome, and thank you so much for your kind comment! Congratulations on finding a full reproduction copy, I think they're very rare are they not? I'm looking forward to following your progress on the JBS, it's a major project for sure!

And you gave an excellent summary of the thread problem too :) I have heard that before and I strongly suspect that's probably the case, although it would be intriguing if there were another explanation, wouldn't it?! ;)