Monday, 8 April 2013

Exploring a 1795 Scottish Sampler

A Scottish sampler worked by
Marion Craig, Parish of Biggar,
 Lanarkshire, Scotland, 1795
[From my own collection]

This is a companion piece to accompany my blog on the 1833 Scottish sampler which is also in my possession. This Blog emphasises the importance of researching and preserving the story behind a sampler.

So, Who worked this 218 year old Sampler?

Samplers were very commonly worked by young women to exhibit their needlework skills and would be shown off with great pride. We know that Marrion Craig worked this particular sampler in Scotland in 1795 when just nine years of age. We firstly note that Marion has spelt her name with a double "r", whereas Parish records show her name simply as "Marion". This may possibly be explained by the fact that spelling of names at this time was largely phonetic and variances were common.

Measuring 41cm by 18.5cm, it contains the standard elements of a typical sampler including the creator's name and initials of her family. Overall, it is a very credible effort indeed for a young girl of this age.

I now feel quite honoured to be custodian of such a precious sampler worked so many years ago by my forebear with her own hands. An item such as this is a very tangible and meaningful link with the original creator.

What is the full provenance of this Sampler?

To myself, having worked in a professional archive for 17 years, provenance is everything. My own research below will give an idea of the kind of interesting family story that can be built up. Equally, the record of subsequent ownership is also worth preserving.

A combination of family and genealogy records confirm beyond doubt that Marion Craig was born "in Well" within the Parish of Biggar in Lanarkshire, Scotland on the 12th December 1785, being baptised on the 18th December 1785. Marion had at least five siblings; John (2x), James, Margaret and Robert. The first John obviously died young as his name was re-used. This was then a common practice to preserve family names.

Baptismal entry for Marion Craig, 1785
from Biggar Parish Records

A number of initials are embroidered in the lower half of this sampler. We can make out "WC" with a heart and "EL". A heart signifies love and would indicate the marriage of her parents, being William Craig and Elizabeth Lang [or Laing], [farm] tenants in "Well" who had married in the neighbouring Parish of Libberton (Lanarkshire) on the 6th January 1785. Unfortunately I have been as yet unable to conclusively match up the other family initials appearing on this sampler. We can at least make out "RC" which would be for Robert Craig.

Horse Tax records dated 1797-98 show that the Craigs were still resident in "Well" so we therefore know that the sampler was worked while resident here. The original farmhouse appears not to survive today.

As both of Marion's parents are buried in the Old Stonehouse Cemetery it would appear the family either moved here prior to 1805, which would account for her meeting her future husband in Stonehouse, or afterwards to be closer to their daughter.

On the 22nd February 1805 Marion married John Letham of East Mains Farm, Stonehouse Parish, and they went on to have eight children.

Marriage entry of Marion Craig and John Letham 1805,
from Stonehouse Parish records

One of Marion's children was born in Old Monkland but still baptised at Stonehouse. They appear to have permanently moved back to East Mains farm at Stonehouse, possibly due to the infirmity or death of Mr Letham senior.

The Letham family at East Mains Farmhouse, Stonehouse, c.1890's.
Marion Craig lived here in her latter years and most likely died here.
The older lady to the left of the door is Marion's daughter in law
Jane Letham née McGowan who died in 1922 aged 91 years.
[From my own collection] 

Marion Letham née Craig, then of East Mains Farm, Stonehouse, died on the 24th February 1837, aged 51 years and is interred in the Letham family plot in the old Stonehouse Cemetery. The cause of death is not known as civil death records only commence in 1855.

Marion Craig's name (marked out in red) on
the Letham family gravestone in the Old
Stonehouse Cemetery, Lanarkshire, Scotland.
[From my own collection]

The Subsequent Ownership of this Sampler :

Marion's daughter Mrs Elizabeth Muter née Letham (pictured below) inherited the sampler and it eventually passed down to her Grand-daughter, Miss Agnes Steele of Lanark, Scotland.

Below is shown an 1886 photo of not only the above Elizabeth Muter (who died in 1886) and her son William Muter, but also her granddaughter Agnes Steel who, as we shall read below, gifted the sampler to my family in 1957.

Elizabeth Muter with her son and
granddaughter, Stonehouse, c.1886
[From my own collection]

While my great aunt Marion Watson (having emigrated to New Zealand with her family at the end of 1910) was on a visit back to Scotland with her two siblings in 1957, the above Miss Steele generously gave her the sampler, being also a great grand-daughter of Marion Craig. At this stage it was not framed.

Until 1912 both Miss Steele and my great aunt had been close childhood friends living on neighbouring properties near Stonehouse village, and Miss Steele being single, 74 years of age, and almost blind, wished to pass the sampler onto another family descendant. In fact, Miss Steele lived on until 1980 and died at Biggar in her 98th year.

My Great Aunt, who was delighted with this unexpected gift, brought it back to New Zealand with her and had it professionally framed. The sampler subsequently passed to my late Mother in 1978, the third Marion to own this work, who placed it in my care in 2005. Marion Craig is my great great great grandmother. 

What Elements are Included on this Sampler?

Besides the classic letters, numbers, and the name of the creator, we can also observe the initials of family members, a flower, a tree, a bird, an animal, and other decorative patterns. Jacqueline of the Needleprint Blog tells me that the black thread used for some of the initials may indicate a deceased family member.

What damage can we observe on this sampler?

Worked on a backing of typically coarse linen, the dyed threads have retained a varying degree of colour. Home dyed thread was often employed for such work. Were the sampler exposed to light for any period of time I believe the red would be noticeably faded but this is still reasonably bright. The fastness of some of the dyes and the type of mordant used could conceivably be responsible for the slight fading we can observe. Chemical reactions are complex but can also be affected by storage conditions and relative humidity. The very helpful Jacqueline of the Needleprint Blog has advised me that fairly corrosive elements would often be used in home-dyed thread. This can also lead to perishing, particularly in black thread. It certainly appears that some of the black stitching is missing on my sampler. The sampler is now displayed well away from strong or direct sunlight.  

Care of Samplers :

As per my 1833 Sampler blog, I cannot stress enough that if cleaning of an old sampler is absolutely necessary I would strongly advise you to seek the assistance of an experienced fabric conservator who will test fibres for colour fastness and may also use specialised cleaning equipment including a dust vacuum. Professional museum staff are the best people to ask for advice on who should undertake such work. It may well be that the fibres are now so fragile that very little can be done. Should your sampler not be framed archival cotton gloves should be worn or hands thoroughly washed and dried prior to handling the item.

While many beautiful examples survive today, damaging sunlight causing fading and rotting, the action of previously referred to corrosive chemicals, unqualified attempts at cleaning and restoration, and inappropriate storage over the space of close to 200 years have all taken their toll on many fine pieces. 

I am not an expert on needlework but would welcome any comments on aspects I may have overlooked.

Bibliography :

- Various Internet resources
Needleprint Blog

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