Needlework researcher Vivien Caughley is tracing our social history in stitches.
It’s hard to find a clear centimetre on the Mt Eden kitchen table of Auckland needlework researcher and stitcher Vivien Caughley. Piles of books, museum reports and folders brimming with photographs jostle for space with the occasional colonial sampler. It’s a rich mix that testifies to the years Vivien has spent hunting down, researching, writing and speaking about early New Zealand needlework.
Today’s stitchers often reinterpret and adapt historic sampler patterns, as in Blue Ribbon Sampler by award-winning Auckland embroiderer Olwyn Horwood.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, samplers were stitched by girls and young women as part of their needlework training. Not only did samplers serve as records of stitches and patterns learned, they were also a form of artistic expression. They often record the names of those who sewed them, the date and sometimes where they were made. “These details, along with the types of linen and silks used, and the context in which the samplers were made, form a fascinating part of our social history,” says Vivien.
Left: A textile researcher’s tools include white gloves, tape measure and magnifying glass.
Right: Vivien studies samplers to find out stories about women in New Zealand.
Initially Vivien volunteered to help catalogue samplers held by the Auckland War Memorial Museum. The stories and mysteries that emerged made her determined to find out more and in 2007, armed with a Creative New Zealand grant, she began to search for other examples of early New Zealand needlework in homes, museums and private collections in Australia and the United Kingdom.
There was great excitement when Vivien discovered that 18th century European women had made samplers that depicted newly discovered areas of the world. Elizabeth Cook’s hand-stitched map showed New Zealand with the same distinctive shape as charted by her husband, Captain James Cook. Needlewomen were fascinated by the flora brought back on the Endeavour – plants such as kowhai began to appear on English women’s samplers shortly after their introduction to English gardens. >
Samplers made by early settlers frequently reveal stories of courage in adversity. Vivien has found many pieces that memorialise family deaths; in some cases the deaths of two or more children from one family occurred within days of each other. Other samplers commemorated community or happier family events: births and marriages. Detective work is often needed to track provenance – though samplers were one of the few things women made and kept, they were usually passed down the female line, their origins obscured by frequent changes of name.
Stitched by Mary F Mather in 1937, this sampler celebrates the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother).
Vivien still remembers her excitement when she realised that an unresearched sampler in the Auckland War Memorial Museum collection was almost identical to one in the Te Waimate Mission House. “The two samplers had obviously been worked at much the same time by the two King sisters [daughters of John and Hannah King, missionaries who came to New Zealand with Reverend Samuel Marsden in 1814], but the connection between them had not been made. These samplers are two of the earliest known to have been made in New Zealand.”
Samplers also crossed cultural boundaries. Vivien has found out about an 1820 sampler made by “Oreo”, a Maori woman who lived with the Kings at Rangihoua. Unfortunately the location of this sampler is unknown.
Many early pieces of needlework in New Zealand were brought from Britain. Vivien especially admires the sampler in the Kerikeri Mission House collection. “It’s particularly charming – it’s easy to understand why its stitcher, missionary wife Eliza Bedggood, felt it merited precious shipboard space when she came to New Zealand in 1836.”
This Victorian text was stitched in wool on Bristol board by Annie Speight, daughter of Dunedin brewer James Speight and his wife Mary Jane.
Samplers were made throughout the 19th and well into the 20th century. There was a marked change in style after 1926, when the Paris-trained French artist and embroiderer Louise Henderson began teaching embroidery and design, first at Canterbury College School of Art and then at the Correspondence School and Wellington Teachers’ College. Her syllabus formed the basis for School Certificate Embroidery and for Correspondence School embroidery courses for adults, a legacy that lasted through to the 1990s.
Louise Henderson used a wide variety of techniques and stitches and distinctive layouts. Vivien notes: “Virtually every sampler inspired by Louise Henderson’s syllabus is still with its maker or its maker’s family – they haven’t yet made their way to art galleries or museums. It’s lovely that they are so treasured by families, but a little frustrating that they are so difficult to track down.”
Vivien has located most of the samplers in New Zealand public collections and is moving on to those held privately. She is particularly keen to find examples of cross-cultural work. “I always hope that some more of those early samplers might turn up. And I’d love to see a wider range of early 20th century pieces. There must be some unframed work lurking in cupboards as well as those that are on sitting room walls. Old or new, each sampler is sure to have a fascinating story to record.”
Vivien is writing a book about her research. She would like to hear from anyone who owns a sampler, irrespective of age or origin. If you have something of interest, she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story: Bee Dawson
Photographs: Matthew Williams