Stitches in Time: Needlework as Art

Morven Museum & Garden in Princeton will host an exhibition of needlework created by young New Jersey women in the 18th and 19th centuries.

On Point: Centuries-old needlework samplers give a glimpse of the religious and moral tenor of their times.
Photo courtesy of the collection of Daniel C. Schied

In 1798, a Trenton schoolgirl named Anne Rickey stitched the words “Hail Specimen of Female Art” onto a piece of cloth. More than 200 years later, the words on Rickey’s sampler have inspired the title for a landmark exhibition featuring her needlework as well as that of many other talented schoolgirls throughout the state.

Morven Museum & Garden in Princeton will host the exhibition from October through March 2015. It is the first to focus on the important contribution New Jersey made to the development of schoolgirl needlework in the 18th and 19th centuries. The 151 samplers on display were all completed prior to 1860 and are said to be the best known examples of this traditional art.

Rickey was among a generation of schoolgirls, aged 8 to 15, working under the direction of school teachers known as instructresses. In those days, needlework was often taught as part of a comprehensive educational curriculum that included academics as well as the arts. The girls attended academies, often in private homes, where instructresses passed on their own style of needlework to their students.

The youngest schoolgirl represented in the exhibition is Sarah Elizabeth Carney of either Gloucester or Salem County, who worked her sampler in “Her 6th Year,” 1823. By stitching numbers and letters, she was also learning them. Her skills would come in handy in later years when domestic duties included mending clothes and marking valuable household linens.

Occupying 1,709 square feet in five galleries, the exhibit includes works from every region of the state. Many are elaborate; others are simpler, replete with verses that reflect moral values of the times.

A rare artifact on loan from the Monmouth County Historical Association is a silk globe. “This round piece of needlework helped to teach geography and can be compared to a student’s final thesis in today’s academic world,” explains Bernadette Rogoff, collections curator for the historical association.

Morven will host an opening needlework symposium October 5 at Princeton’s Nassau Inn. Speakers will include experts and collectors from around the country. For information, visit the museum website.

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