This post was contributed by Stephanie Appleton, Doctoral Researcher in the History Department at the University of Birmingham.
‘We, Hermia, like two artificial gods,
Have with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key,
As if our hands, our sides, voices and minds,
Had been incorporate.’ (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 3. 2)
The imagery of the sampler in this quotation, taken from Shakespeare’s 1595 play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, highlights the bond between Helena and Hermia by picturing the two girls engaged in the same – typically female – pursuit, working together in perfect harmony.
With this female pursuit in mind, then, this blog examines a late seventeenth-century sampler, cared for by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Although this sampler was made in 1687, many years after Shakespeare’s death, it is a typical example of the embroidery which is commonly thought to have been practised by women from around the fifteenth century onwards.
The word ‘sampler’ originates from the Latin ‘exemplar’, literally meaning ‘an example’. The wealthier women of this period would have used a sampler much as we might use a sketch book today: if they saw an attractive pattern or design they would stitch it on to the sampler, so that they could refer to it later and reproduce the design for use in interior furnishings and decoration.
Throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, samplers were increasingly used by girls and young women to practise their embroidery technique, which was considered an important part of a girl’s domestic education. The maker of this sampler includes her name and the date at the bottom, ‘ELIZABETH HERNE MAY 10th 1687’, underneath a rendering of the alphabet, along with various patterns which would have tested the embroiderer’s skill: Elizabeth includes birds, flowers, fruit, snails and strawberries, all worked in blue, red and green silk on a linen background.
The Victoria and Albert museum holds the earliest known sampler to survive, which can be seen here. This sampler was made in 1598 by a Jane Bostocke, to commemorate the birth of her cousin, Alice Lee. Along with animal motifs at the top of the sampler, which are thought to reference the family crests of Alice and Jane, it also contains many similar patterns to the one held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: for example flowers and strawberries.
The strawberries on these samplers provide a link to another of Shakespeare’s plays: Othello (1604). Iago uses Desdemona’s embroidered handkerchief as a means of convincing Othello of her adultery with his lieutenant, Michael Cassio:
‘Have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief
Spotted with strawberries in your wife’s hand?
… such a handkerchief –
I am sure it was your wife’s – did I today
See Cassio wipe his beard with.’ (Othello 3. 3)
This provides a glimpse into Shakespeare’s imagination during the process of writing his plays; it suggests that he was familiar with embroidered decoration like the strawberries on this sampler and that he drew upon this everyday imagery – as he did with other commonplace and household items throughout his plays – to create extraordinary dramatic works, which retain their potency today.