Samplers of virtue

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By Maria del Pilar Calvo Duares Fournier (first half of 19th century)

Not all of Mexico’s handcrafts have reached the 21st century. The main reason why handcrafts die out is that machines can do the work faster and sometimes better.

In the case of embroidered samplers, another factor has been the role of women in society.

While there was probably something like embroidery in the pre Hispanic period, Mexican embroidery as we know it developed from European techniques brought over during the Conquest.

On both sides of the Atlantic, objects with fine embroidery indicated status, but unlike many other handcrafts, it was considered suitable for upper-class women. In fact, spending hours patiently embroidery demonstrated a woman’s virtue, if not worth, especially to the family she married into.

Part of a young woman’s training was learning the various stitches and designs that she would later embroider into clothing and linens. To prove their skill in this art, girls between 4 and 13 would create samplers, with various designs and as often as not, some indication of who did it. Sometimes even a date would be embroidered as well.

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Large samplers dating to 1800 from the collections of the Franz Mayer Museum and Oaxaca Textile Museum

Recently the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City opened an exhibit on samplers called Dechados de Virtudes, which literally means something like “gold standard”  but also used to mean samplers.

The works on display are almost entirely from the 19th century to early 2oth, primarily from four musuems, Franz Meyer, San Ignacio de Loyola Museum, the Oaxaca Textile Museum and the National Museum of History (Mexico). The earlist known sampler from Mexico dates from the mid 17th century, but it and all other colonial-era pieces belong to museums in the United States and Europe.

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Silk on linen piece by Manuela Garay from mid 19th century
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Thread over embroidery canvas from the San Ignacio de Loyola School in Mexico City

The exhibition coincides with several talks and a workshop with the aim of preservering the craft ane renewing interest in it, by curator Mayela Flores, reknowned authority on Mexican handcrafts Marta Turok and artisan Gimena Romero.

The making of samplers remained a staple of a young girl’s education/upbringing until the first half of the 20th century, although styles and materials changed. Initially pieces were made with naturally-dyed silk on fine linen or cotton. By the 19th century, some aniline dyes began to be used, and the purely Spanish designs of the colonial periods became influenced by Romanticism and even indigenous imagery. By the 20th century, the activity was no longer limited to the upper classes and cheaper materials such as yarn were used to teach basic embroidery, often on stiff, loose weave embroidery canvas for this purpose. By the 1960s, schools has begun to drop the activity from girls’ curriculum altogether, mostly likely in response to the feminist movement.

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Various samplers stiched together by Susana Flores Coba, (late 19th or early 20th century)

Interestingly enough, this same time period brought about interest in old samplers as collectors’ items, which allowed a quantity of these to be saved from the dump and be part of both public and private collections. This has allowed them to be compared, categoried and studied, even if it means in many cases the family history behind the pieces has been lost.

(L:Silk over linen by Hermina Bravo 1880. R: Cotton over linen, first half of 19th century)

Today, no school has students make samplers and only those 50+ remember them being made (by themselves or by others) in any form. There are few artisans who know many of the old stitches and designs and even fewer workshops for those who wish to learn.



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