Textiles & Women’s History: Part Two

After taking a break to post about Independence Day, we are now going back to our discussion of women and textiles. Today we will talk about the ways in which embroidery and quilting were important in colonial America!

Also, thanks to everyone who attended the embroidery workshop on July 11! Lauren did an amazing job leading the class, and we had a great turnout. It was wonderful for all of us to learn together. Learning to do those stitches makes it even more impressive that six year old girls were learning them hundreds of years ago!

Colonial American Women and Textiles

While textiles made by European colonists in America were at first largely utilitarian and were in short supply in the early colonies, the eighteenth century introduced a larger, more developed consumer society. Leisure time increased, especially for elite white women. Both the northern and southern colonies at this time supported a society in which women were required to restrain themselves inside the domestic sphere and allow men control over their lives and their interactions with the outside world. While wealthier families were able to send daughters to school, female education primarily consisted of learning skills that would be useful in running a household and attaining a stable and beneficial marriage.

Priscilla Brank would have grown up in this world, spending her early years developing domestic skills that would help her in her marriage to David Vance Sr. in 1775. While it is unclear if Priscilla, like many of her female contemporaries, attended school and learned embroidery and other needlework there, it is likely that her social and economic status would have allowed her to interact with embroidery at a young age. Girls who were wealthy enough were either taught decorative embroidery at home or at school, and their very first projects were called samplers. Many girls completed a simple sampler between the ages of five and six, which taught them basic embroidery skills and allowed them to simultaneously learn their letters and numbers. An example of a basic sampler from 1786 in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, is displayed below, image and information courtesy of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts online object database. 

In adolescence, girls would then complete a more complicated sampler that showcased their talent, patience, and family values. Such samplers were often framed by parents and displayed in common rooms of the home in order to attract the attention of potential suitors. Some samplers, depending on the girl’s skill, could become quite intricate, as seen here, also courtesy of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts database:

These samplers are often the only testament to the existence and experiences of the girls and young women who created them that we have today. 

The Importance of Textile Crafts to White American Women

White American women who had the time and skill during both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could spend hours on embroidery, decorating seat cushions, bed hangings, clothing, wall hangings, and other textiles, and often used their skill as a form of artistic expression in order to convey their personal values and ideas. Some women even used their talent as a means of making a name for themselves in their communities and making extra income. In a world where few women were taught the skills needed to procure paying jobs and even fewer were allowed the independence to pursue skills that could lead to more income, many transformed traditional female domestic skills into a means to obtain autonomy and to influence the trajectory of their lives. Embroidery in itself is a craft that lasted into the twentieth century in America, and it is likely that Mira Baird Vance and her daughter-in-law, Hattie Espy Vance, both encountered the art and even participated in it during their lifetimes, especially since they were members of the relatively wealthy southern Appalachian elite in the nineteenth century. 

Of course, embroidery was not the only textile craft American women used on a daily basis. Quilting and weaving have also been important skills studied by women for millenia. The women living at the Vance Birthplace had access to a loom for weaving. While the enslaved women on the plantation did the weaving itself, as was common in the American South, white mistresses like Mira Baird and Priscilla Brank would have known something about the loom and would direct the enslaved women’s labor. 

Quilting would have also been a familiar task for these women. Even if they did not always create quilts themselves, they certainly would have been familiar with the process and the patterns involved. Patchwork quilting was a convenient and useful way to recycle unused cloth and became popular in the eighteenth century. Quilting as a whole actually became extremely important to the southern Appalachian region in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it is probable that the women living in the Reems Creek valley during this period would have been familiar with the craft. 

Quilting and other textile crafts presented an opportunity for groups of women to gather together and socialize whilst working, and consequently fostered cultural connections and female friendships and bonds that provided resistance to the patriarchal oppression and the daily drudgery of isolated rural frontier life. Below is an example from North Carolina made between 1840 and 1857 of a symmetrical quilt created by a young woman in a prominent family in her community, courtesy once again of the MESDA collections database: 

You can learn a bit more about quilts in the mountain South by looking at Lauren’s video on quilts from the Vance birthplace posted on the site facebook page on April 29!

Tune in next week to discover the ways in which African American women, enslaved and free, utilized textiles as modes of resistance, vehicles of self-expression, and tangible expressions of love.

Further Reading Links:

“Schoolgirl Samplers and Embroidered Pictures” in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 23: Folk Art, edited by Carol Crown and Cheryl Rivers, 184-87, University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

MET Museum Essay/Collections

American Women’s History: A Very Short Introduction by Susan Ware 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s