Monday, January 14, 2013

"I My Needle Ply with Skill": Maine Schoolgirl Needlework

Guest Blogger:
Tara Vose Raiselis
Saco Museum Director

If you are interested in samplers, textiles, and the education of young women during the  Federal period, you will want to visit "I My Needle Ply with Skill": Maine Schoolgirl Needlework of the Federal Era.  On view from January12 through March 2, 2013, the exhibition will also showcase contemporary needlework by the Southern Maine Chapter of the Embroiders' Guild of America.  Over one hundred samplers and other embroideries as well as related items are on view, drawn from the collections of the Dyer Library/Saco Museum as well as other public and private collections in Maine and beyond. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue with an essay by Dyer Library/Saco Museum Executive Director Leslie Rounds.

"I My Needle Ply with Skill" focuses on the complex and lovely needlework created in Maine by schoolgirls of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At a time when advanced academic opportunities for young women were limited, private academies—often run by women—offered training not only in academic subjects, but also in the fancy sewing skills that were of critical importance to future homemakers of the Federal era. While many of these schools were well established in southern New England states by the late 18th century, Maine developed private academies somewhat later.  As these local academies grew and flourished, new styles of samplers and needlework evolved that were unique to Maine.  The exhibit explores that evolution and offers a glimpse of a period of blossoming female creativity and accomplishment that transcended the societal limitations on women of the era.

Among my favorite pieces is one by Olive Ann Parker (1827-1904), probably worked in Eliot, Maine at an unknown school. It is a pleasing, well-designed family register sampler created in 1840 when she was 13.  The sampler is worked in silk thread on linen, with cross, satin, outline, and straight stitches, and a green silk bow at the bottom. The colors are still quite bright after 175 years.  The piece measures 18.5”x 19.5” and is from our collection.  Olive's sampler includes baskets of flowers, which are common on southern Maine samplers, but otherwise it is not particularly similar to other needlework from the region.  Olive must have stitched the decorative elements first, since she ran out of room when she added her verse that begins. "Jesus permit thy gracious name to stand…."—one of the most common verses on Maine samplers.  Olive was the daughter of Eliot farmer Abel and Lucy Tetherly Parker.  The family seems to have been very close, and the 1860 Federal Census records Abel and Lucy living on their farm with all four of their adult offspring:  Rufus, 41, a farmer; William, 35, a farmer; Olive, 32 a tailoress: and Nathaniel, 26, also a farmer.  By 1870, both Abel and Lucy had died, but Olive and Nathaniel were still living together and William was right next door.  In 1893, Olive married her other next-door-neighbor, John Garland, a widower and Civil War veteran who was several years younger than she was.  Olive died October 27, 1904 and is buried in Eliot.

In addition to widespread community interest, we were especially pleased to receive support from New York-based Coby Foundation, the only foundation in the country to focus on grants to support the fashion and textile fields and support "exhibits and educational programs that combine excellent scholarship and effective interpretation" and the Maine Arts Commission, an independent state agency supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Maine Humanities Council is a private non-profit organization affiliated with the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The exhibit runs from January 12 through March 2, 2013.

Tara Vose Raiselis is the Saco Museum Director. Prior to coming to Saco, she was Curator and Collections Manager at Strawbery Banke Museum.  This will be the first of several posts on historic textiles and garments by Tara.

Related Exhibition Programs Include:

Sat., January 12:
Embroiders Guild of America “Stitch In.” 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. All Ages.

Fri. January 18:
"Samplers, Then and Now" with Portsmouth Historical Society (NH) curator Sandra Rux. 6:30 p.m., Free

Fri., January 25:
Gallery Talk with “I My Needle Ply With Skill” curator Leslie Rounds. 6:30 p.m. Free.

Fri., February 15:
“American Samplers: Little Masterpieces 1620-1840” with Henry Callan. 6:30 p.m. Free.

Thurs., February 21:
“Stitching for Beginners and Beyond.” 11 a.m. Free for families.

Dyer Library/Saco Museum Information:  The Dyer Library and Saco Museum are located at 371 Main Street (Route 1) in historic downtown Saco, Maine.  Free parking. Museum is handicapped accessible.  Museum Hours and Admission beginning June 1: Tues, Wed, Thurs 12 – 4 pm; Friday 12 – 8 pm (FREE from 4 – 8 pm); Saturday 10 am – 4 pm; and Sunday 12 – 4 pm (June-December only).  Regular admission: Adults $5; Seniors & Students $3; Children (7 – 18) $2; Children 6 and under, no charge.  Admission is ALWAYS FREE to DL/SM Card holders and their guests. Group tour rate available for groups of 8 or more.  Group tours must be scheduled in advance. For additional information, please call 283-3861, ext. 114 or visit
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