An Accomplished Collection
"Tell me how you improve in your work. Needle work is a most important branch of a female education, & tell me how you have improved in holding your head & sholders, in making a curtsy, in going out or coming into a room, in giving & receiving, holding your knife & fork, walking and seting. These things contribute so much to a good appearance that they are of great consequence."
—Letter from Alice Lee Shippen, Philadelphia, to her daughter Nancy at school in Trenton, New Jersey, August 1777
During the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries, a proper young woman’s education would not have been complete without instruction in needlework. In addition to knowledge of deportment, music, drawing, and reading, needlework was a skill both practical and artful. Proficiency in needlework was a necessary skill in household management.
The most common needlework produced by a school girl was the sampler. Samplers, which vary in content and originality, served several purposes for the young scholar. The simplest assisted the child in learning her letters and numbers and served to instruct on a variety of stitches used for mending and marking linens. More advanced samplers with biblical designs and verses taught religious and moral enlightenment as well. Parents often displayed their daughter’s samplers and silk embroideries in the parlor, to show the girl’s accomplishments to visitors and suitors. This was not only an act of parental pride but also a statement of status, as only well-to-do families could afford schools of refinement for their daughters.
The practical skills one gained at school were valuable in adulthood for the creation of both plain and fancy needlework. Sheets, pillowcases, towels, and underclothes were functional goods produced out of necessity. This type of plain sewing required knowledge of basic stitches and use of utilitarian equipment. "Fancy" needlework, prized for its beauty and intricacy, occupied a prominent place in the household. Crewelwork bed hangings, stitched chair seats, and appliquéd quilts exhibited both a woman’s skills and her gentility. Such work required leisure time and the purchase of special equipment, luxuries afforded only to prosperous classes.
SPNEA’s wonderful collection is rich not only in many fine examples of needlework but also in the tools and equipment used to produce them. Through the mid eighteenth century, little more was available to the needleworker than pins, scissors, needle, and thread. By the nineteenth century, specialized sewing tools became available as prized possessions and ornaments for the fashionable lady. SPNEA’s collection of approximately 1,000 sewing tools and accessories ranges from humble utilitarian items like hand-carved wooden knitting needles to elaborately fitted sewing boxes with tools of ivory and mother-of-pearl.
The sewing equipage in SPNEA’s collection was not used entirely by women. Needlework professions like tailoring, sailmaking, and shoemaking, dominated by men, had their own specific types of thimbles, nails, and needles. A sewing kit used by Henry Thurston Chace during the Civil War is an example of a "housewife" or roll-up kit often carried by soldiers to mend and patch clothing. Portable enough to place in a pocket, these kits usually contained needles, thread, pincushion, and thimble. SPNEA’s sewing tools and equipment are currently being catalogued and rehoused by Helen Ewer, a graduate student intern from Tufts University, and members of SPNEA’s department of Collections and Exhibitions.