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Missionary Sampler

Missionary sampler made by Lucy Grant, Regent Town, Sierra Leone, 1840. Missionary sampler made by Lucy Grant, Regent Town, Sierra Leone, 1840. Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London., acc. no. T.54-1934.

Missionary samplers are examples of embroidery that were made by girls outside of Europe in Christian mission schools, especially during the colonial era. Taken from a centuries-old European tradition and introduced to still ‘uncivilised’ parts of the world, needlework was regarded as a vital element of the social, moral and, above all, religious upbringing of girls.

At certain African mission schools, for example, girls were instructed by (female) missionaries or relatives of (male) missionaries (wives, sisters, etc.) in general household activities. The girls were taught how to spin cotton fibres into yarn, as well as how to make, decorate, mend and wash their own clothing. In some cases, such as at the school of the Church Mission Society in British Sierra Leone, extra sampler-making courses seem to have been reserved only for those who excelled at their regular needlework duties, as the time-consuming process required a higher level of skill, concentration and time.

Similar to European examples, missionary samplers contained letters of the alphabet, numbers, floral motifs, decorative borders, and symbols in various colours. Specific Bible passages were often included to display not only technical skills, but also scriptural knowledge and devotion. Upon finishing the embroidery, the sampler was usually ‘signed’ by its maker, sometimes accompanied by a place name and date. The visually most attractive samplers were often sent to Europe and sold as souvenirs to loyal supporters of the missionary activities abroad.

Few examples of missionary samplers with name, date and origin seem to have survived. One early nineteenth century sampler by a Native American girl is currently housed in the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Art in North Carolina, and some contemporaneous examples from British Sierra Leone are found in various museum collections, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and Museum der Kulturen in Basel. The British Museum, London, has several examples from Omdurman, Sudan, as well as from Palestine, which were collected by Grace Crowfoot.

Sources:

  • ANDERSON, Lynne (2012), 'Samplers, sewing and star quilts: Changing federal policies impact Native American education and assimilation,' in Textiles and Politics: Textile Society of America 13th Biennial Symposium Proceedings, Washington, DC, September 18-22, 2012. Accessible here
  • STRICKRODT, Silke (2010), 'African girls’ samplers from mission schools in Sierra Leone (1820s to 1840s),' History in Africa, vol. 37, pp. 189-245.

V&A online catalogue (retrieved 27th June 2016).

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Last modified on Wednesday, 10 May 2017 18:16