Colourful samplers on a cold Edinburgh morning

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With the snow from ‘The Beast from the East’ having only just melted away and more snow forecast for the start of April, what better way was there for us to spend a cold Edinburgh morning in March than looking at these beautiful embroidered blooms?

As the spring buds struggled outside in the freezing conditions, we were inside enjoying a riot of colourful stitches.
As the spring buds struggled outside in the freezing conditions, we were inside enjoying a riot of colourful stitches.

It was Thursday 15 March 2018 when a group from the Embroiderer’s Guild joined Helen Wyld (Senior Curator of Historic Textiles), Lisa Mason (Assistant Curator of Modern & Contemporary Design), Leslie Durst (sampler collector & expert) and I to view a selection of samplers from the collection at the National Museums Collection Centre at Granton.

Helen and Leslie imparting their knowledge to the group.
Helen and Leslie imparting their knowledge to the group.

The embroidered samplers viewed depicted a wide range of subjects from flowers and patterns to alphabets and mathematics. Then beyond embroidery samplers, an example of a darning and sewing sampler were also examined.

Left: Preparing for the arrival of the guild took a few hours as each sampler was carefully unpacked from the drawers. Right: The chosen samplers were laid on tissue paper and covered with more tissue in order to protect them until the guild arrived.
Left: Preparing for the arrival of the Guild took a few hours as each sampler was carefully unpacked from the drawers. Right: The chosen samplers were laid on tissue paper and covered with more tissue in order to protect them until the guild arrived.
Top: Alphabet sampler made into a drawstring bag, Isabel Hutton, c. 1730 – 1733. The lack of a “J” in alphabet samplers like this means that it can be dated to pre 1800. Bottom: Multiplication table sampler, Margaret Gray, mid-19th century.
Top: Alphabet sampler made into a drawstring bag, Isabel Hutton, c. 1730 – 1733. The lack of a “J” in alphabet samplers like this means that it can be dated to pre 1800. Bottom: Multiplication table sampler, Margaret Gray, mid-19th century.

All of the samplers show the education, skill, piety and creativity of the makers and on seeing their stitches up close, you can be drawn into their world, imagining how they felt at the time they pulled the very same threads.

‘Rainbow girl’ sampler. The Rainbow over the house nods to the story of Noah and symbolises hope.
‘Rainbow girl’ sampler. The Rainbow over the house nods to the story of Noah and symbolises hope.

As well as studying the stitches for their own work, the Embroiderer’s Guild group also discussed their own childhood sewing lessons and how best to preserve samplers.

A stitched map of Ireland sits in its drawer next to band sampler with patterns, flowers and an alphabet.
Helen carefully turning over the map of Ireland to show that the borders were sewn onto the canvas after the silk backing was added.
Helen carefully turning over the map of Ireland to show that the borders were sewn onto the canvas after the silk backing was added.
A detail of the map showing the use of cross stitch to create text in different sizes and fonts whilst the borders and compass are of laid chenille threads which has a more 3D, textural finish.
A detail of the map showing the use of cross stitch to create text in different sizes and fonts whilst the borders and compass are of laid chenille threads which has a more 3D, textural finish.

My favourite piece from that cold morning had to be this gorgeous and bright piece which combines three samples, each stunning in their own way.

At the top, a pictorial scene sees a tree laden with mangoes, flowers and grapes as a wolf chases a deer below. Then in the centre, there’s a beautiful example of vibrant flame stitch and the base is filled with cross stitches organised into an intricate fan-like pattern.

I love to see our Art & Design Curators at work with objects like this; they have a passion for them and bring them alive talking about their history, materials and design. Needless to say that a stimulating morning was had by all and the warm colours proved to be a perfect retreat from the cold Edinburgh weather.

Would your group like to visit the Art & Design collections? Each year, the Art & Design department hosts many groups with a wide range of specialist interests. To make an enquiry, email me at c.hyatt@nms.ac.uk or leave a message for me at 0131 247 4019.


Embroidered Stories: Scottish Samplers opens at the National Museum of Scotland on 26 October 2018 at the National Museum of Scotland. Showcasing an extraordinary collection of Scottish samplers on loan from a private collector in the USA. This exhibition is an unparalleled opportunity to see this collection back in its home country.

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