Stitches in time

“An exhibition of samplers reveals personal perspectives on Scotland’s social history”, says Helen Wyld, Senior Curator of Historic Textiles.

Samplers are pieces of needlework that were made by girls, and occasionally boys, as part of their education. They have been made anywhere needlework is practised (the word ‘sampler’ comes from the Latin exemplum, meaning ‘example’), including Scotland.

Conservation inspecting the samplers from the Leslie B Durst collection before going on display.
Conservation inspecting the samplers from the Leslie Durst collection before going on display.

The new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, Embroidered Stories: Scottish Samplers, showcases and celebrates American Leslie Durst’s collection of more than 550 Scottish samplers. We believe hers to be the largest collection of Scottish samplers in the world (at present National Museums Scotland has about 200 in its collection).

Samplers usually include the names of the girls who made them, and Scottish samplers in particular often show the initials of extended family members. These details have enabled Leslie to identify the girls through church and census records and to conduct in-depth research into their lives. This makes her collection a unique archive of Scottish social history from the early 18th to the mid-19th century and a valuable glimpse into the lives of ordinary families.

By the 18th century, samplers were intended to demonstrate a girl’s education through the inclusion of alphabets, multiplication tables and religious verses, but they can also reveal other details of their makers’ lives.

References to towns, buildings and events are more common in Scottish samplers than those from England and Europe, giving a sense of what was important to the young girls stitching these pictures.

Mary Hay's sampler includes the coast of arms of Edinburgh's Company of Fleshers or butchers. The Fleshers were one of the fifteen companies that had governed the various trades in Edinburgh since the medieval period. Mary's father William Hay, had joined the Fleshers as an apprentice in 1796, two years before she was born. Fleshers traditionally operated near the foot of Edinburghs' High Street, where Fleshmarket Close still survives. The Hays lived nearby, in Cannongate parish. Mary Hay was baptised on 16 May 1798, the second of nine children. In 1825 she married John Gillon,a baker. The pair moved to Leith where they had two daughters, and where Mary worked as a laundress. She died in 1871.
Mary Hay, Edinburgh, 1813. This sampler includes the coat of arms of Edinburgh’s Company of Fleshers or butchers.  Mary’s father, William Hay, had joined the Fleshers as an apprentice in 1796, two years before she was born. © Leslie B. Durst Collection.

We find the arms of the Flesher’s company in the sampler of Mary Hay, daughter of an Edinburgh flesher (butcher), while the now-ruined Dalquharran Castle in South Ayrshire appears in a sampler by Margaret Eiston. Leslie’s research has revealed that Margaret’s father was a mason in Ayr and may have worked for the castle’s designer, Robert Adam.

Scottish samplers also chart social change and the spread of education. Interestingly, relatively few are made by aristocratic girls – most come from the middling ranks of society.

The building represented in Jane's sampler was close to what is now Waverley Station. It was occupied until 1833 when a decision was made to move out of the city centre to preserve the health of the children.
Jane Milton, Edinburgh, c.1833. The building represented in Jane’s sampler was close to what is now Waverley Station. It was occupied until 1833, when a decision was made to move out of the city centre to preserve the health of the children. © Leslie B. Durst Collection.

As education became more universal, less privileged children made samplers. Jane Milton sewed hers while growing up in the Orphan Hospital of Edinburgh – in such institutions sewing was seen as a useful skill to equip girls with a means to earn a living.

Anne Raffan, Alvah, Banff, 1789. Anne’s sampler has become a memorial of her passage from childhood into married life. She completed the work in 1789, aged 20, recording the baptism of each of her five siblings, as well as the initials of her parents, John Raffan and Isobel Gow. © Leslie B. Durst Collection.

The personal stories are perhaps the most touching. A sampler marked the attainment of skills and social graces, and sometimes recorded further milestones. Anne Raffan’s sampler of 1789 shows her siblings’ baptism dates and, in 1792, aged 23, she added the date of her own marriage.

Jane Hannah and Jane Murray, Garlieston, Wigtownshire, 1811. The sampler is signed ‘Jane Hannah’s work Garliestwn 1811’, but below a further inscription reads, ‘Finished by Jane Murray – The above. Lies sleeping in the tomb’. Jane Hannah died before completing her work and Jane Murray finished the sampler. © Leslie B. Durst Collection.

A sampler begun by Jane Hannah of Garlieston has this touching addition by her friend: “the above lies sleeping in her grave; finished by Jane Murray”, and below the words “Time Flies; Death Reigns”.

Made by hand during their formative years, samplers record the things most dear to their young makers, and often these are the only records of lives that would otherwise be forgotten.


Get an insight into the lives of children in the 18th and 19th centuries through this unique collection of Scottish samplers on loan from American collector Leslie B. Durst.

Embroidered Stories: Scottish Samplers is on at the National Museum of Scotland until 21 April 2019.

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