Although in the Federal era educational opportunities for young women were limited, private academies–often run by women–offered training in academic subjects and in fancy sewing skills that were of critical importance to future homemakers. Under the guidance of talented, entrepreneurial female instructors, many young women were given a new opportunity to express themselves artistically with needle and thread, creating needlework samplers that demonstrated their mastery of complex stitchery.
I My Needle Ply with Skill: Maine Schoolgirl Needlework of the Federal Era at the Saco Museum explored this moment of remarkable creativity by young women in northern New England. Due to their design and materials, samplers can communicate unique local stories about visual culture, domestic life, education, literature, and religion of a particular era.
The Saco Museum staff began searching for Maine samplers by advertising in antiques publications, visiting websites and museums, and contacting collectors and dealers. Eventually, 115 samplers were borrowed from collections across the country. Biographical research was completed on each of the sampler makers and on their teachers, if they could be identified. Additionally, a 154 page color publication exploring sampler evolution was written to accompany the exhibition.
The research for this exhibit and publication facilitated the discovery of many female academies and previously unrecognized connections between sampler makers. Researchers found that instructors often exhibited a high degree of geographic mobility, bringing their own needlework designs to new schools. The discovery of previously undocumented regional cross-pollination of style offers a glimpse of evolving female accomplishment that transcended societal limitations on women of the era.
Scholarship in the field of antique samplers is growing, but until now little had been written about the role Maine women played in the creation of these artistic textiles. The exhibit and book offer a detailed look at not only Maine history, genealogy, female studies and embroidery, but also at the previously-unexplored aspect of documenting girls whose existence often goes unrecorded in records of the period.