Grab a cuppa

Grab a cuppa

Settle back for a bit of a chat and a cuppa. I am in a mood to ramble this morning. I have been thoroughly enjoying what has been going on as a result of the TAST challenge. I am constantly amazed at the variety of ideas and work that is generated each week.

Gayle Schipper left a comment about working samplers in general. I thought I would bring it to the top as it provoked a number of thoughts. I am not picking on Gayles husband here just using the comment as a example of a very commonly held attitude. I am sure many people have either felt this themselves or encountered the attitude for something to be worthwhile it must have a clearly seen function.

Just a comment about samplers in general – I am so pleased that I have been guided into this process through the Personal Library class and TAST. Although DH kind of laughs at me because they have no functional use (typical guy) I wouldn’t stretch myself to find the unusual. I could learn the stitch on a seam, but go no further.

I have a fascination for samplers both historical and contemporary. I simply love them. As regular readers know I have an interest in how we structure, present, use and disseminate information. This is reflected in all sorts of ways. My interest in blogs is in part driven by these overarching interest. The same could be said for my interest in visual journals. Both formats structure, present, use and disseminate information in particular ways. Both also allow us to access and use information in particular ways. How a society structures information and accesses information is a constant fascination to me.

Samplers too fall into this category. I see them as a very interesting way to hold information. They of course record the stitch but they also hold information that could be described as the trace of the hand. They are literally the path the hand took in order to make a stitch or series of stitches. They reflect the hand and in turn reflect the person. I am sure people seeing the variety produced in the challenge see this. Each sampler is tackled differently and each personality is revealed. Once more, the person is revealed in way that is not necessarily captured by the written word.

That aside in the past samplers performed a very important role. Long before women were literate samplers held information about patterns and designs that could be copied. Elsewhere I have written History of samplers and I am not going to repeat it here but to say that one of the reasons alphabets were found on samplers was that this was the way young girls were taught to recognise letters.

If we view these textile objects as documents they hold within them loads of information. For this reason they are highly functional. Simply put they are a record. The format is not a dominant format in our modern world but never the less they function as a record and as such valuable.

This drive towards functionality dominates many areas of textiles and there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to make a functional quilt, or knit wearable garment. Nothing at all but I would like to point out that the thing that makes textiles so strong is also one of the reasons that they are devalued to merely functional objects and not seen as valuable cultural artifacts in their own right.

Sure make functional items, but somewhere in your practice give yourself permission to learn. Maybe 10% of your time. It’s not much time, but I would argue equally valuable and not to be devalued. If you argue that everything you do is to be useful you are effectively saying that education and creative development (and in this case it is often education for women) is not important. There is a place in life for doing something simply to learn, develop and grow.

What do you think? Leave a comment – feel free to disagree but I would love to hear views on this.


  1. Hi, I just wondered, is Gayle’s husband an engineer?

    I agree with everything everyone else has said. I often make small samples before I start a piece of work proper, I was taught to do that during City & Guilds. Sometimes I make a sample to try out a new stitch or to practice a stitch I am not good at. Sometimes I make a sample just to see if I can do it. Samples and samplers are also great teaching aids, as Sharon has proved during PLOS and TAST. Some of my best samples I keep in a portfolio, just in case I decide to embark on further studies or join a group – so that is another use of samplers, to showcase your talent! The rest I just chuck in a drawer and sometimes I rummage through and bring one out to reuse, perhaps to make a bag or a box. So that’s another use of samples, although my engineer husband would say that there is no practical use for the things I make out of the useless bits and pieces that I keep in that drawer!

    Kay Susan
  2. Hi Sharon,
    I am from India & am new to computers ,internet and blogging.I have enjoyed visiting your site .Regarding sampler making -i must admit that the only thing iembroider on is on my doodle cloth.I enjoy doing it .To me embroidery is like meditating &samplers or doodle cloths are like a voyage of discovery. It may or may not mean anything to people who look at me doing it or the piece of cloth on which I do it;but idont even think about it .Getting a new stitch right ,or recalling the working of a stitch is wonderful .I have not yet thought of where I could use a particular stitch ,but I find such ideas drifting in when I do other work .Not being able to see the worth of an activity except as a function is in my opinion very sad.(even beauty is a function ).Ifeel that is the root of all discriminations,be it gender ,class or birth.I thank you for helping me to interact with so many people acrossthe globe,whose suggestions /ideas about samples are very interesting.It also helps me with my weakness of not being organised

    sita shankar
  3. Wow, some great comments here. I agree with nearly all that has been already written so will not repeat it. Another idea to add to the mix though is using different parts of the brain. Experts say that being “creative” uses a different part of the brain to, say, maths. Now it can be music (or does that use the maths part of the brain (?)) painting, woodturning or whatever you wish. I happen to choose needlearts and I don’t wish every time to create a “masterpiece”. Sometimes I just like to dabble a little, try something new, experiment. Samplers are the tool I use. Sometimes I look at past work and think, thank goodness I didn’t invest time and money in good fabric and threads because I haven’t made a good job of that technique. Imagine committing to a major work in a stitch you really don’t like, another UFO to add to the collection. I know you can do “reverse embroidery” as my kids group calls it, but how dissapointing and life is too short for that. By the way, I just adore the antique samplers, wish I could afford a couple, perhaps one day if I win Lotto?

  4. I do agree! Make time to learn and practice stitches. It is worthwhile to take the time to practice a stitch so that you are confident with it before putting it onto “the real thing” – whatever your real thing might be!

    When I started writing my book on Mountmellick embroidery, I wasn’t very accomplished at padded satin stitch. However, because there is so much padded satin stitch in Mountmellick, by the end of the book, my padded satin was looking fantastic!

    It takes time to improve some of these more difficult stitches, but the time spent is well worth it if you want to produce beautiful embroidery!

    One of the other things I *love* about Mountmellick is the freedom to play around with stitches and use many variations of the one stitch – a bit like what TAST is providing for those taking part!

    Yvette Stanton
    White Threads Blog: http://www.vettycreations.info

  5. Sharon,

    First of all, I love old things, especially hand made. I collect old embroidered tablecloths, dresser scarves, runners, hankies, and I use them about my house. I love thinking about some woman taking time from her busy life to sit and do something for herself, to create something pretty, and that it has now passed on to me to be used and valued.

    For the same reasons, I have always been drawn to samplers. I don’t own any, but they intrigue me. For a woman of the past, the chance to express herself was pretty much non-existent in any form. Embroidery was a way to be artistic, to make something all of her own in a form that was acceptable to society’s (men’s) vision of womanhood.

    I wonder if crazy quilting by Victorian women was not only a way to use scraps and to showcase their embroidery, but more importantly a way to break free from the structure of their lives. It must have felt liberating in a way to make something that totally defied “the norm.”

    Before I started your class on Joggles, which has been the most fantastic learning experience in my textile life as I am totally self-taught, I hooped up some fabric and tried some stitches from your stitch library, just a row of each. When you suggested making samplers, I balked at the idea as I wanted to work on my block. But I realized that my repertoire of stitches was pretty sad. I made a sampler of buttonhole stitches and discovered a whole bunch of ways to make that stitch. Gee whiz, the teacher was right!! Duh! : )) I now plan on working a sampler on each new stitch I learn.

    Before I bore you to tears, I do want to say something about art versus craft.
    I love art, even though I am almost totally ignorant on the subject. I did take 2 college classes recently on art history by a fascinating young woman who has brains to burn. Fortunately, I began working part time for her grading papers, and we have become friends, so I am still able to pick her brain. I had such a problem with modern art, as it made no sense to me. I have progressed a bit, but it is a struggle for me.

    I digress, as usual. This is all leading to the fact that I wanted to try making art quilts. I wanted to stretch my creativity, go outside the box. I am completely anal about structure and order, but have always lived a wild and crazy lifestyle. I am a really weird person who has always had trouble dealing with societal norms. Soooo, I wanted to try to set that crazy person inside me free again.

    I made one quilt that I really liked which I will put on my blog soon, but mostly I threw stuff away. I was frustrated and getting pissed off. I decided to join an online group of art quilters; I can’t even remember the name. I was a lurker trying to feel my way around, and I wanted to learn. What I found was a bunch of snooty women who seemed to feel that art could only be made by those with art degrees and years of training. They spent most of their time commenting on the “infiltration” of crafters into the art world and looking down on them. I dropped out after a week. They had nothing to teach me.

    Now I heartily agree that someone taking a grapevine wreath and hot gluing some flowers on it probably is only making art in her own eyes. But art is such an arbitrary thing, and most of the time it is only art because “someone” says it is. But when someone takes fabric, thread, ribbon, bits of this and that, and she creates a thing of beauty that has come straight from her own mind and heart, isn’t that art?? In my mind it is. You and my other idol, Allison, make things of beauty that just stop me in my tracks. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do?

    I used to “do crafts.” I made dolls, Christmas stockings, quilts, you name it, all from patterns that I may have tweaked a bit to make them my own. But now, I am making a visual journal, I am looking everywhere for inspiration and ideas from nature. I am sitting down at my work table with only a theme in mind and a pile of fabric — no pattern. And I have had training by one of the premiere fiber artists in the world. Does that make me a fiber artist? Perhaps not to the world, but in my mind, I am on the way. Thank you, Sharon, for helping me free that wild thing in me just a little bit more.

    Kathy in CA

    kathy in ca
  6. I love these doodle cloths I am making – they have been a tremendous source of enjoyment and I can’t even express what I have learned from approaching each stitch with new eyes. All my cloths are 5 x 6 inches and I label each cloth with the stitch name. I am binding the edges and leaving a loop on one corner then placing all the loops on a large binder ring. So I have an instant flip through to find a stitch I want for larger more complex pieces of embroidery work.

    It is a fantastic resource to have on hand. All my friends who have seen these think it is a fantastic idea. I have been asked to start a group to meet once a week just to work on samples like this. So from the learning I am now going into the social ‘community’ aspect of working with head, heart and hands. I think what TAST is doing is contributing to a revival of traditional hand ‘art’ but giving it a whole new fresh approach. All I can say is… this is brilliant! Thank you Sharon!

  7. Who could disagree with learning for the sake of learning, for self-fulfillment, etc.? Learning is absolutely essential. We never stop learning – if we do, we’re dead!

    I taught an embroidery class last summer and on the admission form, I put a short questionnaire, trying to glean why people were interested in taking an embroidery class. The question format was “Check off the reasons that you are interested in taking an embroidery class.” Here are two of the “questions” I put on it: 1. I want to learn to embroider so that I can make things to sell to supplement my income. 2. I want to explore something that is new to me, or to learn better something I already know, for the sake of learning it, for the sake of creativity, and for simple self-expression and enjoyment.

    Those who checked off 1 and not 2, I didn’t want in the class. If they checked off both of those (among other reasons listed), then that was “ok” (great, but not ideal) …. the people who checked off 2 only (or in a combination with “I am interested in learning so that I can teach others, such as my children or friends”) were the ones who stuck it out and who have the most “passion” about embroidery. Any of those who went in with a “gain, gain” attitude, without a “give” attitude (as in, giving to themselves or others) gave up. When you bring the purely mundane into the world of art, which touches the soul, then I think you lose something.

    Samplers and doodle cloths were the only things we produced. Those who stuck with it are still with it and loving it.

    Here’s another question: who says art has to be functional? And, sticking with classical thinking on art – if it becomes purely functional… does it lose the appellation “art”? Now there’s a question.

    So then you can take the same concept to another level: who says “learning” has to be for a functional reason? Does it have to be in order to produce practical things that must be “useful” in a practical world? If the learning is NOT “practical,” does it follow that it’s worthless? !!! HA! No way! We’d be machines. What a horrid, empty life!

  8. These responses and ideas are interesting and I hope people still join in hte conversation – it is very interesting to read each persons take on this –

    Leonie I think doodle cloths are 21st century samplers – I know if I was writing a history now I would include doodle cloths as the latest manifestation of the format – and in many ways they reflect our age (a bit ragged around the edges) just as samplers in the past reflect the age they come from

    helend – I think social hstory is gradually being revalued – as these collections tell a story of lives lived – I have a hunch that things are changing but I agree these have taken second place in the past

    sequana – yep issues of gender definitely play a part – also anything associated with the domestic has been seen as little value in the past –

  9. “Here Here” Sharon.
    I am a sampler maker-I have always made a small sample of the technique that I am going to use especially in my Machine Embroidery.
    Since doing TAST I have made all my stitch patterns into samplers that are A5 in size and I am keeping them in an A5 folder which will include the name of the stitch-fabric -thread etc and I will have a good reference in the end.
    I know this will sound boring to some people but I hope that one day my Granddaughters may look at it and decide to follow along this wonderful path of learning.

  10. I love how you manage not only to make an observation directly on point, but also (subconciously?!) to tie it in with the (fortuitously?!) post directly previous on textiles as the next horizon. I would say that as goes science, so to speak, so goes sociological awareness of and behaviour about human capabilities. Where the Textiles para. states that “materials are the fundamental building-blocks for the innovative products that we use on a daily basis…”, I would posit that the statement could be both broadened and narrowed to “materials, fibers, textiles…”. And which segment of the human race has historically been most involved on a day-to-day basis in that area???!!!

    I find it fascinating that so many comments in the past few months have mentioned something like “well DH says/thinks…but I am trying/doing it anyway”. Perhaps it’s a statement that more women in our corner of the fibers world are are learning that it’s ok to enjoy learning?

    And, finally, I REALLY enjoy your observations on “formats [that] structure, present, use and disseminate information in particular ways.” Your thinking process causes me to look at things in new ways, which I find both disturbing and tremendously interesting!

  11. Hi Sharon,
    I agree with your view about samplers. I have samplers coming from my grandgrandmother and other women in the family. I find it moving to imagine their lives , sorrows and pleasures.I have made many samplers, my last one is now with TAST .
    but sometimes it is difficult to learn making something “not useful” ;I was learned not to waste time with ” playing” !¨
    thank you so much for your blogs, they make me think about things.

  12. I strongly agree with your point about the value of developing our creativity and our skills. Our creativity is what makes us human, and developing it, realizing more of our human, creative potential, enriches our lives and the lives of others. And it brings joy! That’s function enough for me.


  13. Sharon, I think you’ve summed up my thoughts about learning for learning’s sake beautifully.
    DH and I agree “life is learning”, but that’s as far as it goes. He does not share my passion for the learning process, nor will he ever understand all that I get from making a mini sampler or scrumble. With his shallow sense of aesthetics, the most I can rouse from him is a sarcastic “Whoop de doo!” But I appreciate his attitude as his (doesn’t mean I like it), but it doesn’t dissuade me from pursuing a new learning adventure be it in fiber arts or trying a new recipe.
    Ironically I posted a comment yesterday on Maria Peagler’s blog in response to her query:
    What kind of quilt would you be? I said something to the effect that I would be an art
    quilt because I would have been created solely to be hung and be admired and never have to perform a mundane function. At the time I thought my remark vanity motivated, but I think it reflects deeper upon my sense that things created don’t need to be utilitarian to be important. It’s a worthy function in itself to spark an emotion,look pretty or be thought-provoking.
    I think it’s far more stimulating to make function follow form!

  14. from south africa,i am new to everything on the internet and love your website. i am also now motivated to start making samples. i love you work and the descriptions you give and also being able to share with others around the world opens up new areas for me to learn more about embroidery in general and i will be sharing all this with the group named the crafting chatting chicks. they will also be informed about your site. thank you so much for all the hard work you put into this site.
    susan m

    susan m
  15. Hi Sharon:
    I have never personally been an admirer of samplers per sé,,although I appreciate their history and intent. I am, however, a strong believer of making time to ” play”. It seems we never have enough time to do that, especially in today’s fast paced world and the obligations and responsibilities of the average person. I see so many women around me, taking course after course, eager to learn new techniques, but never taking the time to practice or play with the lessons they learn They just keep moving on, taking in more and more information but never fully utilizing or appreciating their newly acquired techniques. It’s the age old story of ” Jack of all Trades, Master of None “.
    Myself, I do “samplers” of a sort but more in the form of ” Doodle Cloths” – they have no sense of rhyme or reason, like the samplers of old, but they do have meaning for/ and to me personally. They are rather small bits and pieces of practice stitches, especially bead techniques that I love and want so much to perfect. I keep them in a box and refer to them often with appreciation but if years down the road, some historian or interested stitcher came across them, I doubt they would have any value or meaning to them at all. To me, they are everything: but to strangers they are merely a few samples, with unfinished edges, all sizes and on varied cloths – a challenge indeed to anyone who did not understand the addled brain or time constraints of a dedicated but frustrated artist/teacher overwhelmed with family/personal responsibilities but endeavouring to make a record or sample to refresh my mind later on and/or as inspiration for me to create. I would like to think I was not alone in this pursuit, and perhaps there are others who love their art/craft, who have individualized ways of preserving their techniques that do not fall especially in the category of ” Samplers” …
    I’d love to hear what others do and think in their attempts at creative survival…..

  16. If we all made only functional items, the world would be a very drab place.

    I’m taking a beading class right now that has us working up a sampler with various beads and stiches, along with the other class items. Not only do I find it very helpful in the learning process, but it’s going to be a very beautiful piece of art.

    I still think the devaluation of fiber arts has more to do with it being produced by women than any other factor.

  17. I think this is a very interesting point. Sometimes its the other way around. Social history collections may not be as valued in the same way as fine art collection perhaps because function dominates. Craft skills are described differently than art skills.


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