Art/ Collection/ Art Object


Margret Barber
Linen worked with silk and linen thread: reticella, double running, eye, cross, satin, and Gobelin stitches
H. 37 1/2 x W. 6 3/8 inches (95.3 x 16.2 cm)
Credit Line:
From the Collection of Mrs. Lathrop Colgate Harper, Bequest of Mabel Herbert Harper, 1957
Accession Number:
Not on view
This band sampler by Margret Barber, probably worked between 1661 and 1663, is divided into rows within three larger sections, each of which showcases a specific technique. The top two-thirds of the sampler includes motifs easily classifiable into standard categories, such as alphabetic characters, geometric designs, and floral motifs, worked in silk and linen on a linen ground using several common stitch techniques. An embroidered alphabet marks the end of the top third of the piece. The middle third is worked with white thread on a white ground, a technique commonly known as whitework. This middle section features scattered design motifs and concludes with an embroidered rendering of the maker’s name and dates of production.

The bottom third of the piece is worked in reticella, a technique that originated in the late fifteenth century. The technique developed from cutwork and utilized stitches common to embroidery. Threads were pulled from a plain weave linen fabric to create open spaces in which a design was completed and the deconstructed fabric was stabilized primarily with buttonhole stitches. The result is a design based on the grid of the foundation fabric, with open areas throughout and arched and scalloped borders. Subsequently, the technique progressed to the point where the foundation fabric was eliminated and the design was worked over threads temporarily secured to a piece of vellum or paper for stability during the construction of what was called punto in aria (literally, "stitches in air"), or early needle lace.

Designs for reticella were popularized through numerous editions of late sixteenth-century Continental pattern books. Copies of these books made their way into England, and their popularity occasioned the publication of English pattern books, mostly consisting of patterns copied from the earlier book.

Although cutwork and needle-lace techniques continued to be popular, especially for fashionable accessories, through the 1630s, there are very few examples of these techniques that have been attributed to English manufacture, despite the number of English samplers that confirm these skills were taught. The finest lace was imported, although the cost was certainly prohibitive for all but the elite. Therefore, the cultivation of practical skill in whitework and lace techniques would enable the maker to produce all manner of trimming necessary to fashionable attire. This sampler was purchased by London’s Royal School of Needlework in 1916; and it is quite possible that it continued to fulfill its seventeenth-century function of being an exemplar for early twentieth-century students.

Samplers containing whitework, cutwork, and needle lace were attempted after basic skills were already mastered, if the case of Martha Edlin can be considered typical. She created her polychrome band sampler first and then move on to the more challenging whitework and cutwork embroidery. Women’s training in this standard progression of technical skills was an extraordinarily important part of a seventeenth-century education, particularly for daughters of the upper class and gentry. According to the household accounts of the Verney family, at least two hours each day were set aside for the practice of embroidery under the instruction of a tutor. It was decided that Sir Ralph Verney’s eight-year-old daughter, "being a girl she shall not learn Latin, so she will have more time to learn breeding [manners] hereafter and needlework too." Training in embroidery not only prepared a girl in practical necessities, but it also held a moral dimension. Richard Braithwaite in his 1631 text The English Gentlewoman noted that textile production should be considered "arguments of [her] industry, memorials of [her] piety." Women were educated in preparation for marriage, to run a household, and to be a good Christian. Verses from the Bible were often read aloud as women performed household sewing and embroidery, instilling the very activity of working with a needle with pious associations.

The use of all three embroidery types—colored, whitework, and lace techniques—on a band sampler is relatively rare compared with simpler combinations of colored bands and whitework. As previously noted, it is uncertain how much actual needle-lace trimming was produced in England during the mid-seventeenth century, but there is a relatively large number of surviving whitework samplers dated to the 1640s. Particularly notable are examples that include figural compositions with detached elements.

[Emily Zilber, adapted from English Embroidery from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580-1700: 'Twixt Art and Nature / Andrew Morrall and Melinda Watt ; New Haven ; London : Published for The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York [by] Yale University Press, 2008.]
Signature: 1661/MARGARET BARBER 1663

Inscription: alphabet
Countess of Newbury ; Royal School of Needlework (until 1916; sold to Harper) ; Mrs. Lathrop Colgate Harper , New York (until d. 1957; bequeathed to MMA)
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