Sampler with needle lace and cutwork, Sarah Thral, Linen embroidered with linen thread; reticella, satin, and eye stitches, British

Sampler with needle lace and cutwork

Sarah Thral
Linen embroidered with linen thread; reticella, satin, and eye stitches
H. 18 3/4 x W. 7 inches (47.6 x 17.8 cm)
Textiles-Embroidered, Textiles-Laces
Credit Line:
From the Collection of Mrs. Lathrop Colgate Harper, Bequest of Mabel Herbert Harper, 1957
Accession Number:
Not on view
Made by Sara Thral and dated 1644, this sampler features a banded layout of whitework and 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 books.

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. 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.

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.

[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: 1644.SARA THRAL

Inscription: alphabet
Arthur Blackborne , London (until 1916; sale, American Art Association, New York, December 18–20, 1916, no. 363; sold for $95 to Mrs. Harper); Mrs. Lathrop Colgate Harper , New York (1916–d. 1957; bequeathed to MMA)