This highly collectible needlework was made not by adult seamstresses, but by teen or even preteen girls, who executed samplers as part of their education. The youth of the stitchers is astonishing, especially when viewed in the light of modern values. These can soar into the five- or six-figure range at auction.
Well-known needlework specialist Amy Finkel, of the website samplings.com and the antiques shop M. Finkel & Daughter, emphasizes the importance of Chester County's contribution to the world of antique samplers. "The samplers made in Chester County in the late 18th and early 19th centuries are highly regarded because the teachers there took the art of sampler-making to new levels," she says. "Large, bold pictorial samplers with outstanding house and garden scenes animated with people and animals routinely appear on these samplers.
"It may be that competition for students led instructresses to develop more and more interesting compositions that would be taught to their students. And the vocabulary of stitches and techniques that they taught are of equally high quality."
Curator Ellen Endslow of the Chester County Historical Society worked in concert with Mary Brooks of the Westtown School to assemble the exhibition of 150 outstanding examples made between 1760 and 1840.
Endslow says, "Putting examples from the two collections together really adds something, because you do get to see how the Westtown samplers influenced sampler making elsewhere in the county."
Endslow is particularly fond of the highly decorative, pictorial needlework on display. One of the most colorful is a composition of two birds in a tree, stitched and hand-painted by Martha Vastine of Coatesville when she was about 11 years old.
As part of the goal of the exhibition, the maker's family history is well-documented. She was the daughter of Benjamin Vastine, who operated a store and tavern at "the Sign of the Golden Eagle" on Lancaster Pike.
Works stitched by students at the Westtown School, an important part of the exhibition, are prized by collectors. Still educating young people today, the Quaker school was established in Chester County in 1799. Girls coming to the school at that time were instructed to bring needle, thread, and scissors to begin their education.
Brooks, archivist of the school's collection, notes, "Westtown is one location where needlework was part of a girl's education, and a particular style developed here based on what was being done at Ackworth, a Quaker boarding school in England."
"Some very distinct designs and types of samplers developed," she says. "For instance, the darning sampler was worked with seven or so stitches used for mending different fabrics. Quaker samplers did tend to be more plain and more simple."
Westtown is only one part of the needlework world of Chester County. According to Brooks, the school's style became fairly well-known in Quaker circles because so many girls and teachers went on from Westtown to teach at other schools.
Several of the exhibits in the current show boldly state their Westtown affiliation. One, crafted by an anonymous needleworker, depicts the original four-story brick school building. Another, made by a student in the school's first class, has a central medallion embroidered with the name of the then-new institution.
The education of girls at Westtown, however, went far beyond what was then called women's work. Samplers also incorporated philosophical and religious quotations that students were expected to memorize.
Even more remarkable were the unique embroidered fabric globes produced at Westtown. Stitching details of continents and oceans on the three-dimensional creations helped reinforce the student's
What: "In Stitches: Unraveling Their Stories"
When: Through Sept. 7
Where: Chester County Historical Society, 225 N. High St., West Chester.
Information: chestercohistorical.org or 610-692-4800.