Samplers and Quilts – Treasures that Add to Your Family History

By Carolyn L. Barkley

Many of us are at an age where our parents are downsizing, or at least cleaning out their attics. With every trip that I make to my mother’s house in Massachusetts, more boxes get transferred from her storage to mine. Sometimes I have discovered real treasures that have added to the fabric of my family’s history, and very occasionally, ones that have opened up new avenues for research. As I thought about my discoveries, I realized that the handwork done by our ancestors, particularly samplers and quilts, has the potential to impact our genealogical research.

Samplers

Samplers were originally created by young girls (the average age about 11) as a way to learn and exhibit their sewing skills. As a needlework form, samplers date back almost 400 years with the first recorded sampler, part of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection, dated in 1598. The earliest surviving American sampler, although undated, was completed by Miles Standish’s daughter Loara.

In the early eighteenth century, the definition of the sampler was formalized. If a piece of needlework was signed and dated, it was considered a sampler; if those elements were missing, it was considered a “needlework picture.” I recently found an embroidered picture of myself, complete with braids, that I stitched in about 1952. Although it is not dated, I did include my name and age, so I think that it qualifies under the above definition of a sampler. I remember other attempts to stitch more traditional sampler designs, but they have not survived to the present.

In the nineteenth century, sampler stitchery often was included in school curricula, and designs included alphabets and numerals, the name of the stitcher and her school. By the twentieth century, however, there was a distinct decline in the number of girls who were stitching samplers as a part of their childhood training for adult responsibilities.

Our interest as family historians, however, is focused on samplers created during the latter part of the eighteenth century, when genealogy samplers were popular. Some were quite decorative with trees and the names of individuals in the family with full birth dates. Others included brief forms of dates and perhaps just the initials of family members. Samplers also celebrated marriages and other important events, as well as recorded deaths of family members. These samplers can provide vital clues for our research.

Samplers may still be owned by members of your family. If you cannot locate any samplers in your family’s possession, you may want to check collections of fabric arts or local history in the specific community, county or state where an individual lived. Sometimes they can be found in unusual locations. An article in the Fall 2002 issue of Prologue, discussed six samplers which are part of the Revolutionary War pension files in the National Archives. (To think of finding needlework in such files is definitely a challenge to think “outside of the box” for researchers). These pieces were submitted by individuals seeking to prove their relationship to a Revolutionary War ancestor. Consider the sampler created by Harriet Bacon in Lanesboro, Massachusetts, in about 1804. Harriet submitted her sampler to the pension investigator in 1841 at the request of her mother because the written family record on which the sampler was based had been lost. It was successful in resolving her mother’s pension claim because it included the date of her marriage to Samuel Bacon, a Revolutionary War soldier and Harriet’s father.

Interest in samplers has increased among genealogists who are also cross-stitchers or needle pointers. Some years ago at an NGS conference, I bought a cross-stitch pattern that featured a tree at the top and below it, a place for the names and dates of seven generations of women. I still have not completed (more honestly, have not even started) this piece as I realized very quickly that I could not trace seven generations of women – men yes, women, no – in the family. I have been working on that research project on and off for several years and eventually will hurdle the brick walls that I discovered in researching the sixth and seventh generations in my female line. A quick Google search under “genealogy family trees” provides several sites offering patterns for this type of sampler.

Quilts

As with samplers, a member of your family may have created a quilt that has survived use, washing, and sometimes neglect in the attic. My great-grandmother made a quilt a year, spending her winters “piecing” it, and her summers assembling it and attaching the batting and backing. When I was quite small, I watched her while she worked and she would tell me the story behind the various materials she was using, many from dresses, shirts, or other family items. These quilts form a part of my family’s history, not only because they were made by a family member, but also for the stories they embody.

Sometimes quilts were made for a specific family history-related purpose and were more decorative in nature and probably not intended for daily use. In 2005, as I was beginning to think about furnishing our soon-to-be constructed new home, I was at my mother’s and we were going through several boxes of family items – photos, documents, etc. One box contained several layers of bureau scarves (does anyone use these anymore), pillow cases, doilies, and other items that had been hand-made by family members. Then, from the bottom of the box, came a bulky item wrapped in paper. Out of the paper emerged a crazy quilt. This type of quilt featured oddly shaped pieces haphazardly arranged. Materials were often vibrant in color and made of richer materials than those used in bed quilts, such as velvet and brocade. Pieces often were embroidered with small flowers or other decorative stitching. This particular quilt, rich in burgundy and navy colors and measuring 50” x 50”, conformed to the crazy quilt design, but was distinctive in that Grand Old Army of the Republic (Civil War union veterans organization) reunion ribbons, as well as ribbons signifying the erection of civil war memorial monuments in New Haven, Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts, were used as some of the pieces. The reuning units included the 6th Connecticut (in which my great-great and great-great-great grandfathers served) and the 10th Massachusetts (in which my great-great-uncle served). The quilt also contained ribbons from the 1st Connecticut Cavalry. At the time I did not know which family member had served in that unit. The ribbon’s content led me to the discovery that it was a great-great-great uncle. Other ribbons included those for the Caledonian Club in Springfield, Massachusetts. As I am still trying to scale the brick-wall of my Scottish ancestry, I hope that future research into this club will provide assistance. The center of the quilt displayed a pieced American flag and another piece was embroidered with the date “1884.” Unfortunately, there are no initials on the quilt. Given the content from the ribbon-pieces, however, I believe that either my great-grandmother, Grace Lillian (Dodd) Smith, her mother Kate (Duncan) Dodd, Kate’s mother-in-law, Lois (Lanfair) Dodd, or some combination of the three, probably made the quilt. Now framed, this family heirloom enjoys pride of place over our mantle.

Interest in genealogy-related quilts has increased as interest in genealogy has become wide-spread. Genealogy quilt patterns are often for sale at conferences, and a Google search for “genealogy quilts” provides links to several companies selling patterns and supplies. If there are no such quilts in your family, now would be a perfect time to create one that would preserve your research for future generations. If other members of your family are interested in quilting, this project would provide an opportunity to work together.

As with all historical sources, preservation of quilts or samples is a priority. Textiles are affected by chemical changes, wear, mishandling, temperature, light, humidity, dirt, and many other environmental factors. Store them in such a way as to minimize their exposure to light (especially bright sunlight and fluorescent lighting). Do not store them in uninsulated attic spaces. Place them flat between sheets of acid-free tissue paper in acid-free boxes. Companies such as University Products sell a wide range of boxes, including ones for textiles in general and quilts in particular. Placing the box in a drawer or dark closet is best for the survival of its contents.

If you want to display a piece, framing it can help protect it from dust, dirt and light. Take it to a framer with experience in archival framing and make sure to request acid-free framing materials and museum-quality (UV-resistant) glass. If you are hanging a quilt, rather than framing it as I did, hang it at an angle with enough support that the top part does not tear and the quilt does not become stretched. Detailed information on the care of family heirlooms can be found in Heritage Preservation’s Caring for Your Family Treasures (2000).

I hope you will check with family members to determine if there are any samplers or quilts in the family that may provide information about the person who made them or about family events and milestones. I hope that the ambitious stitchers among you will think about creating new family heirlooms for future generations.

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