Mistress Warden, as we know, was a Quaker, yet she taught Molly “fancy” stitches. More often than I like to confess, I have made assumptions about details, especially in the first editions of my books, when I didn’t have the internet for an instant check. The one I’m thinking about just now is Mrs. Warden’s teaching Molly to do fancy embroidery. Quakers, of course, were and are all about being plain. How would Mrs. Warden have learned “fancy” stitches to teach? To find this out, we have to take a look at the history of the sampler.
Early on, they were simply pieces of linen with examples of stitches and patterns, like a primer. The needleworker could refer to them if she were looking for ideas, or had forgotten the sequence of loops and ties and what-not on a certain flower or decoration.
Early on, making a sampler as we know these was part of going to school. The girls embroidered the numbers one to ten and the alphabet in upper and lower case, an aid in the process of learning to read and, perhaps to cipher. All girls needed to know basic cross stitch, so they would be able to mark their linens when they were married. Early on, they were black and white, most likely because if you wanted thread to have color, you had to dye it yourself, and neither the Puritans nor the Quakers bothered. This example, one of the earliest we have, does have some decoration, but no color.
Many girls never made a second, more elaborate sampler. This was the privilege of girls continuing their education, and many of them got no further schooling. But ongoing education of women was important to the Quakers; females were as much a witness to God’s love as any male. The sampler would have been used not only as an aid to reading, but also writing (which was not taught to Puritan maidens) and even geometry of a rudimentary sort. The stitches became more elaborate, colors were the rule, and plenty of fancy stitches, too.
That, of course, didn’t meant the fanciness was used by Quaker maidens to decorate clothing. Heaven forbid! But Molly was a different case, and in her wisdom, Mrs. Warden knew that worldly lures were sometimes necessary if you were out in that world. She’s one of my favorite characters. Perhaps she comes from Philadelphia, where the Quakers were known to have one foot in the meeting house and the other in the counting house. Not exactly worldly, but not cloistered, either.