When pioneer women and young girls crossed the plains to settle in the west, they brought with them their knowledge of homemaking skills and crafts. Many of them were converts to the Church who came from England, Ireland, France, Denmark, and Norway. Their tradition of needlework was one of the skills they carried with them.
Annie Clark Tanner wrote this about her mother’s needlework: “Mother was an accomplished artist at needle work. Her industry in this line, as she plied her needle when crossing the ocean in a sailboat, attracted the attention of the captain and his wife for whom my mother sewed, and thus she enjoyed the best accomodations on board. When she was traveling across the plains to the Salt Lake Valley, she made yards of fine muslin embroidery with which she trimmed her first baby clothes. I noticed a small mark of yellow on the embroidery and asked her what it was.
“‘That mark,’ she said, ‘is a little iron rust from a wire on the bow of the wagon where I tied my work when crossing the plains.’”
With limited space in ships, covered wagons, and handcarts, the pioneers brought only a few belongings. Scraps of cloth, thread, needles, and maybe a treasured sampler might have been included.
Making a sampler was often part of a young girl’s upbringing. Mothers, grandmothers, and schools taught girls the art of needlework on samplers. While the girls were learning different stitches, they also learned their numerals and their ABCs by stitching and reciting them.
A sampler became a girl’s “record book” of stitching patterns for mending, darning, hemming, buttonholing, cross-stitching, and embroidery work.
Part of a sampler’s work might have included the alphabet, numerals, a favorite saying, quotation, verse, or scripture. Some samplers were decorated with birds, animals, trees, fruits, flowers, temples, schools, or houses. The beehive as well as the likenesses of the Church Presidents and other leaders were favorite pioneer designs.
After deciding on a design, the child drew it on cloth with a pencil or pen. The cross-stitch was frequently used, as well as outline, stem, satin, and chain stitches. Quite often the maker would stitch her name and age, and the date the sampler was finished.
Samplers were usually stitched on a rectangular piece of linen, using silk or wool thread. After the settlers reached the Salt Lake Valley, they had to make their own wool thread from the sheep fleece they carded, spun, and dyed. To obtain linen thread and cloth, the pioneers grew flax. The women also started raising silkworms for silk thread and cloth.
One young pioneer girl wrote: “Aunt Nancy reeled the silk from some of the cocoons and dyed the skeins which we used for our art work. These we put in suitable frames; so for years the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and ‘God Bless Our Home’ were ever before us.”
Gradually the lifestyle of young girls changed, and the art of needlework on samplers was no longer a part of their education. Today, however, many young girls and women are discovering that the skills and crafts of their ancestors can provide them with an enjoyable pastime.