Needlework Sampler (Dechado)
- unknown maker
Instruction in sewing, embroidery, and other needlework was considered an essential element of a young woman’s education in Spain and the Spanish Americas during the early modern period until at least the late 1800s. Over the course of her education, especially when undertaken in a school outside the home, a girl would typically produce at least one advanced needlework exercise called a sampler (dechado in Spanish), a panel of embroidered cloth made to show off the student’s training and skill. Like the more well-known works from Great Britain and the United States, samplers made by schoolgirls across the Spanish-speaking world often include a wide variety of stitches and other needlework techniques, alphabets, numbers, verses, as well as religious and decorative motifs sometimes drawn from printed pattern books. Girls frequently signed and dated their samplers, and occasionally included the name of the school or instructor who supervised the project.
Although proficiency in needlework was considered a practical skill, it also came to be equated with female virtue and popular conduct manuals such as Juan Luis Vives’ Education of a Christian Woman (first published in Latin in 1523) and other moralizing texts promoted textile work as a particularly appropriate type of feminine labor. In addition, the stitching of a sampler demonstrated more than needlework skills as the embroidered text and imagery often drew upon multiple aspects of a young woman’s education, including reading and writing, math, drawing and composition, religion, politics, and geography. The display and preservation of samplers by families further points to their role as a symbol of a young woman’s accomplishment, virtue, and social status. A sampler is oftentimes the only surviving record of a woman’s life. As objects of artistic and material culture, samplers not only chart the history of needlework, but give evidence of the limitations and opportunities in female education and literacy, and help to illuminate the lives of individual women, their families, and the specific cultural, religious, and political contexts in which they lived.
Worked with brightly-dyed wool thread on coarsely woven linen or canvas cloth, this sampler was probably made in a convent school in Ecuador in the 1800s. The unknown maker covered the entirety of the sampler in twenty-three series of alphabets, numbers, and roman numerals, all neatly stitched into rows that continuously wrap across the surface from left to right. Samplers such this one are sometimes referred to as abecedarios, after the Spanish word for alphabet. Each alphabet series is embroidered in a different style, each likely based on specific typefaces and handwriting scripts found in pattern books, school readers, or other printed sources. Because it is unsigned and undated, this sampler may have served a practical role as a kind of storehouse of “fonts” for its maker for future embroidery projects. However, the sampler’s emphatic use of text also emphasizes the interconnected relationship between the creation of embroidered samplers and textual literacy, an aspect of female education increasingly emphasized in the Spanish-speaking world in the nineteenth century, when this sampler was made.
--Sabena Kull, 2017-18 Mayer Fellow for Spanish Colonial Art