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.
The inclusion of the letter “ñ” in the alphabet stitched along the top of this sampler demonstrates its Spanish origins. Most of the pictorial motifs embroidered to the left and in the lower portion of the sampler are symbols of Christ’s Passion. Although unsigned and undated, it may be related to a group of samplers made in the early- to mid-1800s in northeastern Spain (for example, see DAM 1965.231). This group of samplers are all long and narrow, feature the same distinct green thread and Passion symbols, and either include text in Catalan or the names of girls commonly used in Catalan-speaking regions. Two of the samplers include vesting prayers and other texts related to the Catholic liturgy. Thus, it is possible they were made in part as practice by schoolgirls at a convent where embroidered priestly vestments were made.
--Sabena Kull, 2017-18 Mayer Fellow for Spanish Colonial Art