Needlework Sampler (Dechado)
- unknown maker
- P. B.
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.
Finely worked in brightly-colored silk and metallic thread on a linen ground, this sampler from mid-1800s Mexico depicts an exquisite array of pictorial motifs and needlework techniques. It is somewhat similar to seventeenth-century European “spot motif samplers” in that it illustrates a variety of unrepeating, detached motifs. In this case, however, instead of being randomly positioned, the pictorial motifs are carefully composed in an overall symmetric manner, which suggests this sampler may have also been meant for display. At the center of the composition is a bouquet of red, pink, and yellow flowers. On the left side of the bouquet, the letter “P” is held in the beak of a parrot, while on the right a butterfly delicately sits on the period after the letter “B.” These letters, embroidered in metallic thread, likely represent the maker’s initials: “P. B.” The variety of birds, insects, and flowers on this sampler are not generic, but appear to represent specific, identifiable species. The lifelike plants and animals may have been modeled after prints and seem to reflect an interest in the study of nature and naturalism. The inclusion of religious symbols along the top demonstrate the sampler’s Catholic provenance. These include the Lamb of God, a monstrance, and a crowned monogram of the Virgin Mary. Very similar both in imagery and techniques to several other samplers from Mexico that date from the 1850s to 1870s, this sampler and those that are related were likely made in a convent school in Mexico, possibly in the city of Oaxaca. The fine silk and metallic thread and high-quality of needlework suggest that this sampler was the work of an advanced embroidery student.
--Sabena Kull, 2017-18 Mayer Fellow for Spanish Colonial Art