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English, dated 1790 and 1818

Samplers made by young girls at the Ackworth School, a Quaker institution in Yorkshire, England, form a distinctive group of samplers worked from the late eighteenth century when the school was founded through the middle of the following century. Hannah Hicks and her daughter, Rachel Wilson, were Ackworth pupils twenty-eight years apart. In their needlework are embroidered motifs that were taught at Ackworth for many decades and that have come to characterize samplers produced at this austere Quaker learning establishment. The rarity of surviving needlework made by a mother and daughter, combined with the excellence and beauty of the stitching and the known history of the makers, distinguish these two samplers as exceptional works of schoolgirl embroidery.

Founded in 1779 by John Fothergill, the Ackworth School was intended for children of less affluent Quaker families. Hannah Hicks, born October 22, 1774 at Old Saling, Essex, was admitted on April 4, 1789 and remained an Ackworth student until 1791. She married Thomas Wilson, a fellow Quaker, and their daughter, Rachel, born at Houghton, near Cambridge, on October 13, 1804, was a pupil at Ackworth from 1817 to 1818.

As stated in the Rules for the Government of Ackworth School, written in 1790, one of the schoolmaster’s responsibilities was to teach the female pupils writing and arithmetic. A requirement of the schoolmistress was to instruct the girls reading, sewing, knitting, and spinning. While the samplers worked by Hannah and Rachel exhibit the decorative medallions, birds and floral motifs that identify one type of sampler worked at the school, alphabet and darning samplers were also taught at Ackworth. These didactic sewing exercises provided the girls with basic needlework skills required for marking and repairing linens. According to the rules at Ackworth, it was the female students’ responsibilities to “…make and mend their own apparel, the boys’ linen, and the house linen; and do such needle work, as may be sent to be executed in the house….” Sewing was taught to the girls not only as a feminine talent but also as a marketable skill for possible future employment as domestic workers.

The earliest medallion sampler in the archives of the Ackworth School was made by Mary Wigham in 1790. Hannah Hicks, whose sampler is also dated 1790, would have been a classmate of Mary’s and their needlework, as expected, bears many similarities. (In addition, each of the two girls’ samplers includes the initials of the other.) Working with polychrome silk threads and using cross stitch throughout, Hannah Hicks embroidered half-medallions as a framing device for the central rectangular field. This unusual design, combined with the motifs within the field that occur on many samplers from the school, is a defining feature of Ackworth embroideries. The similarity of the medallions to motifs on German and northern European samplers has been noted but it is unknown how these geometric, snowflake-like patterns came to be taught by schoolmistresses as part of an eighteenth-century Quaker education in England.

The half-medallion border and many of the motifs seen on Hannah Hicks’s work reappear in her daughter’s sampler. Rachel Wilson embroidered her sampler in 1818 with more open ground using only black silk thread. Both pieces contain initials throughout to indicate classmates, and in each, as well as in all surviving Ackworth medallion samplers, the delicate intricacies of the patterns and the attention to decoration belie the strict tenets of plainness central to a Quaker education. Surviving samplers from the Westtown School, a Quaker institution modeled after Ackworth that opened in Chester County, Pennsylvania in 1799, illustrate the flow of needlework education from one Quaker community to another—similar design structures and identical motifs appear on samplers from both schools.

Hannah Hicks’s and Rachel Wilson’s samplers express through their words and imagery a strong sense of friendship and affection, a desired result of domestic needlework produced not for practical function but as “a token of love.”

See: Childhood Embroidery: American Samplers & Pictorial Needlework 1650-1850, Betty Ring (1993), p. 291 and Samplers, Carol Humphrey (1997), fig. 31.

Hannah Hicks sampler: 14.5” H x 12.5” W
Rachel Wilson sampler: 12.5” H x 12.75” W

Ackworth School Samplers
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