Subversive Samplers: How an Educational Exercise Became a Tool of Feminist Protest

“Edith-Anne did this in 1848 and hated every stitch”

In the spring of 2016, Edith-Anne’s sampler went viral. Stitched in shades of blue and green and marked with an unusual verse, this small piece of needlework is the creation, not of a girl named Edith-Anne, but of a modern needleworker named Judy Estep. During the early 1990s, Estep published a series of “primitive” sampler patterns under the pseudonym “Edith-Anne.” When @jocularfowl published a picture of Estep’s work on Twitter, social media users were quick to applaud the fictitious Edith-Anne’s disdain for needlework.


The sampler quickly garnered over 3,000 retweets and 5,000 likes on Twitter while a screenshot of the original tweet gained over 400,000 notes on Tumblr. Many appreciated what @jocularfowl called the sampler’s “sassy 19th century schoolgirl aesthetic.” On Twitter, @beckyblackbooks, admired that “Edith-Anne was all out of fucks to give” and @MorseLyA observed that “she continues to keep us smiling 100+ years later.” Others, however, saw Edith-Anne’s sampler, and imitations of it, as anti-feminist rejections of a historically feminine craft. According to the fashion historian Hilary Davidson, the verse “hated every stitch” reinforces the false idea that “sewing=oppression.” Why did Edith-Anne’s sampler elicit such strong responses from a 21st-century audience? How has sampler-making, an activity that few people have first-hand experience of today, persisted in our cultural memory?

What is a Sampler?

Samplers were educational tools that instructors used to teach girls how to stitch. The earliest written reference to a sampler dates to 1502, but the practice likely predates this.1 Samplers did not begin to incorporate lettering or verse until the late 17th century; those produced after this point usually consisted of alphabets, numbers, and moral or religious verse. Beginning in the late 18th century, a related educational tool known as the needlework picture rose in popularity. Like samplers, needlework pictures followed a set pattern and displayed a girl’s stitching skills. Unlike samplers, however, needlework pictures did not include alphabets and did not conform to the grid imposed by the ground fabric.

Samplers and needlework pictures were not products of individual creativity but educational tools that encouraged girls to follow the example of their instructors. During the 18th and 19th centuries, instructors would produce a limited number of needlework patterns for their students to follow. The emulative function of sampler-making is especially apparent in the verse that girls stitched onto their small pieces of linen and wool. Sampler verse usually communicated the stitcher’s commitment to emulating the moral virtues modeled by her parents and instructors. The pursuit of feminine virtue was one of the most common subjects for sampler inscriptions; girls frequently stitched their intentions to “seek virtue’s path” and “not willingly offend.” Some were more specific in their commitment to virtue, promising their everlasting piety and recognizing their filial duty. By stitching a sampler, girls learned to emulate material and moral patterns, a lesson that Edith-Anne apparently failed to internalize.

The Original Edith-Anne

Although Edith-Anne and her sampler are modern creations, Judy Estep drew inspiration from a needlework picture stitched by a girl named Patty Polk who lived in Maryland during the early 19th century. As recorded in Ethel Stanwood Bolton and Eva Johnston Coe’s American Samplers, Polk stitched an unusual needlework picture while attending school. This picture was bordered by a “large garland of pinks, roses, passion flowers, nasturtiums, and green leaves” and centered on a “white tomb” dedicated to George Washington. This composition was not unlike the multitude of needlework pictures produced by girls to commemorate the death of the nation’s first president. What was unusual, however, was the inscription: “Patty Polk did this and she hated every stitch she did in it. She loves to read much more.”2

This needlework picture stitched by Ann E. Cree in 1834 is similar to the one stitched by Patty Polk. (Courtesy Cottone Auctions)

Patty Polk was Martha E. Polk, the daughter of Joseph Polk and Margaret Durborough. Born on March 2, 1817, Polk likely completed her needlework picture at some point in the 1830s.3 In 1921, Polk’s daughter, Florence McIntyre Tyson, submitted her mother’s sampler for inclusion in Bolton and Coe’s American Samplers. Curious readers remarked upon the unusual entry in American Samplers and eventually Polk’s words gained widespread attention. Although the original is now lost to posterity, Polk’s needlework picture has lived on in a multitude of media. At least four reproduction patterns have used Polk’s needlework picture as inspiration, and in 2006, the author Cynthia Cotton published a children’s book inspired by Polk’s picture titled Abbie In Stitches.

Subversive Samplers

Sampler-making underwent a gradual decline during the second half of the 19th century. Beginning in the 1830s, educators deemphasized “accomplishments” like needlework in favor of more intellectual pursuits.4 Women continued to produce decorative needlework, but the sampler was no longer a central feature of a girl’s education. Sampler-making enjoyed on-and-off revivals during the 20th century, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that this craft took on an entirely new significance.5

Beginning in the 1990s, a new form of sampler, the feminist sampler, began to acquire widespread appeal. Although feminist samplers do not always conform to the aesthetic conventions that governed the appearance of those produced during the 18th and 19th centuries, they mimic earlier samplers in choice of materials, method, and intended use. Like earlier samplers, feminist pieces follow set patterns and usually incorporate affirmations and political sayings that mimic the verse that graced earlier samplers.

Two distinct perspectives motivate the production of feminist samplers. Some feminist stitchers see sampler-making as a historically oppressive craft and thus seek to subvert the messages of submissive and emulative morality embraced by their earlier counterparts. Others, however, see sampler-making as a way to reclaim an under-recognized form of feminine creativity. This divided perspective creates two competing interpretations of Patty Polk’s needlework picture and the modern patterns it inspired. While many, like @jocularfowl, embrace Polk’s subversion of an oppressive craft, others see Polk’s disavowal of needlework as an anti-feminist rejection of feminine craft.

Regardless of motivation, feminist sampler-makers are all part of a broader movement that embraces craft-centered activism, or “craftivism.” According to Elizabeth Emery, a doctoral candidate at Flinders University, the current manifestation of craftivism emerged during the 1990s amongst activists who sought to resist “the controlling power of capitalist domination” by rejecting consumer culture. Many craftivists have embraced samplers, and needlework more generally, as their preferred medium.

A new wave of craftivism has emerged in response to the 2016 election. The pink “pussy” hat is one of the most recognizable features of this movement. Alongside knitting, feminist cross stitch has surged in popularity. Feminist cross stitch books, such as Rayna Fahey’s Really Cross Stitch: For When You Just Want to Stab Something A Lot and Stephanie Rohr’s Feminist Cross-Stitch market themselves as tools of protest and include patterns with phrases such as “FIGHT LIKE A GIRL” and “A woman’s place is in the Revolution.”6

Like other forms of protest, craftivism relies on the communicative power of social media. Using Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and other social media sites, stitchers can transform their samplers into viral, digital objects. In the past, samplers were rooted to their materiality; each letter and motif was laboriously stitched into the ground fabric, creating a unique object that could only be shared with a select few. Now, however, stitchers can transform their samplers into immaterial, digital objects that can be shared worldwide.

Do feminist samplers subvert a historically oppressive craft or do they carry on a long tradition of feminine creativity? Perhaps these two conclusions can exist simultaneously. While some girls like Patty Polk saw sampler-making as an onerous task, others may have enjoyed the time they spent stitching, thus giving purpose to an ostensibly oppressive craft. Regardless of a stitcher’s personal perspective, however, it is necessary to understand that the intended function of samplers was not radical. Samplers were educational tools that instilled moral and material lessons which, more often than not, reinforced normative conceptions of femininity. By choosing to stitch feminist patterns, modern sampler-makers push back against the traditional gender expectations that once defined their craft.

When Judy Estep reimagined Patty Polk’s needlework picture in the 1990s, she helped to set the stage for a modern reappraisal of sampler-making as feminist craft. Today, Patty Polk’s sampler serves as a historical precedent for modern craftivists who seek to reclaim needlework as a tool of feminist protest. Almost two hundred years after Polk took up her needlework, her subversive declaration has become part of the modern conversation over the meaning of craft in the context of feminist activism.

Notes

  1. Betty Ring, Girlhood Embroidery: American Samplers & Pictorial Needlework, 1650–1850 (New York: Knopf, 1993), 6. Return to text.
  2. Ethel Stanwood Bolton and Eva Johnston Coe, American Samplers (Massachusetts Society of the Colonial Dames of America, 1921), 210. Return to text.
  3. “Mrs. Florence McIntyre Tyson,” in Lineage Book: National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, v. 55, ed. Jenn Winslow Coltrane (Washington, DC: 1920), 319. Return to text.
  4. Betty Ring, Girlhood Embroidery, 24. Return to text.
  5. Beverly Gordon, “Spinning Wheels, Samplers, and the Modern Priscilla: The Images and Paradoxes of Colonial Revival Needlework,” Winterthur Portfolio 33, no. 2/3 (1998), 163–194. Return to text.
  6. Rayna Fahey, Really Cross Stitch: For When You Just Want to Stab Something A Lot (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017), 16. Stephanie Rohr, Feminist Cross-Stitch: 40 Bold & Fierce Patterns (New York: Lark, 2019), 93. Return to text.

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