A Family in Stitches: Genealogical Information From a Scottish Embroidery Sampler
Genealogical information is often found in unlikely places. Check out the familial details included in this Scottish embroidery sampler!
In 1885 my great-grandmother, Isabella Fairbairn, was 10 years old. She lived in a rural area of the Scottish borders, and like most Scottish children between the ages of 5 and 13, schooling was compulsory for her. Isabella attended school at Crailing, about 5 miles outside the market town of Jedburgh.
We might never have known this, had she not created an embroidery sampler while she was a pupil there. Victorian education concentrated on “the three Rs” – reading, writing and arithmetic. There was little variation in lessons, but needlework may have come as a light relief from the rigid drills of multiplication tables or copying from the blackboard. Needlework was an essential skill for girls; boys likely received instruction in woodwork.
Isabella’s embroidery sampler is an example of a “band” sampler. The characters and designs are in fixed rows rather than randomly place on the fabric. Her sampler shows a confident grasp of forming letters, both uppercase and lowercase.
An Unlikely Source for Genealogical Information
Scottish embroidery samplers are considered unique in one respect. The creator often included information about her family somewhere in the stitching. Isabella was the oldest of five children. She included their initials, as well as the initials of her parents.
Some of the threads are very faded now – the lightest color may originally have been a pale pink but has faded so much over time that the stitching almost blends with the background fabric. However, the whole family is there. They were:
“WF” – her father, Walter Fairbairn.
“MF” – her mother, Mary
“IF” – Isabella, (10 in 1885)
“MF” – Margaret (8)
“AF” – Alexander, (6)
“WF” – William (3)
“CF” – Catherine (1)
The “F” in baby Catherine’s initials also forms the first letter of “Fairbairn”. At the very bottom of the sampler Isabella embroidered the name of the school and the year.
These embroidery samplers may have been displayed in the home of young girls with great pride. This one was kept by Isabella (who did work as a dressmaker before she was married) and was passed to her daughter (my granny), then to my mom and finally to me.
Scottish Embroidery Samplers and Scottish Culture
Scottish embroidery samplers were the subject of a major exhibition at the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh a few years ago. The collection was cleverly titled “Embroidered Stories” and focused on exploring the stories of these young needle workers within a social and historical context. Isabella’s sampler is quite a humble example. Some of the pieces displayed by the National Museum of Scotland were far more ornate, and included buildings, landmarks and religious verses as well as family information. You can read more about that exhibition and view some of the samplers here.
The building that was once Crailing School is still standing but is now a private home. The high windows seen at the gable end were typical of Victorian schoolhouses – deliberately set high up in the walls so that children could not look outside. The stout chimneys would have been regularly in use during cold Scottish winters, and hopefully gave some warmth to wee Isabella’s fingers as she tugged her colored yarns through the fabric to create her work.
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