For this month’s interview we will visit with Fran of C Street Samplerworks! Fran shares with us her stitching experiences and inspiration for designing, and her love of Scarlet Letter Samplers.
How old were you when you first picked up a needle and who taught you to stitch? What was the first sampler that you stitched?
The first stitching I did was in the early 1950s when I was 8 or 9 years old. I saw an antique sampler at a museum that was stitched by a girl my age, and I was hooked. I walked downtown to the local Woolworth’s store and bought a little stamped sampler and floss in bright colors. My mother gave me a Coats & Clark “Learn How” book, which had instructions for knitting, crochet, and embroidery. She helped me learn the stitches I would need for the sampler. She was not a needleworker, but she was a very talented artist and craftswoman and could do anything. I didn’t know about separating individual strands, so I used all six strands! I never finished the sampler, but I kept it in my sewing trunk, and a few years ago I framed it. It now hangs in my stash room.
In the early 1970s I discovered counted thread embroidery, and since none of my friends were stitchers, and I had no source for patterns, I bought a piece of hardanger cloth from a mail order company and started experimenting on my own. The first counted thread sampler I ever stitched is one that I designed in 1974 for my mother. I used the verse “God is Love” because it was one of her mother’s fundamental beliefs.
In the mid 1980s I stitched my first sampler on linen--a strawberry band sampler designed by Eileen Bennett. Again, since I had nobody with whom I could discuss stitching, I had no idea that stitching on linen was supposed to be difficult. I jumped right in and had no trouble with it. Sometimes a little ignorance can be a good thing!
Also in the mid 1980s I discovered Scarlet Letter. Marsha’s wonderful catalog soon became the high point of my year. I finished my first Scarlet Letter sampler, Margaret Mason, in 1999, and the next year I stitched Ann Scutt. Since then I’ve stitched Phebe Smith, Abigail Gould, and American Quaker Band Sampler and have several others that are WIPs. I also have a big collection of Scarlet Letter sampler charts waiting to be stitched.
Here is a portion of one of my sampler walls showing a few of the other Scarlet letter samplers that I have stitched, along with reproduction-style from other designers. The samplers shown are (left to right) top row: Margret Withrow by Gigi Reis; and a Dutch repro from The Essamplaire. Middle row: Phebe Smith and American Quaker Band Sampler, both from Scarlet Letter; and Abigail Brown from The Examplarery. Bottom row: Peace Sampler from Mary Garry; Quaker Sampler from Threads Through Time; and Scarlet Letter’s Abigail Gould.
In 1997 my sampler “My Grandmother’s Flower Garden” won first prize in the “Lifetime of Memories” design contest held in honor of the DMC Corporation’s 250th Anniversary. I received a number of prizes, including a trip to the Spirit of Cross Stitch Show in Sacramento, California. That was when I started thinking seriously of designing professionally.
|My Grandmother's Flower Garden|
What time of day do you stitch? Do you sit in a set place and what tools do you like to have on hand? Does everything have to be in a certain place in order for you to relax and concentrate on your work?
Because I worked full time for many years, I was rarely able to stitch in the daytime. Now that I have retired from my full-time job, I still find it difficult to stitch during the day. Somehow I feel that I must spend the daylight hours working—housework, yard work, etc. I am gradually breaking that dreadful habit, but I still do most of my stitching after supper. I sit in my recliner, put my feet up, and try to stitch for a couple of hours before I start to doze off. Generally my two cats are vying for the prime seat on my lap, which often makes stitching a challenge.
A favorite spot for daytime stitching is my maternal grandmother’s wicker rocker. This is the rocker that my mother sat in when she had to stay off her feet during the last 3 months of her pregnancy with me, so I suppose it’s natural that it’s such a comfortable place for me to stitch. The chair sits in a bay window in our “wicker parlor”, and there is plenty of light for stitching at any hour of the day.
When the weather permits though, my VERY favorite place to stitch is on our front porch swing.
Do you use the stick and stab technique, or a sewing stitch?
I am a “sticker-stabber”. I have never been able to stitch “in hand”, because my hands cramp easily. Also, I like to keep my linen very taut, so I use wooden hoops almost all of the time, although with smaller projects I occasionally use Q-Snaps.
What is your favourite period of sampler-making and why? Which designs appeal to you the most? (e.g. Scottish needlework, certain stitches, colour schemes, animal motifs, houses, figures, Quaker style, etc)
I don’t think I can choose one favorite period of samplers. I love the elaborate band samplers from the 17th century. But I am also drawn to early to mid-19th century marking samplers and other simple samplers stitched by girls from working-class families. I suppose that is because I can relate to these girls, being from a working-class family myself. As for motifs, I’ve never met a sampler motif that I didn’t love. Well, that is, except for tombstones and the like. And I don’t care for morbid sampler verses. I like my sampler verses to “always look on the bright side of life”, to borrow a quote from one of my favorite movies.
Has working with reproduction samplers given you any new insight into the lives of the girls and women in the 17-18-19th centuries that you did not realize before?
Yes, it most certainly has done. In addition to being a sampler fanatic, I have been fascinated with history since I was a small child; particularly the history of individuals, their families, their everyday lives, etc. The logical progression of that interest was for me to become involved in genealogy research, which I have been doing almost obsessively since 1968 when my first son was born.
Once I began buying antique samplers, it was natural for me to want to research the families of the little girls who stitched them. Some of them are nearly impossible to research, but I have been incredibly lucky with a few. I even located a descendant of Mary Hannah Gipson, one of my sampler stitchers, and he sent me a photograph of her. It was so exciting to see what she looked like as an adult and to try to visualize what she might have looked like as a child stitching her sampler in 1836.
|Mary Hannah Gipson|
Original Sampler and my Reproduction
This sampler has a special place in my heart, because I was able to find so much information about Mary Hannah and her family.
|Mary Hannah Gipson, ca 1887, taken|
one year before she passed at the age of 60.
What aspect(s) of working with early textiles appeals to you the most? Have you had any formal education in textiles?
I’ve had no formal education in textiles; however, as a child I learned a lot about art and crafts from my remarkable mother. She was an accomplished artist and craftswoman. Before her marriage she studied at the Art Institute in Chicago. Beginning in my earliest childhood, Mom gave me a basic background in art—color, perspective, etc. She didn’t specifically set out to teach these things to me, sometimes it seems as if I just absorbed them from being around her. As far as samplers and counted-thread embroidery, though, I’m pretty much self-taught.
Why do you find antique samplers appealing? Do you collect antique samplers? Apart from samplers do you collect anything else?
Yes, I began collecting antique samplers, about 15 years ago, primarily for the purpose of charting and reproducing them. And I do have several other collections. I’m a compulsive collector, and I have to watch myself or I’ll start a new collection at the drop of a hat. One of my favorites is my collection of over 100 child-sized German steins, many of which have fairy tale themes. I love gnomes and other fanciful beings. I have a collection of gnomes by Stephen Herrero and also some by Tom Clark. Within my Tom Clark collection is a group of sweet little stitching-related gnomes who all wear thimbles for hats.
What other types of hand work do you enjoy?
When I was about 10 or 11 years old, I learned to knit from that same old Coats & Clark Learn How book. I started out knitting scarves, mittens and hats, and later I enjoyed knitting afghans as well as baby clothes and sweaters for my sons. Occasionally I will still get the urge to knit something—I’m back to hats and scarves again.
I didn’t learn to crochet until I was 27 and expecting my second son. There was a pattern in a magazine for a sort of hippie-looking baby bunting in the bright colors of that era. It was such a welcome change from the baby pastels that I taught myself to crochet in order to make it for my son. But once I discovered counted thread embroidery in the early 1970’s that took up most of my time.
Any guilty secrets to confess? (e.g leave tails on the back, drink tea or coffee whilst stitching, let your cat sleep on your work, etc)
I freely confess to using “Fray Check” to keep my linen edges from unraveling. If I had to overcast my linen edges, I’d never get any stitching done! I always cut off the edges before having a piece framed, so I’m not concerned about any damage to my samplers.
What has been your worst needlework disaster? (Loss, stains, holes)
Once I joined a sampler round robin, and we were supposed to stitch our own border before sending the sampler along to the next person. I was about 3/4 done stitching my queen-stitch strawberry border when I noticed an annoying “slub” in the middle of the linen. Instead of leaving well enough alone, I picked it out, and in the process broke a vertical linen thread. I tried weaving in a new thread from the edge of the linen, but the threads kept breaking. After several tries I gave up, bought a new piece of linen and started all over again. Now when I see a slub I either pick it out before I start stitching on the linen, or I leave it alone!
If your house was on fire and you could only save one sampler which would you choose and why?
I’m afraid that if my house were on fire, the samplers would perish, because I’d be too busy saving family heirlooms and photos—after my family and the cats, of course. If there were any extra time, I’d probably grab Mary Hannah Gipson, because she’s closest to the front door.
Am I the only one who forgets that her glasses are on top of her head?
If my glasses were on top of my head, I couldn’t function, because I’m blind as a bat without them!
I hope you have enjoyed this in depth interview with Fran. Her stitching is beautiful and inspirational! Thank you so much, Fran, for giving us the chance to learn more about you. I feel like I am sitting there with you on that beautiful porch! If you would like to keep up on Fran’s stitching endeavors visit her blog at C Street Samplerworks.