Friday, January 20, 2012

Betty Ring Samplers

To someone who aspires to the title "needleworker" the name Betty Ring is synonomous with "samplers".  She is, after all, the foremost authority on girlhood embroidered samplers.  Her landmark work Girlhood Embroidery: American Samplers and Pictorial Needlework 1650-1850 is a magnificent reference on the genre.  When I first obtained my copy almost 20 years ago, I spent countless hours leafing through the pages just looking at the pictures of samplers worked hundreds of years ago.  I marveled at the designs, some intricate and some quite simple, and the beauty of the stitching, all accomplished without electric light.  Many of the samplers were completed by girls younger than I was when I first put needle to fabric.

Betty Ring's own collection of samplers is now on display at Sotheby's New York in advance of its sale by auction this Sunday, January 22.  The exhibit/auction is entitled Important American Schoolgirl Embroideries: The Landmark Collection of Betty RingI was extremely fortunate in being able to visit the exhibit yesterday and all I can say is - WOW! There are more than 200 pieces in this exhibit and each one is a gem of its own.

Many of the needlework on display are "mourning pictures" which generally are embroidered on painted silk.  It is amazing to see the beauty of the stitches while realizing that girls and women undertook these as memorials for family members who had passed away, many of them babies and children.

Traditional samplers also abound and, since these are more to my taste than the mourning pictures, I was truly in heaven as I wandered the gallery soaking in the beauty.  These pieces range from simple Quaker designs to complex band samplers, from small pieces (about 6 inches by 4 inches) to large (34 inches by 28 inches).  I was awestruck by the accomplishments of all these women who had come before me.

This picture is one of the samplers on display.  I want to thank Emily Bergland in Sotheby’s Press Office for providing this image to me for use on this blog.

Lot 516
Fine and Rare Silk Embroidered Sampler, Abigail Prince,
Newburyport, Massachusetts, dated 1801, Abigail Prince
This piece is worked on a linen ground in silk and measures 15¼ inches by 21¾ inches.

If you are in the New York area and are as fascinated by samplers as I am, I highly recommend dropping everything and getting over there tomorrow.  The auction is scheduled for Noon on Sunday.  Perhaps this is your chance to own a piece of history.

By the way, there is an exhibition catalogue available.  I purchased mine in advance of the exhibit and so had it available while viewing the pieces.  The catalogue itself is a wonderful addition to my needlework reference library.  I am planning on pulling out my copy of Girlhood Embroidery along with the catalogue so that I can reacquaint myself with the stories of these wonderful pieces.

The catalogue is available through Sotheby's website.  Links are also provided to Betty Ring's Girlhood Embroidery Volumes I and II and American NeedleworkTreasures.

I'm going to close this post with two quotes from Colin Eisler's review of Girlhood Embroidery published in Magazine Antiques in September 1994.  "Only recently have art historians begun to appreciate the key role of the pictorial embroiderer - whether that of the individuals who stitched the Bayeux tapestry in the eleventh century or of Mary, Queen of Scots, in the sixteenth century."  He continues "After a century of snobbery, the decorative arts are seen, once agin, for what they are - the staff of life." 

How satisfying that our hobby, what we love to do, continues that history.


  1. I'd be there if I were "home". Will you be bidding on anything?

  2. No, I don't think I'll be doing any bidding.

  3. That is very interesting! Too bad I'm over 600 miles away, or I'd be there to see the exhibit. Thanks for sharing this. I'm glad to be part of the continuing of a historical artform/craft.

  4. How wonderful it would be to own one of these samplers. I suppose I can dream.

  5. I too went to see the exhibit, even though these samplers and mourning pictures aren't quite my style when it comes to needlework. That said, I can certainly appreciate history and research and was intrigued to eavesdrop in to conversations being had all around me. Glad to see your blogpost - I was looking for such posts, since it was because of the greater needlework internet community that I had heard of this exhibit/sale and thought that I "had" to take advantage of my location to go see it. Was curious to read others impressions. Thanks for sharing, Arlene

  6. Thanks for sharing. I too went to see the exhibit and was just trolling through the internet this morning, looking for blogposts with impressions.


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