The Word Became Thread And Was Stitched Among Us: Embroidering Literacy & Identity In Early North America & The British Isles

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Feminine material culture
Material literacy
Stitched Text
United States History
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Salvesen, Kelsey

Many women in North America and the British Isles in the eighteenth century and into the first half of the nineteenth did not leave behind much in the way of texts. Young girls were even less likely to leave manuscript or print traces. What they did leave—and self-consciously curate—were needlework objects, many of which bore embroidered inscriptions, dedications, and a mix of copied and invented verse that I refer to as stitched text. Stitched text opens a window into the spiritual and mental worlds of girls and women as they engaged in gendered forms of material and literary self-fashioning. One particularly pervasive genre of needlework, the sampler, was fundamentally intertwined with the education of girls in this period. The objects have often been treated as reducible to folk art or educational aids, when in fact samplers constituted a much broader genre. These were self-consciously curated archives of girls and women’s lives—and ones that we can read more literally than other textile objects, in that many contained some kind of stitched text. Through their very ubiquity, samplers offer a legible, gendered canon of girls’ and women’s textile authorship and publication in early America and the British Isles. The nature and process of needlework, as well as the gendered expectations surrounding it, afforded girls and women space to process their thoughts in a material fashion. Samplermaking was a lengthy task and, in themselves, the countless hours spent meticulously stitching provided a societally acceptable venue for girls and women to stitch spaces into existence through which and in which they could make known their thoughts, grapple with their identities, and attempt to situate themselves in this world and the next. Stitchers also marshalled their samplers as legal documents; inscribed the objects with bequests as unofficial wills; and circulated their words and work around the globe as part of fundraising networks. In the creation and subsequent display and circulation of the work of their hands, girls and women not only crafted their own literary canon, but forged ties with family, friends, and broader communities of faith, nation, and empire.

Daniel K. Richter
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