Made by a Child: A Sampler of Siblings’ Names Stitched in 1778.

An exhibition catalogue of eighteenth-century embroidery would probably pass by this small sampler, which records information about a family in the English Midlands 1767-1787, just purchased for Cotsen. It is simply a list of names enclosed in a narrow, simple border unaccompanied by alphabets, mottoes, architecture, birds, and swirling vines in more bravura examples designed by school mistresses for their pupils.

Joan Oughton, the dexterous young needlewoman, signed at the bottom so posterity would know that she lived in Birmingham and finished the piece in 1788.   She used just three stitches–outline, cross, and tent—and a quiet and harmonious palette of blue-gray, black, gold, and silver silk thread on linen.  The tiny stitches are so regular that the embroidered words and numbers are beautifully legible.  It  lacks the name of a teacher or school, an indication that she worked it as part of lessons to master plain and ornamental needlework, an key component of girls’ education.

Perhaps Joan sewed it as  a  memorial to her sisters and brothers, similar to writing out family members’ names, dates of birth and of passing on a blank leaf in the family Bible. Her mother was almost continually pregnant between 1766 and 1786, bearing eleven children, seven of whom survived infancy.   Joan’s brothers were Thomas Smith, who lived only a week in June 1767, James Harwick born in 1779, Samuel in 1781, and Timothy in 1783.  The oldest girl Elizabeth was born in 1768, Maria, in 1770 and passing away at age eight,  Harriet in 1772, Joan in 1773, Catherine in 1774, Ann who was alive the summer of 1778.  The last girl was a second Maria born in 1786 and living eleven months later. The detail below shows the lines for the first Maria, Harriet, Joan, Catherine, and Ann.

Using Joan’s record of her brothers and sisters, I tracked down very promising candidates for their parents in Ancestry Library (there was no family tree that brought all these Oughtons together as related).  Christopher Oughton was the brood’s father.  Son of Timothy Oughton, he was born April 14th, 1747, and baptized in Lichfield, Staffordshire.  His wife was a Maria, but her maiden name and the date of their union didn’t seem to be documented.

How Christopher support his growing family?  Birmingham directories of tradesmen list a Christopher Oughton at   How did Christopher support his growing family?  Luckily he can be found in Birmingham directories of tradesmen between 1751 and 1775 at fashionable 22 Church Street as a peruke maker–a more elegant term for someone who makes wigs.  Someone in this line of work frequently also cut and dressed hair, sold perfume and pomades, etc.  Christopher added a second, more unusual line of work around 1785—that of pawnbroking.

Joan’s somber tribute to her brothers has proven to be a little piece of family history worked on linen and a very welcome–and unusual–addition to Cotsen’s small group of samplers among the textiles.