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Embroidery has long been considered a “feminine” art. In the 1700s and 1800s, learning embroidery was a sign of a higher social class since not everyone could afford to spend time stitching for decoration. 


Girls began learning how to embroider from an early age. They practiced their stitches on scraps of fabric, eventually putting together a “sampler” that showed off all they had learned. Samplers displayed letters and patterns. This showed that the girl was educated as well as creative. 

A black and white historical photograph that was taken around the year 1907. The image shows the interior of a classroom in the old Akeley Institute in Grand Haven. There is sunlight streaming through four windows. There are approximately 12 young girls of various ages seated throughout the room. They are seated at desks very close together and appear relaxed. They are all in the midst of a sewing class and are holding their projects (fabric and needles) in their hands. They are dressed in early 1900s daytime clothing of middling quality and fashion. Their hair is up in a fashionable “Gibson girl” style, some with large bows.

Some girls learned to stitch at home with their mothers. Others, learned in schools. The girls in this photograph were students at the Akeley Institute, a finishing school in Grand Haven. Sometimes it is possible to identify whether a girl attended a particular school to learn embroidery based on the style of her sampler. 

Unidentified Girls in a Sewing Class at the Akeley Institute 
C. 1907

Photograph of a sampler on display in the exhibit. The sampler is square in shape and framed in a gold and blue wooden frame. The fabric of the sampler is unbleached, woven linen that has become stained and discolored in patches over time. The color of the thread used to stitch the sampler has faded over time and appears to be primarily blue and off-white. But there are areas that suggest some of the thread used to be red. The bottom half of the sampler is taken up with floral designs, and the top has stitched letters. The first line of letters appears to be a lower case alphabet. The second line is a string of upper case letters. Some letters are unintelligible, but that which is legible reads, “NSBOUDS21AAR.” The third line is an alphabet in upper case letters. A smaller, fourth line reads, “I 678910,” and has stitched crowns on either side. Notably, there is no letter “j” in either of the alphabets.

It is difficult to pinpoint the year in which this sampler was stitched since the artist did not sign with the date. One clue we have to solve this mystery is a missing letter “j.” The letter “j” is one of the newest additions to the Latin alphabet and was not in common usage before 1820. 

C. 1810s
Embroidery on linen 

Photograph of a sampler on display in the exhibit. The sampler is a long, thin, rectangular shape, 7.5 inches wide, 17 inches tall. It is framed with a light blue silk matboard border about 2 inches wide all around and a dark wooden frame. The sampler is stitched on an unbleached open-weaved fabric that has turned brown over time. It has stitched lines in different patterns and colors at the top. Then an alphabet stiched followed by numbers 1-14. The first line of text after the numbers is indecipherable because the thread has faded. Continuing down is a block of text stitched in red, white and green that reads, “Let me O God my / Labor SoemPly tha/ I a ComPetency may/ enjoy I ask no more than my life S wants / SuPPly and leave W / Their due mothers / when I die / 1824 / Jane Corlett Workt” [sic]. At the bottom is a design of trees and flowers with birds. In between the trees and flowers are the initials “JC.”

This sampler features traditional designs, an alphabet, and a religious passage. The unique spellings of the stitched passage may indicate her level of education, a lack of standardized spelling at the time, or regional spellings from the Isle of Man where Corlett lived. This sampler was passed down to Jane’s granddaughter, Eleanor Kermode.

Jane Corlett
Embroidery on fabric

Photograph of a sampler on display in the exhibit. The sampler is nearly square in shape, framed in a dark wooden frame. The sampler is 16 inches wide and 16.5 inches tall. At the top of the sampler is stitched the name, “Eleanor Kermode” in all capital letters, each letter in a different color. Below her name, Eleanor stitched different designs of flowers in baskets and planters. The largest design is of a multi-colored rooster. Below the rooster are two small birds that face each other with a small flower between them. The floral designs are similar to the sampler stitched by Eleanor’s relative, Jane Corlett, 60 years before. Below the birds, Eleanor stitched, “aged 12 years / 1882 / Lynauge.” The 2 in 1882 is missing the bottom line, but 1882 best fits the established timeline of Eleanor’s life. Below the text are additional stitched flowers in planter designs. Overall the sampler is made with colorful wool thread on a wide weave fabric.

Eleanor Kermode stitched this sampler the same year she immigrated from the Isle of Man to Grand Haven. She commemorated this event by stitching this design with her name, age, date, and the name of her hometown, Lynauge. Like many immigrants, Kermode was keen to remember her heritage.

Eleanor Kermode
Embroidery on fabric

A historical black and white photograph taken around the 1890s, judging from the hair and clothing style of the subjects. Two young women sit close together, the young woman on the right is arranged slightly in front of the young woman to the left with their shoulders overlapping. They’re expressions are relaxed, and they are not smiling (common in the 1800s) They are dressed in 1890s style dresses with poofy sleeves and high collars around their necks. The woman on the left is Cora Barnett Plumley. Her clothes and hair are more elaborate than the woman to the right (Eleanor Kermode). Eleanor’s style is fashionable but simple.

Eleanor “Nellie” Kermode (on the right) was proud of her roots in the Isle of Man. But she came to embrace her new home in Grand Haven. She married Thomas Kiel and became a beloved member of the community. Her daughter, Bertha worked to preserve Nellie’s memory by donating her and her grandmother, Jane Corlett’s samplers to the Tri-Cities Historical Museum. 

Portrait of Cora (Barnett) Plumley and Eleanor Kermode
C. 1890s

Photograph of a pattern sampler on display in the exhibit. Unlike the other samplers, this one does not have any letters, numbers, or alphabets stitched on it. The square-shaped sampler has small rectangular swatches of different patterns stitched on it. The patterns are stitched in colorful, wool thread. The patterns include stripes, herringbone, diamonds, and triangles.

Samplers like this one served a functional purpose rather than a decorative one. Instead of a carefully designed layout of borders and letters, the artist used the space to stitch swatches of patterns and left it unsigned. It is likely then, that this sampler was saved for sentimental reasons.

Eleanor Kermode
Embroidery on fabric

Photograph of an embroidery sampler on display in the exhibit. This square-shaped sampler is simple in design. It consists of a cross-stitched alphabet in capital letters stitched in red thread. Below the alphabet are swatches of different patterns scattered irregularly over the surface of the unbleached woven cloth. The pattern swatches are mostly stitched in red and white thread, but there are two swatches stitched in blue and white thread on the lower left side of the sampler.

Not all samplers were highly decorative. This sampler was made by Henrietta Kiel when she was about 11 years old. It could have been made as practice for a later sampler, or perhaps Henrietta was not very interested in embroidery.

Henrietta Kiel
C. 1890
Embroidery on fabric

A sepia-toned historical photograph taken around 1894. The image shows a young Henrietta Kiel (in her early teens) seated in a small cart that is being pulled by a goat. They are stationary on a residential sidewalk, posing for the photograph. She is wearing a white dress typical of young girls in the 1800s. The goat has light-colored hair and is standing still. The goat is wearing a bridle and Henrietta is holding the reins and looking at the camera. Standing next to the cart is Fannie DeKiep, who is similar in age. She is wearing a white dress with a dark-colored sailor-style kerchief around the neckline. Both girls have their hair up and are looking at the camera. Behind them is a white picket fence and a yard with a house with light-colored wooden siding. On the front steps of the house is a collection of metal wire birdcages.

C. 1894

This image is of Henrietta Kiel (seated in the cart) next to Fannie DeKiep around the time she embroidered the sampler in our collection. She was the daughter of Albert Kiel, a Dutch immigrant and prominent businessman in Grand Haven. Her brother, Thomas Kiel married Eleanor “Nellie” Kermode. 

A black and white historical studio portrait photograph of Henrietta Kiel taken around 1905. Her head and shoulders are visible against a plain, dark backdrop. She is wearing a white dress with a high collar. There are several layers of flounces across the bodice and shoulders. Henrietta looks slightly off to the left of the camera and has a relaxed but unsmiling expression on her face. She wears no makeup (as is typical of the fashion at this time) and her straight, blond hair is parted in the center and pulled back and fastened at the nape of her neck with a white hair bow.

C. 1905

The second image shows Henrietta Kiel around the age of 26. Many women her age at that time would have been married already. Instead, Henrietta attended Muskegon Business College and worked as a secretary. She eventually married James Edgar Lee in 1934 at the age of 55.


Samplers included a stitched bible verse or motto that showed that the artist had a good, moral upbringing. This was another important marker of social class in the 1800s.


As she grew up and married, she would use her needlework skills to decorate items around the home. She might also create hanging wall art that, like the sampler, often displayed a religious phrase or motto. 


Most embroidery art in the 1800s was meant to decorate the artist’s own home. While there were many talented embroidery artists at this time, embroidery was seen as a domestic art, not fine art.

Photograph of a piece of embroidery on display in the exhibit. It appears to be an embroidered bookmark in a frame. The bookmark is a long and narrow strip of off-white fabric on which is an embroidered design of pink flowers and green leaves. There is a stitched white border around the edge with small loops on each corner. The bookmark is framed against a blue background with a light-colored mat border about 2 inches around. The whole piece is framed in a wooden frame.

Embroidery was used for more than samplers. This piece may have originally been made to be a bookmark. Part of the Victorian ideal for women learning to embroider was that they would then use their skills to decorate all sorts of items around the home.

Embroidery on fabric

Photograph of a piece of embroidery on display in the exhibit. The piece is a long, horizontal rectangular wall hanging. The background is black perforated cardboard, and it is stitched with the phrase “Scatter Smiles” in elaborate gothic-style letters surrounded by flowers. The design is stitched in what appears to be a color palette of whites, golds, and light browns. It is possible that some of the thread has faded over time. The piece is framed with a dark, wooden frame.

By the late 1800s, companies began selling mass-produced embroidery kits with designs printed on perforated cardboard. Catalogs were filled with different designs to choose from with common phrases such as, “Home Sweet Home.” This design with the phrase, “Scatter Smiles,” is based on a Sunday School song from the 1880s called, “Scatter Smiles as You Go.” 

Embroidered “Scatter Smiles” Motto
C. 1880s
Embroidery on cardboard

 Photograph of an embroidered wall hanging on display in the exhibit. The piece is 19 inches wide by 15 inches tall. The background is brown perforated cardboard. The phrase, “God Bless Our Home” is stitched in a gothic-style script in variegated red to white thread. Below the motto is an image of a farmhouse that is white with a dark-colored roof. Upon closer inspection, the roof has not been stitched and is the original printed design on the cardboard. Windows are stitched in a light blue, and the grass is green with two trees, two dark-colored pathways leading from the house, and a well in the back. Below the house, the artist stitched the date, 1880. The piece is framed in a wooden frame.

This “do it yourself” embroidered wall hanging kit was one of the most popular designs in the 1880s. The religious phrase and the idealized image of a farmhouse gave an impression of middle-class respectability. Interestingly, this kit was not completed. The printed design on the cardboard background is visible where the roof should be stitched. 

Embroidered “God Bless Our Home” Wall Hanging 
Embroidery on perforated cardboard

Modern Embroidery Art

Modern-day embroidery about fun and personal expression. Like the Victorians, modern embroidery artists use their skills to decorate household items or make wall hangings. But instead of bible verses, artists today might stitch quotes from their favorite TV show. Some might stitch funny or irreverent phrases. These works playfully reference the Victorian tradition of mottos while going against the original intent. 


Though still mostly used as a personal hobby, some artists sell patterns and finished work in shops or online. By selling their work, embroidery artists want the public to see their work as equal to other art forms.

Photograph of an embroidered wall hanging on display in the exhibit. The piece is stitched on a wide, rectangular piece of stiff blue fabric. An image of the old train depot building that served as the site for the Tri-Cities Historical Museum is cross-stitched on the blue fabric. It is a short but wide building, one story tall. The side of the building is tan-colored to represent the tan bricks. There are three entryways with round, arched doors. There are seven windows with similarly arched openings. The roof is dark-colored and shaped like a trapezoid. A white cloud is stitched above the right side of the building and a group of seven small birds appears to be flying above the left side of the building. Below the building on the left side is stitched, “Tri-Cities Historical Society Museum,” and below the right side are the initials, “SB.” The piece is framed by a maroon-colored mat within a dark wooden frame.

It was fairly common for women in the 1700s and 1800s to stitch images of houses or public buildings. It was a way for the artist to express her civic pride and align herself with the values of the organization. This modern embroidered wall art is an updated version of a traditional style. 

Tri-Cities Historical Society Museum Embroidered Wall Hanging
C. 2000s 
Embroidery on fabric

Photograph of an embroidered wall hanging on display in the exhibit. It is circular in shape and features a design of a light and dark blue flower with light and dark green leaves, a short stem and a partially opened secondary flower with additional buds and leaves. The floral design is stitched on an unbleached fabric background and framed in a circular wooden frame.

At first glance, this piece by TCHM staff member, Judy Belkofer might be confused for a Victorian artifact. Some modern embroidery artists use traditional-looking designs either as a way to connect to the past or because they like how they look. 

Floral Wall Hanging
Judy Belkofer
Embroidery on fabric
On loan from Judy Belkofer 

Photograph of an embroidered wall hanging on display in the exhibit. The piece is a cross-stitched design of words related to Grand Haven in different colors and fonts with the words fitting together both horizontally and vertically, forming a geometric grid pattern. The words featured in the piece roughly from top to bottom, left to right are, “Grand Haven / musical fountain / Lake Michigan / summer / swimming / Coast Guard City USA / tennis / golf / sun / beach / fishing / dunes / sailing.” There are images of a rainbow, sun, lighthouse, fish, tennis racket, sailboat, and dunes with trees cross-stitched in between the words.

This modern embroidery piece reflects the tradition of civic pride by referencing specific locations around the artists’ home of Grand Haven. In a modern twist, this design features a variety of modern type-faces and a creative layout. 

Grand Haven Modern Sampler 
C. 2000s
Embroidery on fabric

Photograph of a three embroidered wall hanging on display in the exhibit. They are framed in three different sized wooden embroidery hoops. The largest piece is stitched on a background of a fabric with a yellow geometric pattern on a white background with a stitched design of a blue “police box” that is a type of phone booth. The police box has two tall and thin paneled doors, a base and a top that says “Police Public Call Box.” Stitched around the police call box are swirls of different colors. The middle-sized embroidery piece is stitched on fabric that is a gray geometric pattern on a white background with a stitched design quote that reads, “In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.” The words are stitched in different colors and the words “TIME, SPACE, and IMPORTANT” are emphasized in all capital letters. The smallest embroidery piece is stitched on a solid, navy blue background and features the text, “COME ALONG POND,” and a design of a bowtie.

Modern embroidery can be about anything. This set pays homage to the popular TV series, Doctor Who. A Victorian lady might stitch a bible verse to show her piety. In this case, the artist stitched quotes and images from the series to show that she and the recipient of the gift share an interest in pop culture.  

Doctor Who Embroidery Triptych
Anna Vos
c. 2013
Embroidery on fabric
On loan from Jen Vos

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