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. 

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

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 

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

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.

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

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

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.

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

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 

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

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

Tri-Cities Historical Museum
Akeley Building 

200 Washington Ave

Grand Haven, MI 49417


Community Archives & Research Center

14110 172nd Ave

Grand Haven, MI 49417

616-842-0700 ext. 200

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