59 School Street, Box 1310, Edgartown MA 02539 - 508.627.4441
Martha's Vineyard Museum MV Museum



Avis Athearn

Tisbury, Massachusetts

Linen, silk threads, mica, paint

Gift of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Martha's Vineyard Chapter

In an era when sewing was not a hobby but an essential skill for a woman to possess, girls began their training at an early age. Tiny fingers, good eyesight, and the guidance of a patient teacher helped a girl to master the skills that she would need later in life, when she kept a household of her own.

Samplers are the beautiful evidence of such training. They were usually made at girls' schools, and sometimes the school can be identified from the design of the sampler. Unfortunately, we do not know where or from whom Avis Athearn of Tisbury received her training, but her sampler shows that by age twelve she had learned her lessons well. She could cross-stitch numbers as well as upper- and lowercase letters in block and cursive alphabets, satin-stitch flowers and vines, and use a variety of stitches to render a complex pattern showing a large building and yard.

Sometimes the scenes in samplers represented the school the child attended, and other times they were adapted from engraved prints. Usually the teacher drew the underlying pictures and letters onto the linen for the pupil to embroider. The verses chosen usually conveyed a moral lesson about faith and mortality.

Samplers like this one show how an object can be well loved and respected, yet suffer deterioration over time. Exposure to sunlight while it was proudly displayed on the wall in Avis's parents' house caused the bright colors to fade. Then the cloth was removed from its frame and folded into quarters; the damage from the folds can still be seen. The silk floss that formed the letters of the verse was dyed brown with a corrosive dye probably made from black walnuts. It ate through much of the thread and left its mark on the linen.

Avis Athearn married James Jones ten years after she worked this sampler. She died at age fifty-six and was buried in West Tisbury.