Painting with Needle & Thread


Canvas-work, Chandler family, Woodstock, 1758. Florence Griswold Museum. Private collection, photo: Stephen & Carol Huber

By Susan P. Schoelwer

(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Winter 2010/2011

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The emergence of pictorial art in Connecticut has traditionally been traced to the decade of the 1760s, when visiting painters such as Boston’s William Johnston or the elusive itinerant John Durand created portraits of the region’s leading families. Resident, Connecticut-born artists such as Winthrop Chandler, John Trumbull, and Ralph Earl did not begin their careers until the eve of the American Revolution. The graphic arts were even later to emerge in the state, with prints issued by engravers Amos Doolittle, Abel Buel, and Richard Brunton in the 1790s. Decades earlier, however, talented and skillful Connecticut women engaged in well-established traditions of creating imagery: assembling color, line, and iconography into visual compositions intended for display. Their canvases were covered not with pigments suspended in oil and applied with a brush, but with vividly dyed fibers applied with a needle.

Special exhibitions organized by two Connecticut museums provide a fresh look at the region’s early fiber arts. At the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford through March 26, 2011, Connecticut Needlework: Women, Art, and Family, 1740-1840 surveys the full range of colorful and distinctive needle arts produced in the state during those years: colonial canvas-work, quilting, and crewel-embroidered bed hangings; Revolutionary era bed rugs; elegant depictions of classical, religious, and memorial scenes embroidered in silk during the Federal era; early 19th-century family registers and white-work; and samplers. More than one hundred examples are illustrated and discussed in the accompanying catalogue, funded in part by generous grants from the Coby Foundation, Ltd., and the National Endowment for the Arts and distributed by Wesleyan University Press.

At the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme through January 30, 2011, With Needle and Brush: Schoolgirl Embroidery from the Connecticut River Valley features pictorial compositions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when young artists at burgeoning female academies produced scenes drawn from classical mythology, the Bible, Shakespeare, and popular literature, often based on print sources and sometimes executed in collaboration with professional artists. A catalogue is planned for release later in 2011.

Cushion cover, attributed to Elizabeth Gore Gager, probably made in London, c. 1637 – 1643. Metallic and silk thread on linen. The Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut

The needle arts arrived in Connecticut with the first clusters of English settlement. The earliest known example is a small embroidered panel (about the size of a potholder), its surface entirely covered with tiny stitches in expensive silk and metallic yarns. Likely made at an early 17th-century girls’ school in or near London, the panel evokes a secret, walled garden, bursting with boldly drawn flowers, grapes, peapods, and colorful birds. Originally a cushion cover, the panel was transformed, prior to 1744, into a two-dimensional work of art by being placed in a frame, under glass, to be hung on a wall for aesthetic enjoyment. Family tradition, recorded on the original backboard, attributed the work to Elizabeth Gore Gager, a London grocer’s daughter. She married John Gager (1625-1704) in Boston and moved with him to New London (1645), and then Norwich (1660). Preserved by Elizabeth’s female descendants in southeastern Connecticut, the panel exemplifies the vital importance of family networks in transmitting needlework skills and motifs (just as kinship-based workshop traditions organized training and production in such male trades as woodworking and metal-smithing).

Needlework scholars and feminist historians alike have portrayed needlework and academic studies as antithetical, echoing a sampler verse stitched in 1800 by a 10-year-old in Kent County, Delaware: “Patty Polk did this and she hated every stitch she did in it. She loves to read much more.” In colonial Connecticut, however, reading, writing, and needlework were more often intertwined than opposed, and the most accomplished needle-workers were frequently also among the most accomplished scholars. The 10 sisters of the preeminent colonial theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1750) were perhaps the best-educated American women of their time. At their father’s parsonage school in East (now South) Windsor, the sisters studied Latin, Greek, mathematics, logic, and natural philosophy, mastering these traditionally masculine subjects so successfully that at least one surviving essay was long attributed to brother Jonathan—until handwriting analysis identified its true author as Esther Edwards Hopkins (1695-1766). Like their mother Esther Stoddard Edwards (1672- 1770), the sisters attended Boston boarding schools, and surviving needlework testifies to their skill and artistry.

Throughout the colonial period, a small number of privileged Connecticut girls attended schools in Boston, where lessons in needlework and other artistic endeavors were available at least as early as 1687, as documented in letters written by Rev. Samuel Sewall (1652-1730). Faith Trumbull Huntington of Lebanon, the older sister of noted painter John Trumbull (1756- 1843), attended at least two Boston schools, one in 1754, at age 11, and another in 1761, at age 18. Their father, Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull (1710-1785), objected to painting as a career for his son, remarking skeptically: “You appear to forget sir, that Connecticut is no Athens.” In contrast, the elder Trumbull invested substantially in his daughter’s arts-based education and in displaying her work in stylish frames made in Boston and London. (According to Lynne Templeton Brickley, a scholar of early women’s education, a girl’s term at boarding school could cost three times more than a boy’s due to extra charges for materials and instruction in languages, music, needlework, and other arts.) [Read more about John Trumbull in “Picturing the Birth of a Nation,” Winter 2006/2007 and the Trumbulls in “The Trumbull Dynasty,” Fall 2010.]

left: Wedding shoes, attributed to Hannah Edwards Wetmore and Mary (Molly) Edwards, probably East (now South) Windsor, c. 1745/6. Silk and metallic thread on silk, linen, and leather. right: “Milking Scene,” attributed to Faith Trumbull Huntington, Boston, possibly at Elizabeth Murray’s school, probably 1754. Silk and metallic thread on silk, paint, and ink, 14 3/4 x 17 1/2 inches.
The Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut

Faith Trumbull Huntington’s pictures display a striking fluidity, deploying silk strands in long, irregular, and loosely worked satin stitches to imitate the brush work of paintings. Her technique corresponds to needle painting, popular in late 18th-century Britain, described by contemporaries as “so highly finished, that it has all the softness and Effect of painting.” Leading British practitioners of needle painting attracted large paying crowds to view embroidered pictures based on works by Grand Manner artists such as Poussin, Rubens, Raphael, Reynolds, and Gainsborough.

Faith’s “Milking Scene” offers a faithful rendition of a mid-17th-century Dutch engraving. In addition to giving the barefoot peasant women stockings and shoes and filling the head-basket with verdant flowers instead of market produce, her version enlarges the composition by about 40 percent and reorients it to a horizontal format. The outline, together with the painted faces and hands, may have been the work of a professional artist, given Faith’s youth and inexperience. However, the coloring and execution would have been her own contributions, and two further compositions demonstrate increasing independence. Conceived on a grander scale as four-foot-wide over-mantels (pictures intended to be hung in a conspicuous place of honor, over the fireplace), each combines elements from several print sources rather than copying a single model (itself a tried and true method of artistic training). According to her brother’s memoirs, Faith also learned drawing and possibly painting in oils, and her pictures, hung in the family parlor, served as his first artistic inspiration.

Underlining the close connection between needlework and academic education, a strikingly high proportion of Connecticut’s colonial needlework emanated from clerical families, stitched by the daughters, sisters, nieces, or granddaughters of ministers, the region’s social, political, and intellectual elite. Because New England ministers regarded learning as an aid to salvation, they were more likely than most contemporaries to encourage education for both sons and daughters (albeit not in equal doses). Women in clerical families also had access to larger than average libraries and opportunities to meet scholarly visitors who engaged in intellectual discussions. Needlework produced in non-clerical households, by contrast, frequently coincided with upward mobility, as daughters successfully advanced social standing by marrying into clerical families.

Crewel-embroidered bedcover, attributed to Elizabeth Swan Brewster, North Stonington or Preston, c. 1760-1770. Worsted wool yarn on undyed linen.
The Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut

Elizabeth (Betty) Foote Huntington of Colchester was a farmer’s daughter. During the early years of the Revolution, as the local economy boomed with sales of beef to the Continental Army, she created a boldly patterned bed rug featuring five oversized flowers springing from a two-handled vase, encircled by a wide border of undulating vines. Unlike many early textiles erroneously dubbed “homespun” by later generations, bed rugs actually were made from homegrown and homespun materials: a coarse wool blanket completely covered with fairly simple stitches using fat, homespun wool yarns (the better to retain heat). Too coarse for executing detailed motifs, these yarns necessitated large-scale, abstract patterns, resulting in a distinctive needlework form that flourished between 1770 and 1810, produced primarily in Connecticut and among Connecticut emigrants. Crewel-embroidered bed spreads and hangings, favored by needle-workers before the Revolution, displayed a fundamentally different aesthetic, with smaller, more delicate motifs executed in relatively small stitches using fine, imported crewel yarn (made from long-fiber worsted wool), with large expanses of unworked ground between motifs.

As the largest surface available for visual display in a domestic setting, bed furnishings represented the most ambitious compositions undertaken by needle-workers. The layout and execution of such expansive designs required considerable artistic skill and technical proficiency, as the maker of any mod- ern quilt can attest. Betty Foote Huntington’s accomplishment testifies to her aspirations for gentility and her artistic skills (she earned money by drawing quilting patterns for neighbors), but her choice of a homespun bed rug (rather than a crewel- embroidered spread) signals her solidly yeoman background— or possibly a patriotic avoidance of imported materials.

Sampler, Lydia Case, Mrs. Mansfield’s school, New Haven, 1791. Silk and metallic thread on linen, sequins.
The Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut

As a young adult Betty attended both day and night classes, intent upon becoming a teacher. She obtained a position in the neighboring town of Hebron, perhaps thereby demonstrating her suitability as a minister’s wife, for she shortly married Rev. David Huntington (1745 – 1812), the college-educated pastor in Marlborough, the next town over. Continuing Betty’s social rise, their son followed his father to college and the ministry.

Another talented scholar-artist, Mary Fenno Mansfield, is credited as the teacher responsible for elaborate pictorial samplers produced in New Haven in 1791. The daughter of a Middletown innkeeper (her mother descended from the town’s leading clerical and merchant families), Mary achieved an education by studying with Rev. Elizur Goodrich (1734-1797), a distant cousin and minister at the neighboring town of Durham. Conversant in ancient languages and in French and Spanish, she was remembered by 19th-century Middletown historian William Chauncey Fowler, who undoubtedly knew her personally, as “the best educated lady in Middletown, and probably in the State. She was sensible as well as cultivated, high-spirited, and after her marriage transacted business to a considerable extent.” Mary’s husband, West Indies trader Henry Mansfield (1762-1805), hailed from a highly educated family that included prominent New Haven ministers, educators, and leading merchants.

Mansfield school samplers depict an imposing Georgian mansion house (possibly the teacher’s home, lauded by a later family historian as “one of the largest and handsomest Dwelling Houses” in New Haven). A pair of flanking trees, white fencing, and strolling figures of fashionably dressed men and women complete the landscape panel, executed with silk threads in flowing satin stitches. Just as paintings frequently display specif- ic elements adapted and rearranged from one image or school to another, so the Mansfield design incorporates features seen on Revolutionary-era samplers made in the Rhode Island towns of Newport, Providence, and Bristol. The New Haven version, in turn, proved extremely influential, adapted over the next 40 years in countless samplers made along the Long Island coastline, in Middletown (where Mary Fenno Mansfield returned, advertising classes from the early 1810s through the mid-1820s), and throughout the Housatonic and Naugatuck river valleys. Such creative borrowings, the stock in trade of visual artists everywhere, suggest the degree to which the needle-workers established their own design vocabulary, ultimately drawn from, but transmitted semi-independently of, the networks linking painters and printmakers.

Production of samplers rose dramatically after the 1790s as decorative needle-working spread beyond elite circles of better- educated clerical, professional, and merchant families into the households of skilled tradesmen, mill owners, tavern-keepers, and small shopkeepers. The opening of direct trade with China and the introduction of mechanized spinning made silks and other embroidery materials more affordable, while rising standards of gentility and increased interest in female education fueled the opening of numerous girls’ schools.

Bed rug, Elizabeth Foote Huntington, Colchester, c. 1778. Homespun wool yarn on undyed wool. The bold floral designs perpetuate decorative motifs handed down from 16th and 17th centuries.
The Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut

Eunice Ripley Scarborough (1782-1801) of Coventry may have attended a school, or she may have acquired her needlework skills through at-home instruction or apprentice- ship to older family members, previously the chief methods for transmitting such skills. The existence of embroideries by her sister and a step-cousin points to a family needlework tradition, possibly stretching back to Eunice’s great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Gore Gager. Eunice’s 1792 sampler incorporates a delightfully fresh variation on traditional pastoral imagery, replacing the usual courting couple with a single woman accompanied by six birds and a goat. With charming disregard for scale, the sampler depicts the woman and the tree as the same height, while the goat is no bigger than the largest of the birds. Despite the absence of a male figure, the theme centers on courting. Costume details signify the young lady’s gentility and attractiveness, while the position of the birds evokes a popular adage, articulated in a British folk ballad: “. . . For all other swains I care not a rush, One bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Few 18th-century American sampler makers were audacious enough to make an individual female the principal subject of a composition. Not until after 1800 do solo women appear as needlework subjects with any frequency—and then as allegorical figures such as Liberty or Solitude, as characters drawn from literature and the stage, or as weeping beauties in memorial pictures.

Three schools dominated needlework production in early 19th-century Connecticut: the Patten family school in Hartford, active from 1785 to 1825, the Litchfield Female Academy, oper- ated by Sarah Pierce from 1792 to 1833, and Lydia Bull Royse’s school, active in Hartford from 1799 to 1818. Students at these schools created elegant silk-embroidered pictures and coats of arms (which are explored further in the Florence Griswold Museum’s forthcoming publication). Turning away from the generalized pastoral motifs that dominated 18th-century Connecticut needle arts, these schools favored narrative scenes from the Bible, Shakespeare, and other literary works, doubtless reinforcing classroom readings. In 1810, Maria Bissell, a tavern- keeper’s daughter from what was then East Windsor, created “The Parting of Hector and Andromache,” probably at the Royse school. Maria’s 18-inch-high composition skillfully enlarges and adds color to its print source, a tiny black-and-white engraving (less than 6 inches high) published in an 1808 edition of the Iliad, Homer’s tragic tale of the Trojan War (a copy of which was owned by East Windsor minister Rev. Thomas Robbins, 1777- 1856). Teacher Lydia Royse is credited with the delicate and quite skilled painting of faces and hands, and she may also have provided the initial drawing of the scene. Other schools are known to have employed professional painters, often itinerants, to fill in the difficult features of faces and hands, thus echoing the kind of teacher-student or master-apprentice collaborations that were well established in artists’ studios.

left: Sampler, Mary Hine, Salem Bridge Parish (now Naugatuck), probably instructed by Mary A. Hotchkiss, 1832-33. Silk thread on linen. right: Sampler, Eunice Ripley Scarborough, Coventry, 1792-93. Silk thread on linen. The Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut

It is relatively easy to discern the artistic lineage of neoclassical pictures such as “Hector and Andromache,” with their identifiable literary and visual sources. Such explicitly quoted compositions are sometimes dismissed as mere copy-work, yet imitation is one of the essential, time-honored practices by which artists learn to be artists. Earlier, colonial works reference a different, but no less venerable and elevated, artistic tradition—that of the pastoral. Originated by Greek and Roman poets and revived by European writers and artists from the 16th century onward, the pastoral tradition celebrated the virtues and joys of an idealized rural life, embodied by shepherds and their sweethearts, lolling amidst bucolic landscapes. Few examples of Connecticut needlework articulate pastoral imagery as explicitly as Faith Trumbull Huntington’s “Milking Scene,” but almost all partake of its vocabulary, including courting couples, country houses, profusely blooming flowers, and gentle livestock. The emblematic birds and flowers of Elizabeth Gore Gager’s tiny panel offered an imaginative escape into a luxuriant garden; the more elaborate floral embroidered bed hangings of the 18th century provided the even more impressive delight of waking in an enchanted bower, with alluring possibilities of romantic love and blissful leisure. Through such creations, Connecticut needle-workers disseminated and domesticated elevated artistic and cultural traditions, long before painters arrived on the scene. 

“The Parting of Hector and Andromache,” Maria Bissell, probably at Lydia Bull Royse’s school, Hartford,1810. Silk floss and chenille yarn on silk, velvet appliqué, paint. The Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut

Susan P. Schoelwer is curator at George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Alexandria, Virginia. Previously, she was director of museum collections at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford. She is the author or editor of numerous publications about Connecticut history, arts, and material culture. She wrote “An 18th-Century View of the Stages of Life,” Hog River Journal, Summer 2009.

Portions of this essay are based upon the catalogue Connecticut Needlework: Women, Art, and Family 1740-1840 and are included here by courtesy of the Connecticut Historical Society. Purchase the catalogue at  


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