Remember Me: Discursive Needlework and the Sewing Sampler of Patty Bartlett Sessions

By Dearing, Stacey | Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

Remember Me: Discursive Needlework and the Sewing Sampler of Patty Bartlett Sessions


Dearing, Stacey, Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought


In her diary entry for March 20, 1848, Patty Bartlett Sessions (1795-1892) recorded an unusual note: she had begun to work on her sewing sampler, an item she had not touched for thirty-eight years. She writes simply, "commenced to finish my sampler that I began when I was a girl and went to school."1 Traditionally, decorative embroidery samplers both showed a young woman's mastery of needlework and indicated that she was prepared for a genteel marriage.2 Since sewing samplers were usually created by unmarried girls, in 1812 Patty Bartlett put away her unfinished sampler when she married twenty-two-year-old David Sessions.3 While she had begun her sampler as a sixteen-year-old girl in Maine, Sessions did not finish her sampler until she was fifty-four years old and living in the Utah territory, where she had settled as an early member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which she joined in 1833.4 For Sessions, as with many girls who learned embroi dery, the sewing sampler was a socially acceptable site of self-expression where opinions and feelings could be depicted and displayed.5 Through samplers, women like Sessions were able to sew their own approbation or dissent without rendering themselves vulnerable to public censure. In other words, samplers function as a circumspect site for testing ideas as well as stitches and patterns.

Recently, scholarship on sewing samplers has become significantly more popular; each successive article encourages future scholars to both recover extant needlework and to more closely examine already discovered artifacts. In 1989, Rozsika Parker argued that scholars should read samplers as works of art rather than as mere crafts. Since then, scholars have increasingly analyzed needlework, including Sessions's sampler, as artistic works, discursive texts, and/or rhetorical objects.6 Thus far, criticism of Sessions's needlework has largely fallen into two camps: first, Sessions's biographer, Donna Smart, reads the sampler alongside Sessions's extant diary, viewing the artifact primarily as a memento. Second, feminist scholars, including Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Aimee E. Newell, have employed a material culture framework to read the sampler as a discursive text recording Sessions's life and interests. This essay argues that, in addition to being a memento and serving as a repository of her interests and lessons, Sessions's sewing reveals how she adapted generic sewing patterns to create more personal and idiosyncratic expressions of self. Sessions's sampler, among other things, expresses her dissatisfaction with her marriage. After she and her husband David converted to Mormonism, he took two additional wives; he was married to Rosilla Cowen from 1845-1846, then to Harriet Teaples Wixom from approximately 1849 until his death in 1850. By manipulating marriage motifs, Sessions expresses her frustration with her husband's frequent absences, inattention, and plural wives. As a result, the sampler records some of the growing pains caused by polygamy in the early LDS Church. Moreover, the sampler-which depicts a hierarchy of values that prioritize hard work-also establishes the pride Sessions felt at being the primary source of income for her family. By focusing on the symbolism in Sessions's embroidery, this essay makes a case for recognizing the manifold interpretive possibilities posed by symbolic needlework. In other words, it is the sewing itself, not just the circumstances of its construction, that makes her sampler meaningful.

Many of the features of Sessions's sampler initially appear to be conventional motifs; however, this does not mean her sampler is without interesting significance. Many young women, including Sessions, employed well-known sampler conventions in order to compose meaningful embroideries. Common motifs on Sessions's sampler include borders, five lines of brightly colored alphabets and numbers in print and cursive, a couple dressed in wedding garb, flowers, trees, and animals, including a dog, horse, rooster, and deer or hart. …

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