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A Convivial Afternoon of Embroidery

Scene from Jamestown TV series

Scene from the “Jamestown” TV series

“Could there possibly be a better way for a woman to spend her day?” Joselyn (married to the Virginia Company Recorder) sarcastically replies to the governor’s wife in Episode 4 of the “Jamestown” TV series. She had just been invited by Lady Yeardley to join a group of women in “a convivial afternoon of embroidery.” We, of course, don’t know if women in the early colony were truly able to spend hours engaging in such a genteel art. There are no surviving records or examples of stitchery to tell us so, even though we do know there were women present in the settlement who were skilled in needlework. Among the “maids” sent by the Virginia Company in 1621 to be married to the “most honest and industrious planters” are those described to be “good with thread and needle.” Some, such as Ann Tanner, Audry Hoare and Susan Binx, are specifically identified as being skilled in blackwork—monochrome embroidery using black silk on a white background—or, like Ann Harmer, are able to sew “all manner of workes golde.” A Company ban on gold-embellished clothing for all but the colony’s elite meant that Ann’s specialized sewing skills may have been wasted at Jamestown. Nevertheless, proficiency in needlework was part of a proper young woman’s education—a marker of her upbringing and, therefore, especially important to the Company which was searching for “younge, handsome and honestly educated Maides” for its colony.

The skill sets reflecting the “good bringinge up” of the prospective wives selected by the Company were recorded in a set of documents known as the Ferrar Papers. Pages from these documents, which include biographical details such as ages, birthplaces and social statuses, will be part of the Jamestown Settlement’s special exhibition opening in November 2018: “TENACITY: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia.” The exhibition will introduce visitors to the 56 women sent to Virginia as potential wives by the Virginia Company in 1621. This will be the very first time these important papers from the collections of Magdalene College, Cambridge, are exhibited in the United States. The inked names, with smudges from more than one hand, are tangible and compelling links to the lives of early Jamestown women who hoped that life in Virginia would offer them more than what they faced in England. “TENACITY” will look at the reasons for their brave decisions to leave the society that they knew, in order to venture into a completely new life, and the realities they faced upon reaching Virginia’s shores. Enhancing the gallery visitors experience will be a touchscreen computer interactive that will further explore the Ferrar Papers and the personal profiles of the women within its pages.

So, how did most women spend their days in the early colony? Because of their status, individuals like Joselyn and Lady Yeardley may have spent parts of their days in the colony differently from the rest of their gender. But for all of the women, life was more complex than the ones they led in England. Unmarried women were placed in households as servants and married women were expected to supplement their husbands by working alongside them in the fields and/or organizing the labor of the household servants. Chores typically involved washing and mending clothes, preparing meals, tending gardens and livestock, raising the children, and producing butter and cheese. Women also served asmidwives and health keepers, which involved distilling both herbal remedies and alcoholic substances.

“TENACITY” will present these gendered experiences through known biographies and objects—including 17th-century embroidered samplers and clothing—representing these women’s lives both before and after arriving in Virginia. One can only hope that embroidery projects, such as the one suggested by Lady Yeardley to Jocelyn, could have been possible in early Virginia. It would have provided the women with an opportunity to share experiences and build the support system that would help guide them through a world that considered women inferior to men physically, intellectually, morally and spiritually.

Bly Straube
Curator, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

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