Beyond the Little X – An Interview with Marsha Parker of The Scarlet Letter!
We saved this month’s interview for the 24th Advent Day, a Christmas surprise for all of you. We get to hear Marsha’s story and learn how The Scarlet Letter began! After a year of us all sharing our love of Scarlet Letter samplers with well over 100 finishes we will now learn how Marsha was inspired to reproduce and create all of the beautiful samplers that we enjoy today.
|Entrance to The Scarlet Letter|
If my eldest sister hadn't asked me to stitch a stamped sampler from Johnson Creative Arts in 1977, The Scarlet Letter probably would never exist. I found the work tedious but, in the end, rewarding. My sister's request, while I was pursuing my Graduate degree, was interesting despite my mother's much earlier attempts to interest me in embroidering pillowcases. Before I was shipped off to an all-girl's college preparatory school, I spent a year suffering through an awful, under-funded public school system where my book report on Dante's Divine Comedy was dismissed as plagiarism and I was almost expelled. (My elder sister was reading this at university and shared it with me. I really did read it at age 13, and understood it well enough to write the fateful book report.)
There wasn't a wide choice of curricula for young girls then; it was "Home Economics" or nothing. Given the choice I would have chosen "Shop"- electronics, carpentry- but only boys were offered that option. So, I suffered through Home Economics, enjoyed cooking only because it was just before lunch half hour and we were all starving, didn't excel, and then failed miserably at sewing. The first project was a simple apron that I mangled. The second project was a skirt and blouse that we had to model at a fashion show for the entire school, and I basically looked like what you'd retrieve from a basket of laundry that hadn't been ironed in a decade. I have one of those upstairs, by the way.
Simply put, I was not born with the gift of sewing.
My sister's request to sew the stamped sampler eventually turned into an obsession. I must have stitched at least four "Chase" samplers before understanding that "stamping" was just not right. They looked odd, nothing like the antique samplers that I found in antique shops in the UK, when I moved there as a young bride. My first purchase was a pair of antique samplers executed by sisters, found in an antique shop in Summertown, North Oxford, near where I worked as an assistant picture editor at Elsevier Publishing, while studying as a university affiliate at Oxford (thanks to my ex husband, whose father was a don at Christchurch College).
Chapter Three – Q&A
How old were you when you first picked up a needle and who taught you to stitch?
I was eight years old when my mother practically forced me to embroider the image of a chipmunk "stamped" onto the sleeve of a pillow case. At the time it seemed cruel and I hated it. I deliberately did a bad job and the offensive pillowcase is now at the bottom of a landfill, I hope. However I am still using the same hoop that kept me in captivity for- what- maybe three days before the Revolution. I have used the same cork-lined metal hoop, with springs to adjust the tension, for every piece I have stitched since then. Maybe the Guinness Book of World Records would be interested in it, but unfortunately there is no documentation of its history, except my word.
What was the first sampler that you stitched?
The Chase. After four of those I started fiddling with my own designs. In Glee Krueger's book about American samplers I found a picture of one made by George Parker, and reproduced it. It's still hanging in one of the Parker houses in England- High Steps, in Charlbury, Oxfordshire.
What time of day do you stitch?
My stitching time is usually very late in the evening. During the day I'm busy with fielding phone calls, filling orders, farm chores, design, and cooking and caring for my Significant Other, Phil, who is disabled.
|Inside the Scarlet Letter workshop where orders are filled|
|A view outside the workshop|
Do you sit in a set place and what tools do you like to have on hand? Does everything have to be in a certain place in order for you to relax and concentrate on your work?
I have several favorite spots which include a cushy chair with low arms beside a window. I could never have accomplished this volume of work without using a sewing stitch, as opposed to "stick and stab"- which does come in handy sometimes. Having examined the back and front sides of hundreds of antique samplers I am not at all afraid of breaking the rules, the rules meaning what some teachers, as well as the EGA, consider sacrosanct. 95% of the antique samplers I've seen and reproduced were stitched randomly. The crosses don't always cross in the same direction. There are stitches that run three inches or more under the back. There are some exceptions but they are rare.
My goal at The Scarlet Letter is to make this art appealing to as many artisans as possible. Strict rules about stitching technique may discourage new people from starting. I was the anarchist in the beginning, and remain so today.
Do you use the stick and stab technique, or a sewing stitch?
What is your favourite period of sampler-making and why? Which designs appeal to you the most? (e.g. Scottish needlework, certain stitches, colour schemes, animal motifs, houses, figures, Quaker style, etc)
Anything colorful, funky, unusual appeals to me. This combination often appears in Scottish samplers before 1775, American before 1750, and English C17th and early C18th. I look for color and magical design. I adore anything with bargello work, queen stitch, all the really annoying stitches, but in the end it's worth the effort.
Has working with reproduction samplers given you any new insight into the lives of the girls and women in the 17-18-19th centuries that you did not realize before?
The obvious: they worked during daylight hours. Young eyes can stitch by candle light, but my opinion is that they stitched while the sun was shining. After dark they would have been preoccupied with chores. Upper class girls would be minding their manners at dinner. This question is beyond my knowledge.
What aspect(s) of working with early textiles appeals to you the most?
They are truly untouchable. If I dare to touch an antique sampler without gloves, and I confess that I have, I can almost feel the girl or woman who held it in her hands for months.
Have you had any formal education in textiles?
My formal education includes BA English Lit and Art History major, Beloit College: University Affiliate at Oxford, then MA at UW Madison English Lit and Education. Nothing textile-worthy. Entirely self-taught.
Do you collect antique samplers?
I don't collect antique samplers. I buy them, reproduce them, then sell them for what I paid. Here is the only antique sampler I have kept.
Apart from samplers do you collect anything else?
I used to collect animals but since my divorce in 2002 I had to cut down on the flock.
|One of many animals residing on the farm|
I have an inactive collection of Portuguese Palissy pieces, and some Sunderland Luster chamber pots and motto plates.
|Collection of Palissy ware|
I hoard heritage garden seeds and plant an enormous vegetable garden every year.
What other types of hand work do you enjoy?
I like to cook. I have studied in Italy and can make some pretty good stuff, at least according to my friends who like to eat it.
|Italian weavings and embroideries collected in Umbria|
We're not discussing hand work here, just other interests, and I am an avid scuba diver.
|With Phil in Honduras|
Any guilty secrets to confess? (e.g leave tails on the back, drink tea or coffee whilst stitching, let your cat sleep on your work, etc)
I have a lot to confess. I leave tails, because tails were left on the original samplers. My cats sleep on my work so every model has cat hairs incorporated into it. I scream when I discover a mistake and it has to be frogged (more often than not I will simply stitch over in the correct color). Tea makes me sick, so does coffee, but to date I have not spilled my cranberry juice onto my needlework.
What has been your worst needlework disaster?
Hang onto your chair, I have some needlework disasters that will curl your toes!
My dear friend Kathleen helps me sew samplers that I don't have time to finish before deadlines. She finished "Martha Willkins" and returned it via
UPS. It arrived here a week later, in two pieces,
with rubber marks scarred into both sides.
Apparently the UPS truck
tore the package apart, and rolled over the sampler, not once, but twice. Thanks UPS,
they paid up, but we went back to square one having to stitch a new model.
The second worst disaster was a long time ago, when Kath's youngest son Scott decided to finish the Family Register sampler. (It's not on the website now, but it's still available.) He saw her stitching the names, and when she left the room he took a ball point pen and inked in his name.
If your house was on fire and you could only save one sampler which would you choose and why?
If my house catches on fire, I will try to save my cats.
Am I the only one who forgets that her glasses are on top of her head?
This is a tough confession, but I have forgotten that my glasses are on my head. I am quite blind, so anyone who says she/he can't sew because of poor eyesight, nonsense. I stitch naked eyed.
Chapter Four – The Scarlet Letter Gallery
“Symmetry is calming,
but asymmetry is exciting.”
We all would not be here on this Scarlet Letter Year journey had Marsha not brought to life the hundreds of reproduction samplers that we are all stitching, enjoying, and sharing together. I hope you have all enjoyed hearing how it all began.
Thank you Marsha for sharing your story with all of us!
Wishing you all a wonderful holiday! xx