Review of Stitching the World. Embroidered Maps and Women’s Geographical Education by Judith A. Tyner

Judith A. Tyner, Stitching the World. Embroidered Maps and Women’s Geographical Education, Surrey, England: Ashgate Studies in Historical Geography, 2015. 142 pages, ISBN 978-1-4094-2635-6

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Reviewed by Chiara Bernardi. Chiara holds a PhD from the Centre of Interdisciplinary Methodologies at the University of Warwick. She s currently undertaking her post-doctoral research and working as a master coordinator at the Ecole Polytechnique Federal de Lausanne (EPFL) in the Institute for Digital Humanities.

In 1800s, in both England and the United States, schoolgirls from a variety of socio-economic classes embroidered maps as well as terrestrial and celestial globes. Better known as samplers, these womens’ embroidery work was “[…] invariably made at school, dame schools and academies […]” (1) as part of their education. In Stitching the World. Embroidered Maps and Women’s Geographical Education, Judith A. Tyner takes on a unique challenge and traces, analyses and discusses the history of such works. In her rich history, she examines the processes that saw the growth and subsequent fall of samplers, “the making of the map”(3) and the need to understand their cartographic significance. As a consequence, the book opens the doors to stimulating questions such as gender biases in cartography, women’s education and a snapshot of the woman’s position in English and American societies in the 18th and 19th century.

As the reader learns throughout the book, most of the samplers “[…] generally attempted to imitate conventional maps […]” (36) and were considered part of young ladies’ “educational attainments” (19). Samplers appear to have been incorporated into “girls’ formal education” in the late 17th century, coinciding with the growth in popularity of geography (9), technological developments and the spread of expeditions to discover “[…] faraway places […]” (8).

Tyner also hints at the practical and everyday significance of needlework and of the samplers. As she highlights in the introduction, girls from all social groups would learn to do needlework. However, whereas for the poor having versatility with needlework, the alphabet and sampling was a practical expedient to work in wealthy households, for girls belonging to middle and upper classes samplers became indicators of social status and wealth. Although the alphabet and religious verses were also popular in those times, geography, chronology and needlework merged with, and emerged in, ladies’ education first in England, and later in the United States.

In her attempt to trace and bring to life needlework and its relation to geography and gender, Tyner undertakes the work of the cartographer, tackling issues with regards to mapping practices, women’s education in England and the nascent United Stated in the late 1700s and 1800s. She also addresses the patriarchal discourses of women’s education in geography, amongst other notable issues, to the end of “be(ing) (an) agreeable companion(s) for a sensible man”(69), effectively quoting Benjamin Rush, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.

The time of the map samplers coincided with the end of the enlightenment (7) and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Samplers were considered important elements to showcase ladies’ education and versatility in their embroidering of geography and chronology themes, all very popular at the time (9). However, despite some of the works produced showed spatial relationships (of which Tyner has included 46 plates as proof), these samplers have not been included in any cartographic works, or have received any systematic attention. (9; 103) Most of the samplers in the United Kingdom represented a variety of geographical areas in England and Wales, although world maps seem to be have been also quite popular, and maps of Ireland and Scotland much rarer. Instead, in America “[…] about an equal number of  of the world and maps of North America or Maryland, are found among the known maps […]”(37). Only a small number of samplers were found of New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia. Tyner also unveils a history of geography interlaced with nationalist and patriotic discourses, showing how even “transparent tools” (3) like maps are not so neutral after all.

The meticulous work of analysing samplers and their representations enables the reader to smoothly wander through the technicalities of needlework and map samplers. The comparative cartography of samplers, and an original analysis of British contribution to the making of the “new world”, thus reveals the existence of a network of collaboration, immigration and knowledge. As Tyner justly highlights, British – United States exchanges didn’t suddenly stop but were continuous, even after the Revolution (67). Her cartographic effort to trace lines between schools, teachers, girls and nations also contributes to building an incredibly fruitful network that grows to include technological developments, the birth of lady’s magazines, changes in educational approaches, and an exploration of the geographical knowledge of the times.

Even the gradual disappearance of map samplers and globes as part of girls’ education brings to light a rather entangled network comprising of the growth and popularisation of paper maps, the commercialisation of indelible ink and the adoption of sewing machines, among other changes in educational technology (103). Map samplers listed and analysed in the book date between 1777 and 1825 in England, and between 1798 and 1830 in the United States. After 1830, according to the scholar, samplers started to disappear and gave way to new ways of mapping and stitching the world through “embroidered maps”. The book is a compelling and informative historiography of cartography and the cultural significance of the map, while it also an important contribution to women and gender studies, and feminist geography.