Making Her Mark

Catherine's Childhood Sampler

Embroidery samplers from the late nineteenth century made by children were often small in size and called ‘marking samplers’. The one shown here was worked by Catherine Frost of Orange in 1872, when she was eight years old. Typically, samplers were made by girls between the ages of five and fifteen, they were the work of a beginner’s hand rather than that of a needlepoint expert – as Catherine’s sampler demonstrates.

Catherine was born into a middle-class family in 1864. Her parents met and married in Orange and had several business interests in the district. Catherine was the fifth of thirteen children, eight of her siblings were girls. The family eventually lived in the grand home at Orange known as Campdale, built especially for them. Each of her sisters would most-likely have made their own sampler, as was the expectation of middle-class girls at the time. Making a sampler prepared a girl her for her future role as wife, mother and homemaker.

Catherine worked her sampler to practice cross-stitch, or counted thread embroidery, by forming the letters of the alphabet, in upper and lower case, with brightly coloured wool. Her name, place of residence and the year it was made also appears on her work, along with the symbol of the British Crown – these details often appeared on samplers. The drill of forming the alphabet on a sampler was training for the later task of ‘marking’ the family’s clothing and household linen.

Catherine’s handiwork is imperfect, reflecting she was yet to fully accomplish the gentle art of handiwork. At eight years of age a girl is still mastering her hand-eye co-ordination. Catherine’s use of thick coloured wool for her sampler is on account of her age, as it is less demanding to work than finer threads. Her stitches are uneven, and the sampler shows clear signs of damage, which over the years has partly-erased some of the letters.

A cruel twist to Catherine’s story is that she died at age twenty-six from tuberculosis – unmarried and childless she missed out on fulfilling her expected feminine vocation. A local newspaper reported that her passing was a great loss to her family. The sampler may survive as a cherished memory of her.

In 1928 Catherine’s childhood home became a Presbyterian Ladies College. Today it is part of the Kinross Wolaroi School where the lessons given to girls extend well beyond working with a needle and thread.