The Needlework of the Pupils of the National Model Female Schools
The images below are photographs of a beautiful National Model School needlework workbook that were kindly passed on to me in recent weeks by Loletta Hale. This first edition of this workbook was published in Dublin by the Hibernia Press Office in 1835 (reprinted in 1853 and 1861). The copy featured here was purchased at Whitney Antiques in the UK last year. It is one of possibly only a handful of surviving copies. You can see the dates 1846 and 1854 embroidered on two pieces of needlework, and this workbook was probably in use around these years.
In 1834, three years after the establishment of the national system of primary education in Ireland, the first Model School was opened in Upper Merrion Street, Dublin. Model Schools were teacher-training institutions under the auspices of the Commissioners of the Board of National Education, the administrative body of the national system. Each Model School maintained at least one national school where student teachers could practice their skills and gain experience in teaching.
These training institutions were numerically insignificant, never exceeding thirty as opposed to the thousands of ordinary national schools. It was originally intended that only male students would be trained for the office of teacher at the Model Schools. Female student teachers were not accepted until 1842.
The book contains simple directions in needlework and cutting out intended for the use of the National Female Schools of Ireland. Needlework and the specimens of work were added to the book, mounted on green stock paper as issued. Published to assist teachers in, and patrons of the National Female Schools of Ireland, “for the improvement of the poor”, the work includes “simple directions for plain and fancy works” giving directions for the various techniques of needlework.
This copy of the workbook retains actual mounted specimens including; a sampler, a fully realised miniature shirt (or smock) for a boy, and “gathering and fastening-in gathers” for sleeves, button-holes, and seaming. The Model Schools promoted the education of the poor in Ireland. They often taught knitting, as did orphanages and workhouses, with the aim of providing the poor with a skill for gainful employment.
The skills taught in this book are grouped into chapters by degree of difficulty according to class year, or “division.” The First Division teaches hemming, sewing, seaming and stitching; the Second Division instructs on overcasting and marking; the Third Division advances to mending, making, knitting and platting; and so on. In addition to the written instruction, there are also measurement charts indicating various sizes for a given garment – for example, bibs, caps, frocks or petticoats – and the amount of fabric needed to make the intended item. The miniature projects preserved in this book are also arranged according to class year; the earliest examples are more elementary – on the page that begins with the “First Class” specimens, there is a small square of hemmed paper and a small square of hemmed calico – and gradually advance to the elaborate “Tuscan Plat” – a project for the Twelfth Class involving tiny rows of braided straw. Each “Specimen” page indicates the page of the text where a step-by-step explanation of the featured stitch can be found.
According to the “Introductory Remarks,” the samples of stitches in the book can be used to benefit both the instructors at the Model Female Schools – as a teaching aid – and the students who are learning the stitches. As suggested earlier, these visual examples provide teachers and students an alternate mode of understanding each stitch; indeed, mastery of the more intricate examples – “gathering and fastening-in gathers” (sixth class); “tucking and trimming” (seventh class); or “first sampler” (eighth class) – is better attained through a combination of studying the provided specimen and reading the corresponding directions. These books were in use for a number of years; several students would have contributed work to each book, therefore, every copy is different, both to the number of examples they contain and the quality of the individual pieces of work. Known surviving copies of this instructional book – include one at Trinity College, Dublin (lacking many samples), one at the National Art Library (at least one missing), one at Simmons College, and now this one.
If you would like to purchase the book The Deserted School Houses of Ireland,visit the shop page here.
7 thoughts on “The Needlework of the Pupils of the National Model Female Schools”
I have included your blog in INTERESTING BLOGS in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at
Thank you, Chris
Absolutely loved this, thank you.
Thank you Chris!
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You’re very welcome…
We were recently donated one to our little museum in south east Queensland, Australia. The sampler is dated 1862. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to find how the book made its way from Ireland to us.
Thank you for the information in your article above.
My Irish relatives bought the deserted national school in Emlanaghten, Co. Sligo, where our elders taught for years and converted it over time into a vacation cottage. My Dad attended there, taught by his uncle and aunt. I was very happy to visit in 1965 while it was still in its original condition, desks and all. Thanks for this information. Catherine Henry Walsh
Thanks for the information Cathernine, and for checking out the blog. It sounds like a lovely place
Edna, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge about this topic. I found your blog while searching for more information after finding one of these workbooks – the work of Mar(y? e?) Phelan – in the V&A online collections. As a handspinner, weaver and mender it touches my heart. I’d like to know more about the National Model Female Schools that taught these skills, for example were the students expected to become teachers, or were they being prepared for life as house servants? If you could give me a starting point for information I’d be grateful. I’m particularly curious about what happened to the ‘girls’ whose stitches we can see today, Mary? Phelan and Ellen/Eleanor Mahon of the ‘Boyle School’.