This post was originally in XStitch Magazine Issue 21: Tropical, and has been adapted.
The famous words of “We pillage plunder, we rifle and loot” may soon have to add cross stitch to that list too!
When it comes to pirates, Hollywood sure has done a number on them. Much like Vikings, who don’t actually have horns on their helmets, pirates are likewise woefully incorrectly represented.
In reality, they were super progressive, adamantly anti-slavery and rather nicely dressed. In fact, pirates were often described as impeccably dressed, and were some of the first people to use perfumes.
So, why does this matter? Well I’m going to ruin your concept of pirates here.
Pirates “booty” and buried treasure is in our minds silver and gold. But in reality, their main item of trade was fabrics. In fact the well dressed sailors were known for actively hunting down fabrics. Black Beard’s pirate code even mentions that his shipmates were allowed any clothes and fabrics on top of their share of the rest of the booty, which just goes to show how important it was to them.
Whilst famous raids are best known for Spanish treasure galleons, fabrics were important to pirates.
And they also had a lot of time on their hands. To make things a little more annoying, one of those above-mentioned pirate codes was not being able to “game for money” (gamble), and many of the roles on ship (boatswain, gunner, quartermaster) were only needed when taking ships for loot, meaning boredom often became an issue.
With most pirates being from the British islands or colonies, trends from the mainland, such as cross stitch were common to have made their way on ship. With fabric aplenty, and boredom abound, it’s no wonder some pirates took to stitching.
Whilst we don’t have any examples left, we do know that samplers were often seen in ports like Nassau, Port Royal and Tortuga. The 1724 work A General History of the Pyrates (the greatest account of pirates known) goes into some length to describe the pirate ports and often mentions the embroideries hanging on the walls.
So why don’t any of these pirate samplers still exist? Well, there are a few reasons. Pirates were essentially either hunted to extinction or given full pardons in the “Proclamation for Suppressing of Pirates” in 1717. However, even those pardoned pirates suffered from having a bad rap thanks to English propaganda, so any connection to pirates were swiftly destroyed.
But there was some temporary reprieve. Where pirates flourished were primarily the Caribbean islands, which are hot, humid, and terrible for the long term health of embroidery.
I did say temporary reprieve…
Whilst we have very old embroideries in museums, these all come from relatively dry and arid environments, which keep them in great condition over time. The heat and wetness of the tropical pirate haunts were sadly, just not conducive to keeping embroidery alive. Most examples were regretfully lost to the passage of time.
However that isn’t to say pirates haven’t given anything to the world of cross stitch. In fact, samplers in particular have been said to be heavily influenced by pirates.
Whilst samplers are most well known to have been for teaching letters and numbers to young ladies, they were first thought to be used to teach sailors these very same things (as most sailors and therefore pirates were illiterate). And in fact, the actual use of samplers outside of sailors were often only used by those with connections to sailing. The oldest known sampler, created by Loara Standish in 1652, who was the daughter of Captain Myles Standish, the first commander and treasurer of the Plymouth Colony.
In addition, samplers, even those stitched by young girls often included imagery that they simply would not have been able to have seen, such as images of foreign, often brightly colored birds, war horns, tropical greenery, and mythical sea beasts. These images were either likely to have been inspired by stitchings of those buccaneers of the Caribbean or outright copied (that is after all, what a sampler is for).
Royal ephemera were heavily included as well, particularly coats of arms and flags.
Similarly, sloops (a specific type of boat used mostly to cross large seas) are often represented heavily in the earliest cross stitch books, including the oldest surviving cross stitch book, Cross-stitch embroidery by Harriet Cushman Wilkie in 1899 (thankfully released by the Smithsonian).
Many of these early images were eventually replaced with more religious ones, ships were replaced with churches, mythical sea beasts replaced with angels, and tropical greenery was replaced with ivy. However, the purpose of a sampler, and its constructions remained. Ironically these religious images were actually not new, with embroidery samplers being found in Egyptian tombs with Christian symbology.
So whilst pirates did pillage, plunder, rifle and loot, they were also rather well known for their embroidery skills too. Sadly, this has been lost to history thanks to a theme park ride with a rather catchy song by Disney…