“An Essamplaire Essai on the Rhetoricity of Needlework Sampler-Making: A Contribution to Theorizing and Historicizing Rhetorical Praxis”

Goggin begins this article by pointing out that much scholarship in our field, particularly work in feminist and visual rhetorics, that has focused on textual artifacts emphasizes their semiotic and performative aspects. Goggin praises this work yet emphasizes the need to theorize and historicize rhetorical praxis to uncover the material practices that construct these artifacts. In this article, then, Goggin sets out to historicize and theorize needlework sampler-making in order to explore the “rhetorical force of diverse practices that create texts” and to extend “boundaries of what counts as rhetorical practice and who counts in its production” (310).

Such work is important, Goggin notes, because “Theorizing and historicizing multiple material practices is critical for contributing to our understanding how rhetorical practices are learned and conducted, where and when these practices take place, who has been admitted into the practice and who has been barred, and how both access and barriers to such practices are constructed and sustained” (311). This lack of knowledge, in turn, leads to the reification of autonomous models of literacy, the perpetuation of the literate/illiterate binary, and the limitation of what cultural artifacts the field of rhetoric deems worthy of scholarly attention.

Goggin begins historicizing needlework sampler-making by identifying ideological constructs that have prevented rhetorical scholars from investigating needleworking as a rhetorical praxis: insistence the needleworking is not the same as penmanship, demonization of needle and “distaff” as material practices, the delegation of needleworking to the private realm, and the lack of understanding needleworking as a significant cultural practice in meaning-making. More so, needleworking has been socially constructed as “woman’s work,” which prevents it from being seen as a rhetorical tool.

Goggin then turn her attention to the discursive, rhetorical nature of needleworking samplers. She begins by distinguishing between different textile practices and emphasizes that the practice of embroidery is a “form of meaning mark-making–a polysemous system of writing. Goggin then emphasizes that different types of stitching make the reading and writing of textiles a complex practice, yet at the same time, because each stitch has specific functions, the great variety of stitches increases the potential of needlework as a rhetorical tool.

After focusing on stitching, Goggin turns her attention to the genre of the sampler and identifies the transformations that occur within this genre between the 16th and 19th centuries. Goggin demonstrates that while early samplers contained animal motifs and thus served a decorative function, samplers soon became heuristics where women practiced writing the alphabet and numbers. As samplers became sites where women wrote verses, it became clear that during the 17th century, samplers served as places to learn and demonstrate stitching skills. This transformation occurred alongside a transformation in subject positions occupied by needleworkers. No longer a practice reserved for the domestic sphere, needleworking moved into schools and the public realm.

Gradually, Goggin demonstrates, sampler-making became a valued art and thus needleworking became a tool for instilling “basic secular and moral education” (323). Goggin claims sampler-making actually also served as a site to learn other subjects such as geography, math, and astronomy and thus served as a pedagogical tool.

Sampler-making did not maintain its status as an educational tool, however. By the end of the 19th century, sampler-makings as an art form practically died and instead became a site of credentialing for those professionally trained in sampler-making. Sampler-making became displaced, transformed, and erased and today, despite efforts to revive this practice, sampler-making has not yet fully recovered its once popular status.

Goggin’s study demonstrates that “praxis, the artifacts created, the discourse participants, and the avenues of circulation are interdynamic and historically specific” (326). She claims we have obligations to explore these shifting interdynamics within broader contexts. Sampler-making declined, for instance, as printing patterns flourished in pattern books and magazines made possible by the printing press. More so, the turn to texts for instruction in sampler-making reflected a transformation in epistemology, more specifically to the Cartesian notion that “separated knowing from doing” and the modern ideology that language is container of knowledge (326-7). Also, some displacement of sampler-making can be attributed to rise of technology, ie. the sewing machine.

In order to fully understand the displacement and near erasure of sampler-making, however, Goggin insists we understand the episteme (Foucault) during which sampler-making so radically changed. Although a plethora of descriptions of this episteme are, perhaps, responsible for the radical change, Goggin explores the effect the rise of individualism in late 17th and early 18th centuries had on sampler-making. Goggin also poses a number of compelling questions, which model ways in which we can theorize and historicize the historical praxis of sampler-making in other ways. Such questions include: “In what ways did the changing ideological definitions of femininity and masculinity create the conditions that led to radical changes of who participated in sampler-making and the purposes for which they did so?…What correlations may be drawn between the discontinuities in sampler-making and those that co-occurred in rhetorical theory?…What impact did the early modernist hierarchical division and subsequent gendering of arts and crafts as well as that of creative territories have on sampler-making as a practice?” (328).

Goggin ends her article with a discussion of the methodological limits of conducting such scholarship due to political, cultural, social, ideological, and theoretical forces that impact our scholarship. Such limitations also arise from: contestations over origins of cultural, rhetorical artifacts; decay and discarding of material artifacts, which reflects what prior groups deem valuable and worthy of preservation. In relation to this last limitation, Goggin claims scholars must identify the social, cultural, class, race, gender, ethinicity, political, and economic forces that privilege some rhetorical material artifacts and marginalize others. We should also attend to how these artifacts have been “discursively circumscribed and imbued with meaning before we even set our critical gaze on them” (330).

In her “finishing touches,” Goggin underscores the importance of investigating rhetorical praxes that are not typically theorized, historicized in our field. She ends by reiterating the need to investigate how and why unique discursive practices that were once popular have been displaced, transformed, and erased. This work has the potential to “better understand other discursive formations and practices, including our own as rhetoric scholars and historians”


Last week I posed a question that Eileen asks on our course syllabus: What are the standards for good historical scholarship? I think Goggin’s work on needleworking samplers demonstrates many high standards for writing social history. One, she historicizes needleworking while at the same time points out the limitations in attempting to define the origins of this genre. Two, she attempts to uncover some of the political, social, cultural, and economic forces that create and transform needleworking as a rhetorical praxis. Three, she articulates the methodolgical limitations of conducting such scholarship. Four, she defines her methodological goals and political motivations for enaging in this work. Five, she explores a rhetorical site that has previously been untouched by rhetorical scholars and thus pushes the boundaries of texts worthy of being studied in our field. Six, she recovers a rhetorical praxis important for everyday women throughout three centuries.

For someone interested in studying Peruvian tapestries as rhetorical, material artifacts, Goggin does an excellent job modeling both rhetorical and methodological strategies for conducting such work. Some may argue that in this particular article, Goggin does not actually demonstrate how needlework samplers were in fact “rhetorical” in nature, which is true. But I have read two other articles by Goggin about this same genre in which she more clearly identifies its rhetorical nature. Her purpose in this article is to theorize and historicize rather than rhetorically analyze. In doing so, she offers methodological alternatives to a traditional rhetorical analysis and models how to write a good social history. We must remember that writing social history demands investigations of the social, cultural, political, and economic conditions which influence the rhetorical practices of everyday people. Goggin does a fine job of exploring some of those conditions by situating needleworking samplers in the specific episteme in which they were produced. In doing so, we not only discover a previously unexplored, unique rhetorical praxis, we also, begin to better understand the poltical, social, and cultural attitudes about epistemology, language, and gender–all of which influenced the way this particular praxis was enacted and transformed.



Filed under cultural rhetorics exam, historiography exam

5 responses to ““An Essamplaire Essai on the Rhetoricity of Needlework Sampler-Making: A Contribution to Theorizing and Historicizing Rhetorical Praxis”

  1. I completely agree Laurie. I think there is one really important lesson to learn from Goggin (because I, too, think this an example of a very careful, significant social history project) in that she needs several articles to present her project in all its dynamism. I wonder how our perspectives on various social histories we’ve read thus far would be altered if others had been afforded such a luxury…

  2. zstuckey

    is there a limit to what we consider rhetoric?

  3. zstuckey

    hi again, z here. regarding the idea that we “privilege some rhetorical material artifacts and marginalize others”–while in the “archive” (the archivists told me not to use the word archive anymore)–the special collections people talked about how all the images, photos, and carte de visites from the Charles Eisenmann collection were online. I proceeded to inquire: what about the autobiographical pamphlets? Why are these not foregrounded in the collection? Easy answer…images of freaks are way more exotic and sensational than the autobiographies freaks wrote about themselves.

    What artifacts do we privilege and why? Is it important in social histories to privilege artifacts of self-representation?

  4. Well – and what counts as self-representation? And, Z, how ghastly that you suggest there IS a limit to what we consider rhetoric? I’m telling Chaim Perelman et al about this….

  5. comprhession

    I think so much of it depends on the “we” that is making the decision. Do “we” as a class have a limit to what is considered rhetoric? Do past rhetorical scholars? Is there a difference between media studies and visual rhetoric? How about cultural studies and cultural rhetoric?

    Z asked about artifacts of self-representation. Do we have a right to claim someone is a rhetorician, and study them rhetorically, if they did not see themselves as such? I would tend to think that we do. The intentions in this case are not the same as claiming that someone is a “freak” and therefore we should study them as such. But, on the same hand, the fundamental argument is really the same – we are determining how that person, artifact, etc. is being classified. No matter how we shape it, we can’t get away from our own biases. We can’t help but assume that our ethics and standards are acceptable, otherwise we come to one of those freezing halts that they spoke about in the Octalog. Still, and issue we all have to grapple with.

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