A Not-so-Short History of Embroidery Samplers, part 5

During the 17th and 18th centuries samplers continued to evolve, and eventually their primary purpose was to serve as showpieces for the stitcher’s skills. Other changes took place as samplers began to more closely resemble paintings. They became wider and shorter, and contained carefully positioned images that reflected a new concern with design and composition. Pictorial elements, many taken from the Old Testament were becoming increasingly popular. Biblical scenes and historical allegorical images were considered appropriate for young girls to stitch, since they contained images that encouraged good moral behavior. The many portrayals of Adam and Eve that are featured on samplers of this time were used as a way to teach young girls their role in the family and society. This example stitched by Elizabeth Summers in 1808, when she was an 11 year-old child, includes a verse from Genesis. The images and verse were thought to teach the young girls who stitched these samplers the proper relationship between men and women.

Elizabeth Summers 1808 Adam & Eve Sampler

The time between 1720 and the early 1830’s was the height of the sampler. This is when the most iconic of the American ‘schoolgirl’ samplers were created. It is this type of sampler that comes to mind when samplers are discussed.  Elizabeth’s Adam & Eve sampler is an example of a schoolgirl sampler. Other schoolgirl samplers depicted maps, calendars, lists of government officials, and family genealogies. They were used to teach letters, geography and the practical sewing skills that the girls of this era would need in their future lives.  Day schools and Boarding schools that educated girls commonly included several hours each day of needlework as part of their curriculum. These samplers often included an alphabet and basic numbers, along with a morality verse and a picture and sometimes randomly scattered spot motifs that could be used later to decorate household items. These samplers hit all of the marks. They were most often stitched in cross-stitch, with other fancy stitches sometimes included. The complexity of these samplers would depend on the skill level of the embroiderer and her future prospects. A young lady who was of the working class would have been taught plain sewing, while the daughters of the wealthy trained in more ‘fancy’ stitches. Each girl began with the simpler stitches and motifs and then moved on to more complicated techniques, as their needleworking skills improved. By the end of the 19th century, samplers had moved from the workbasket to pride of place on the walls of upscale homes, serving as a showcase for the skills of the daughters and wives of the household. More importantly for historians, it became a common practice for the women and girls to sign and date their work.


Huntley, Richmond, “Flashback: In Samplers Little Girls Express Themselves”, American Collector, April 1942, reprinted 20 March 2009, Collectors Weekly, http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/in-samplers-little-girls-expressed-themselves/  6 Feb. 2013.

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