Embroidery can be considered an anonymous art, in that much of the time it is not signed or dated, especially work done before the 17th century. The samplers and other embroideries that have survived the ravages of time allow us a peek into the lives and attitudes of the girls and women who created them – from their perspective. This is one of the main things that samplers do – communicate. Early samplers shared patterns and helped their creators retain the information they had gathered. Later samplers became a way to communicate ownership and information about the world. They helped teach young girls about their place within society. Just as women of the past used their samplers to retain and share information, we continue to do so today. Modern samplers ask us to consider our roles as creators who use embroidery to communicate a message through our work.
In the Bible it says that by our fruits ye shall know us. Our samplers are the fruits of our hands. We have worked into them a message for those around us. We may not have done this intentionally, but the message cannot help but come forth. The women and girls that plied their needles in the past had no intention of sending a message down through the ages to us, yet we take meaning from their surviving works. It will be the same for us. So the question really is: what does our stitchery tell about us? Steven Wang said, “History belongs to those who dare to write it.” I say our stitchery is our history. It is what we leave behind for future generations. We created it and it reflects our reality. Let’s send a clear message to help future generations understand our times – from our perspective.
Samplers began to be used as teaching tools in the education of young girls. Some samplers taught the more practical skills of plain sewing, while others focused on ‘fancywork’. Many had verses added to teach the alphabet, encourage morality and promote good conduct. An example of a practical sampler is Maria van Wyk’s Darning sampler, stitched in 1762 when she was a 16 year-old girl in Nijkerk, Holland.
It shows different types of darning stitches that Maria could use to repair holes in fabrics. You can see that cloth was much more readily available, but still expensive enough to warrant repair, since Maria paid attention to the design of her sampler as well as the stitches. Her sampler is beautiful as well as useful.
By the 20th century sampler making had fallen out of favor along with the general practice of needlework. Those who created samplers often did so as an exercise in a particular embroidery technique rather than for basic educational or reference purposes. Samplers remained examples of the needle artist’s proficiency in a particular technique. Modern samplers continued to serve as a practice tool when learning a new skill, and as a way to experiment with different combinations of fiber, stitch and design, but they also became a connection to the past. Many of the samplers currently being stitched are reproductions of 19th century schoolgirl samplers.
Today, needle artists connect with the past through the medium of embroidery, using the same materials, tools, and techniques as their predecessors but in ways that reflect the current realities of modern life. An example of this is the sampler Breakbeats, created by Andrew Salomone in 2009. This is how he explains his work: “It occurred to me that needleworkers used to have to make patterns and images to decorate fabric in the same way that contemporary music producers make beats and musical compositions by repeating and layering audio samples in digital sound editing programs. So the files created using digital editing programs today basically function in the same way that needlework samplers did in the days when all embroidery had to be done by hand.” Andrew’s sampler is more about the ideas than the techniques and is an intriguing way of connecting the past with the present.