Thoughts on the History of Samplers

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.

A Not-so-short History of Samplers, part 3

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.

Image

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.

A Not-so-Short History of Embroidered Samplers, part 6

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.

Andrew Salmone's Breakbeat Sampler 2009

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.

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.

A Not-so-short History of Embroidery Samplers, part 4

Another common type of sampler during this time was called a Marking sampler. Marking samplers were made up of various styles of alphabets and monograms. They were intended to be references for ‘marking’ linens and clothing with a family’s name or initials.  An example of this type of sampler is this marking sampler created in 1738 by Sarah Barnett. Textiles were valuable, and each piece of clothing or bedding had to have the family’s name ‘marked’ or stitched, on it so that when the article was sent out for laundering, it would return to the right home. Sarah has packed her sampler full of different alphabets and has even included a couple of borders and some royal motifs.

Sarah Bennett 1738 Marking sampler


Thank you to  Museum of Fine Arts in Boston,  for the image of this fine sampler.

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A not-so-short History of Embroidery Samplers, part 2

Samplers were considered valuable; they were often mentioned in wills and passed down through the generations. The first written mention of a sampler is in 1502 in an official court document. Among the household expense accounts of Queen Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry 7th, there is a note that reads: ‘the tenth day of July to Thomas Fisshe in reward for bringing . . . an elne of Iynnyn cloth for a sampler for the Quene’. An ‘elne’ or ell is a measurement based on the elbow and is about 45 inches. It is thought to be the span between two outstretched elbows. At the time, the length of a sampler was determined by the width of the loom used to weave the linen ground, the width of the sampler being determined by the stitcher. This made it easy to roll up the sampler for storage when it was not needed. The linen purchased by the queen was probably used for a ‘band’ sampler, which was made by stitching bands of patterned stitches across the width of the linen, each one stacked on the previous with no regard for an overall design. The bands could be simple or elaborate and often did not extend from edge to edge. Over time the sampler grew as new bands were added. The main purpose of these early samplers was to record stitches and motifs for later reference.
Jane Bostocks 1598 Sampler
The earliest surviving signed and dated sampler is a combination of a band and spot sampler. This sampler was stitched in 1598, by Jane Bostocke and includes a commemoration of the birth of her cousin, Alice Lee in 1596. You can see the bands of stitching stacked one on top of another on the bottom 2/3 of the sampler, with individual motifs covering the top third. These motifs refer to Jane’s family’s heraldic crest. You can see that there is additional room for Jane to add more motifs. When Jane visited a friend she could copy a motif or band from her friend’s sampler by stitching it out on her own sampler, and then use the image in her work when she returned home. As there were no printed patterns at the time, this was an effective way of spreading design ideas. It is easy to see how this sampler could be used as a reference for other stitching and how Jane used the space available to best advantage. Band and spot samplers continued to be popular until commercial patterns became commonly available.

Thanks to the Victoria & Albert Museum website for the image of this lovely sampler.

A Not-so-Short History of Embroidery Samplers, part 1

Samplers have been around a long time. ‘Sampler’ or ‘exampler’ is from the Latin ‘exemplum’ and the French “essemplaire” meaning: ‘an example, model or pattern to copy’. Early samplers were used as records of pattern and stitch and were valued as a library of sorts by their owners. Over time, samplers began to develop more complexity. They were used as a practical reference, but also passed along skills as a teaching tool. Samplers became testaments to the stitcher’s skills and were believed to build moral character in the young women who stitched them. In modern times, samplers have become treasured as art pieces and as a resource for historians trying to understand the times in which they were created. This multifaceted nature keeps us intrigued to this day

The earliest known sampler was created in Peru.  Unsurprisingly it is in pretty bad shape, but considering that it was stitched sometime during the 2nd century, I’d say it looks pretty good!

Peruvian sampler, 2nd C

The Peruvian sampler is a good example of a ‘spot’ sampler, which is a sampler made up of single stitched motifs. Because the stitcher was interested in capturing ideas, rather than in the aesthetics of the finished piece, the motifs were stitched singly with no regard for pattern or composition. It is simply a record of patterns for future use. One thing I love about it is how the motifs reflect the Peruvian culture. There is no mistaking this for an 18th C American schoolgirl sampler! Yet, there are common threads between the two. Each is communicating a message in a unique language but I feel a connection between them.  I think that the use of similar materials and methods is a thread that connects us as stitchers, even across the barriers of time and distance. The idea that we can communicate with stitchers from the past is part of the reason that samplers remain a fascinating topic today.


Thank you to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the image of this lovely sampler. You can see it at http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/50005755?rpp=20&pg=1&ft=206.889&pos=1