Dyed and Gone to Heaven – An Online Magazine and Needlework Resource  


Samplers Through the Ages

How this Distinctive Needlework Art Form Evolved Throughout Europe and the New World
by Rita Vainius

Our special thanks to Dawn Lewis, this month's featured designer and Rosemary Powell (Simply Samplers web site) for providing photos of the antique samplers accompanying this feature.

Sampler making has played a vital role in women's lives throughout history and strong sampler making traditions developed in many countries around the world Each country retained it's own national characteristics though there was much interplay of designs and patterns throughout Europe and later, America. The word sampler is derived from the Old French "essemplaire" and the Latin "exemplum" meaning a kind of model or pattern to work by, copy or imitate. The earliest known samplers were worked in a double running stitch and pattern darning and were found in Egyptian tombs. European samplers were influenced by these early patterns and included designs based on the ancient lozenge, S and X symbols worked in a running stitch. Some of the most stunning samplers are those made before the advent of printed patterns. New patterns and stitches were avidly collected and exchanged among friends, passing from hand to hand, before they could be forgotten. Many were placed in a random or haphazard way over the cloth, virtually filling every vacant space, acquiring the name random or spot samplers. These pieces served as practice grounds with the needleworker jotting down new stitches and experimenting with colors and threads.

English 16th century samplers were usually worked on a linen ground with silk threads but some also included gold and silver threads as well as seed pearls. The shape was typically narrow and long (approximately 7" x 24"), the length being determined by the loom width of the woven cloth. Few samplers from the 16th century have survived and the signing and dating of them was not a common practice as it later became. The earliest dated surviving sampler was made by Jane Bostocke commemorating the birth of her daughter, Alice Lee in 1556, though the sampler itself was probably completed some years later. It now hangs in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

During Elizabeth I reign, trade between England, the East and the New World gave tremendous impetus to the arts and the arrival of new materials and ideas from abroad spurred exciting innovations in embroidery design and execution. The 17th century ushered in the golden age of sampler making. During this period samplers were comparatively numerous and some of the most exquisite and imaginative originated in the UK. Most of these continued to be made for use as practice pieces for patterns, motifs and stitches.

Samplers produced in Germany in the 17th century were worked using a simple floral border to surround a number of geometric or alphabet motifs placed at random. These were similar in format to the English in shape, long and narrow, and worked mostly in cross stitch in a variety of colors. Dutch samplers were like their German counterparts in choice of subject and layout but were distinguished by their shape, being either square or wider than they were long. Samplers were also being made in Spain and it's New World possession, Mexico, though few have survived. These were usually brightly colored, done in silk on white linen. Alphabets and verse appeared rarely, these being supplanted by geometric motifs as the predominant design element. They often featured animal and bird depictions, interspersed at random. French Samplers were square and broader than they were long and were worked entirely in cross stitch. They were usually done on fine muslin with many varied and subtle floral designs making up the border. Samplers from Italy were identical to the French in shape, but included other stitches such as feather, double running, satin and chain stitches. Many of these contained lovely examples of cut and drawn work and border patterns incorporating religious motifs. While Belgian samplers closely resembled those from Germany, a much greater variety of stitches were employed. Scandinavian Samplers were worked on fine muslin and often contained exquisite drawn thread work.

In the 17th century, samplers were worked by adult needlewomen and were still in the form of the random and spot samplers of the previous century, recognizable by their long and narrow shape. They did now become more colorful and imaginative in design. Animals, birds, flowers and fruit were worked in a fine tent stitch with a high degree of shading. The earliest recorded human figures appear on a piece dated 1630. The band sampler became popular later in the century, consisting of tightly packed rows of designs with hardly a space left unworked. These bands of shapes consisted of both geometrical and floral motifs and employed flowers, leaves and nuts in repeating border patterns. Many samplers evidence a marked interest in geometric ornament and it is thought that this aspect of their design owes a great debt to Islam. Virtually every geometric motif of this time can be traced back to its medieval Islamic ancestry, where due to religious taboos, all representations of creatures and plants were converted to geometric forms. Thus, many of the geometric designs traditionally used on samplers are symbolic in nature and not just decorative shapes without meaning.

During the reign of Charles I, needlework became an established part of the school curriculum. By mid 17th century, alphabets were included in a majority of samplers as well as the different stitches and lace work techniques.Sampler making would become an increasingly significant school exercise. These children's works were of a very high standard and attest to the thoroughness of the teacher's instruction, whose name was often included in the finished piece.

Embroidery continued to flourish in the 18th century, being strongly influenced by the many exotic textiles imported from India, China and Persia. The predominant designs were composed of stylized borders surrounding rows of alphabets and numerals with a piece of text, verse or inscription enveloped by motifs of birds, small animals, flowers and trees, with the conical tree being the most commonly use. The shape of samplers underwent a transformation, becoming shorter and wider, thus taking on the proportions of a picture. The choice and arrangement of subject matter was very carefully thought out in order to create a well ordered and balanced composition.

The materials used at this time varied: linen was still popular and much in vogue was tammy cloth, a fine woolen canvas. Cotton was employed as well as satin which was preferred for map samplers. Threads regularly used were still silk and linen with the addition of wool and cotton. Chenille was popular for use on the satin map samplers and black silk and human hair added an air of sentimentality on mourning samplers. A relatively small number of stitches were still being used including cross stitch, algerian eye, double running and four-sided stitch. By the end of the century cross stitch would be the sole survivor of what was once an enormous repertoire of stitches used on samplers earlier, thus becoming known as the sampler stitch.

During the 19th century in England, rigid standards of morality and decency were to dominate the reign of Queen Victoria and the majority of the population was very poor. Education of children was sorely neglected and until the introduction of state schools, the only instruction for poor children came from Sunday schools, charity schools or orphanages. Charity samplers were developed to teach reading and writing skills by having the students work row upon row of letters and numerals onto their cloth in the hopes that they would become proficient enough in the marking of linen, mending and darning to obtain employment either in the service of a family or in the factories and mills that were the backbone of the Victorian economy.

Samplers originally found their way to America with the early settlers and most colonial women took their needlework very seriously. Darning, mending and marking were extremely important tasks in the home and girls were not considered marriageable until they had mastered the art of stitchery. The first samplers made in the New World reflected the characteristics of the needleworker's homeland. After the mid 18th century, a distinctly American flavor to sampler making arose. These were much less formal and symmetrical than previous ones and showed a novel flair in design, incorporating a variety of stitches and colors to produce distinct and lively works. The fabric was usually unbleached linen but light brown, bottle green, gray and black were also popular. Tiffany, a fine muslin-like material was also employed until linsey-woolsey (a mixture of flax and wool) was introduced. Silk was the most widely used thread, followed by wool and linen. Samplers in the second half of the 18th century generally consisted of a small square in which a verse or inscription was worked, surrounded by a very wide border which formed the major part of the work and was intended to be the main feature. Inside this border might appear a landscaped scene with figures and trees and perhaps a dog, sheep or winged cherubs. Large floral designs were often included, sometimes worked up the sides of the border and ending with the sky at the top. Pattern darning was often used to fill in backgrounds and through the clever use of stitches and color, landscaped scenes appeared highly 3-dimensional. Though cross-band samplers were still being made, they were increasingly replaced by pictorial types. The wide variety of stitches worked also diminished in the late 18th century as elsewhere and cross stitch became by far the most popular stitch for samplers.

Many traditional motifs depicted on samplers have symbolic meanings or associations and art historians have studied these, arriving at different conclusions for the images portrayed. They derive from the legends and folklore of ancient peoples, images used on heraldic emblems and religious symbols. Included are interpretations of birds, beasts, fruit, flowers, figures, buildings and trees, which have been used on samplers through the centuries and all over the world. The following is a list of popular symbols and their meanings: Dog- fidelity and watchfulness; goat- unchastity and sensuality; squirrel- mischief; dove- charity, mercy and love; falcon- pride and nobility; parrot- talkativeness and gossip; phoenix- hope; chair- diligence and hospitality; ship- hope, marriage or the soul's voyage to a safe haven; daisy- humility; lily- purity and innocence; marigold- obedience; violet- modesty and melancholy; apple- love and fertility; bee- diligence and industry; tortoise- strength and slowness; mermaid- vanity; crown- eternity and fidelity; olive tree- peace and goodwill; weeping willow- sorrow and dejection. (For more sampler symbols and associations see Samplers under our Web Resources section.)

In the 19th century, samplers depicting family records or registers became very popular and remind us of the high rate of infant mortality. In these samplers the text was often worked inside an arch supported by columns and decorated with floral wreaths. Others were designed in the form of genealogical trees with the names and dates being worked inside fruits hanging from the branches. Samplers were made in large numbers at the beginning of the 19th century, but over the years the standard of workmanship declined. By mid 19th century they were mostly being worked in wool on coarse canvas. These were predominantly made by young girls, featuring alphabets and numerals. The great age of the American sampler was coming to a close.

Like all traditional crafts, sampler making has only been successful when it served a purpose or fulfilled a need. When samplers were worked for their decorative value alone, standards deteriorated rapidly. Happily, the end of the 20th century has witnessed a renewal of interest in both the historical samplers that have been preserved and new design applications for this traditional needlework form. There are patterns and motifs that have survived 5 centuries of changing fashions and trends that remain valid and are being rescusitated for working into textiles today. Sampler making is once again gaining in popularity and they are being made by serious students of the art as well as needleworkers who consider their craft a hobby. Samplers will always endure so long as they remain true to their original roots and heritage, by serving some real purpose, whether as practice pieces for beginners, notebooks for students or as commemorative works depicting special occasions, historical events or family trees.

If you would like to learn more about samplers Rosmary Powell's web site Simply Samplers has an extensive section on symbolism, historical information and other sampler examples. Our Web Resources page also lists other sites on the web. Dawn Lewis's samplers shown here are from her private collection. For information on available samplers for purchase and a price list you can contact Dawn at 524 N. Oklahoma, Morton, IL 61550.

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