Historically speaking, the "examplar" or sampler was the teaching tool for young girls to learn how to sew, embroider and darn. These were important matters for a young woman to be able to do or to supervise others to make and repair household linens and clothes. This issue we are going to go back in time to learn more about samplers and their importance to us today.

The sampler was the colonial equivalent to paper and pencil. Today, children practice their writing skills improving over time. Samples of their work show their progress. A sampler works much the same recording the technical expertise of the stitcher through the alphabet and motifs. In many cultures it also had a spiritual aspect with moral sayings and reminders. There are four basic types of samplers: lettering, darning, extract, and medallions.

Lettering samplers often included upper and lower case letters, the numbers from one to ten, and a verse, usually religious. If you look at the earlier samplers you will see different lettering styles, even some with letters missing. The early Latin alphabet only had 23 letters and Old English was strongly influenced by the Romans. The "W" wasn’t used, "U" and "V" and "J" and "I" were interchangeable. The J began to have its own distinctive look around 1820. Sometimes you would see the "Q" worked as a reversed "P". The "Z" was often just left out since it was seldom used. My family would have had to add that back in as one entire generation on my mother’s side all had names that began with "Z"! If you have looked at some old writings, you will see that a lower case "s" could be mistaken as an "f". Historical samplers have played a part in figuring out the evolution of our alphabet and language.

Darning samplers taught the essential art of mending linens and clothing. These samplers were unique because they contained basic repair and weaving patterns worked on linen fabric in a variety of thread types.

Early extract and motif samplers were associated with the Quakers. The fear that books might introduce objectionable moral ideas into the children meant that only religious materials were available for reading and copying. This is why many of the samplers contain excerpts (extract) from Scripture or prayers. Different cultures and regions created motifs symbolic of their life. The octagonal motifs were a favorite shape used by the Quakers. There is much symbolism in the older samplers through the use of motifs.

A Walk Through Time

Samplers have a rich history and are an insight into the times and peoples who created them. Hopefully this small sampling will pique your interest!

The first printed books began appearing in the 1500-1600’s. The selection was small, usually the Bible, prayer books and the religious calendars. So, it is not unusual to find samplers dating back to the 1600’s. Sincere there were no reference books or patterns, stitches were created and shared among friends and passed down through families. The only way to preserve them was to stitch them. In Europe, the embroidered on long bands of fabrics. There was not a planned design as this was considered to be a work in progress, adding to it throughout the stitchers life. A girl by the age of ten was expected to do letters and simple motifs. One of the earliest publications for embroidery was in 1631 with "The Needle’s Excellency" It began to formalize stitches used in Europe.

Books that covered life subjects became more abundant into the 1700’s. Grammar of the English Tongue, written by John Brightland in 1711, included a pattern for a sampler alphabet. The sampler began to evolve from a record of patterns into a decorative needle piece. It was still a band style of sampler a long narrow piece of fabric with rows of patterns, which often repeated, perhaps with a different color or weight of thread. Eyelets and satin stitches appeared on samplers.

In colonial times, ready made goods were not available and all females were taught needlework at home. Every young lady was taught some basic sewing skills. Those of higher class went on to learn embroidery as a leisure activity. As it became more appropriate for females to get an education, boarding schools taught the needle arts. There was a practical reason for practicing the alphabet and numbers. The lady of the house (or she oversaw her servants’ work) carefully marked the household linens with the owner’s initials and inventory numbers. That way if an item was stolen, it could be identified and returned.

It was in the late 1700’s that the London magazine "The Lady’s Magazine" hired professional designers to create sampler patterns which were published on a regular basis in the magazine. This further helped to create uniformity in the stitches, and they began to get names. Also around this time, American samplers began to take on a different shape. Now they were squarer and often incorporated border designs. The repetition of patterns no longer was used and individual motifs were developed. The American sampler was less symmetrical and formal than its European cousin. It wasn’t unusual to see pictorial landscapes or whimsical figures such as chickens larger than sheep.

Boarding schools had a reputation based on the quality of stitching their students produced. One of the more famous boarding schools is the Ackworth School near Leeds, England. Ackworth School was founded in 1779 for the education of Quaker children. Samplers were a part of the curriculum for approximately 60 years, ceasing around 1840. The school is still in operation and has an extensive sampler conservation and research program.

One of the best places to find out about American Samplers is at the Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. The Village’s collection consists of over 60,000 artifacts made or used by rural New Englanders between 1790 and 1840. The dream was to create a model setting that would evoke the atmosphere of a working early New England village to show the collections in the context of their original use. On June 8, 1946, the museum village opened to the public with thirteen historic structures in place. Old Sturbridge Village has built the best collection of early 19th-century rural New England artifacts in the world.

The formal schooling in needlework began to die out mid-1800’s. More importance was being put on the scholastic education of girls rather than homemaking skills. Samplers were packed away or discarded because they were no longer culturally important. It was during this time period that a lot of stitching knowledge was lost. The samplers that were stitched often only used cross-stitches for the alphabets and motifs.

In the 1900’s the Arts and Crafts Movement renewed the interest in samplers. Designers collected and studied the old samplers. From their research came a vast selection of historical texts and instruction books. Had it not been for their work, many of the old stitches and motifs would have been lost.

To learn more about this fascinating topic, the Sampler and Antique Needlework Quarterly Magazines are great resources. Unfortunately this magazine is no longer being produced, so make sure to snag what you can when you find it!

Samplers Today

Samplers continue to be a popular way to display stitching techniques and designs. Some of the most popular designs have the traditional Quaker look. Here are some great companies and designers.

Let me introduce you to Gloria Moore of Milady’s Needle. Here is her story. "Over time, I eventually grew into a love of old samplers. I began to learn everything I could about these samplers and the young women who spent time stitching these elegantly worked pieces. Milady’s Needle was born when I was in the process of stitching a model for another designer. I decided I could probably design a sampler from the beginning of the process instead of just stitching the final piece. Although most of my designs are original designs based on old samplers; in the future reproductions of a few old samplers from my own collection will eventually be offered. I hope you enjoy the product of my dreams, as I continue to sit, listen to music from the 17th and 18th centuries while designing new samplers and such for your pleasure. By the way…Milady’s Needle was named after a character in a novel by Aledandre Dumas called "The Three Musketeers." Although not exactly the heroine, Milady surely did needlework as all women of her century were included to do, both to pass the time and out of necessity." Here is one of Milady’s Creations:

Plum Street Samplers’ website starts by saying "… stitching… coffee….my crazy life!" She does a little bit of everything. Here are some examples:

A discussion of sampler designers and companies would not be complete without includingThea Dueck, the founder of The Victoria Sampler. Thea has achieved an international reputation for her sampler designs. There office and studio are based in Victoria on Vancouver Island, right on the beautiful West Coast of British Columbia, Canada. Currently The Victoria Sampler employs about 10 people. In addition to Thea, they have several other very talented designers. They have taken some of the traditional design elements such as bands and specialty stitches, and updated them with new verses, specialty threads, and a lot of love and attention to detail. Here are just three of the many samplers available from The Victoria Sampler:

Click here for more designs from Victoria Sampler

Hopefully this brief look into samplers has piqued your interest just a bit. Perhaps it evokes memories of samplers passed down through your family, or a special time spent stitching with a loved one. Maybe it has encouraged you to start your own "learning sampler". We are NEVER too old to learn something new!

We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!

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