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Embroidered Samplers

August 9, 2009

Listening to: Don't Stop Believing by Journey
Big Word: Ruminating-deep in thought.
 200 years ago, embroidery was the only form of relaxation for women of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Women embroidered everything from handkerchiefs of pillowcases. The sampler’s popularity grew out of necessity. The samplers were done by girls and women for very practical use. Sampler became was a pattern-book, containing various designs; and was something women referred to when making large scale embroideries. The sampler goes all the way back to the beginning of the 16th century.


The earliest documentary evidence comes from a household expense book belonging to Elizabeth of York in 1502. Early samplers were long and narrow and were known as Band samplers. Band samplers are a length of linen, usually the full loom width of the material. The dimensions were about 6-9 inches in width and 20-30 inches in length. The upper half samplers were always decorated with the elaborate designs, such as roses, tulips, strawberries and so on. 


Every-now-and-then the alphabet would appear on the samplers, but that was very seldom. The first samplers carried no date or any identification on them. Samplers in America were becoming less interesting and the elaborate embroidery of household linens vanished. People were too busy taming the wilderness to be occupied by the fancy frills of embroidery. Very few samplers were done in the 17th century; you might say the sampler became extinct.


Though there are echoes from the past on samplers done in later years, the 17th century samplers are more like ghosts than anything else. 
“When meaning is gone, art and beauty vanish too.” 
During the 18th century the samplers started making a comeback into society. The 18th century samplers were becoming more and more sophisticated, with the addition of Bible verses, pictures and complex stitching. Instead of being a record for various stitches and designs, 18th century samplers were mostly the work of schoolgirls. 


Samplers gradually began to change form— instead of being long and narrow (which was still popular in the 1730s), they slowly evolved into a square shape, which was easier to frame and displaying on the walls. New England, furnishes the largest number of samplers, followed by: Long Island, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Many girls tuned to nature as a model for their designs.




In 1724, the first dated Pennsylvania sampler was made by Susanna Painter, of Philadelphia, she was seven years old. Around 1750 a wonderful mixture of animals, birds, trees, people (Adam and Eve), baskets of flowers and fruit were displayed on the sampler, sometimes the girls would paint faces on their people or give them real hair.


1760 began the period when no sampler was complete without its religious verses, such as:
“Jesus permit they gracious name to stand / As the first effort of thy infant hand /And while her fingers on this canvas move / Engage her tender Heart to seek thy Love / With thy dear children let her Share a Part / And write thy name thyself upon her Heart.”
Around 1770, samplers of maps became popular, reflecting the interest in geography. These samplers were imported from England or France already stamped with the map design; but some girls made their own forming them from the stories and descriptions told to them by their families members. In the early 1800s, silk-embroidered pictures became a popular form of needlework in America.


Young women could learn this challenging needlework technique at specialized academies. In addition to patriotic scenes, subjects included: classical, biblical, historical, and the ever-popular mourning pictures. Needlework was an important part of the curriculum for girls in the 1800s. In most schools needlework exercise books were kept with examples of children’s work stitched or pinned to the pages.


The first page of the book nearly always contained a cross stitch sampler with numbers and alphabets. The number of surviving samplers embroidered with a school’s name shows how popular they were as a teaching method. Samplers showing maps were made to teach Geography. Darning samplers were used to teach the different stitches needed to mend clothes. Children were expected to sign their work as a testament to their needlework skills.


Household linen was often marked with embroidered initials and a number. Another reason for teaching girls to sew numbers and letters on samplers was so they could help with this task. By the early 1800s girls were taught marking at school as a separate needlework class. Teaching marking seems to have become the main purpose of making samplers. In John Walter’s ‘English and Welsh Dictionary’ (1828) a sampler is defined as ‘a marking alphabet wrought by girls at school’.


By the late 1800s hardly any samplers were made by adults, most samplers were made by girls in schools and orphanages. Unlike this decorative pattern, many had just alphabets and numbers inside a simple border pattern.


By the 1920s sampler making had dies out, no longer were the great samplers of old to be seen again. They were replaced by less elegant stitched and designs. The 20th century had given way to women working out of the house, leaving little time to teach or carry out the tradition of the Great American Samplers.


Samplers were the trade mark of America and England and tragically ended when women and girls alike lost interest in a traditional art. Today the samplers of long ago are valued and admired by the people who want to create these beautiful works of art, but do not know how. Samplers are a glimpse into the past, allowing us to see what it might have been like for girls back then.