Samplers today are often seen as nostalgic decorative pieces associated with interior decoration. Their historical role has been that they are a method of recording information.
The rich history of samplers is hinted at in commercially produced patterns. Apart from patterns for antique reproduction samplers, some samplers depict Family trees, while others commemorate events, such as weddings or births. Alphabet samplers and growth charts are popular today, but their function has changed significantly. Samplers, always a record of stitches, often now record an life event, right of passage, or life history.
The word exampler or sampler is derived from the French éxamplair, meaning a kind of model or pattern to copy or imitate. The Latin word exemplum, meaning a copy, was, by the 16th century, spelt saumpler, sampler or exemplar.
Before printed pattern books, embroidery designs were passed from hand to hand, many travelling through Europe from the Middle East. The recording of patterns and motifs on fabric for future use was an essential method of storing information. This stitched reference resulted in the creation of a sampler. New patterns and stitches were avidly collected and exchanged. Patterns were placed in a haphazard way over the cloth. These samplers are now referred to as random or spot samplers.
The collection of patterns accelerated in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. A number of factors have been presented to explain the sudden explosion of this active collection and recording of patterns at this time. In the late 15th and early 16th centuries needlework decorated clothing and furnishings. The craft of embroidery was restricted to the wealthy due to the high cost of materials and that by the early 16th century needlework had gained importance as embroidery displayed wealth and status. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries there was also a strong revival of interest in all forms of decoration and a sudden increase in travel at this time.
English samplers of the sixteenth-century were worked in a long narrow ribbons. The width being 6-9in (15-23cm). The length was determined by the loom width of the woven linen cloth. Since fabric was expensive, the sampler was totally filled with designs. We know today that these samplers were valued because they were often mentioned in royal inventories and bequeathed by will.
Modern interpretations of samplers are often worked in cross stitch alone. This was not always the case, band samplers of the sixteenth century often combined different stitch traditions such as Blackwork, Assisi work and complicated bands of whitework and open-work. The samplers of this period display such a high standard of work it is believed that they were created by expert needlewomen. Excellent use of a large variety of stitches worked in silk and metal threads produced beautiful designs. Geometric patterns worked in as many as twenty different colours were combined with spot motifs of flowers, animals, birds, insects, fish, and frogs.
Some of the numerous stitches used were Hungarian, Florentine, tent, cross, long-armed cross, two-sided Italian cross, rice, running, double running, Algerian eye and buttonhole stitches. Colour schemes with a large number of shades were created by twisting together strands of two different colours.
The demand for printed patterns for needlework was eventually exploited commercially and the first printed pattern book arrived in 1523, printed in Augsburg, Germany, by Johann Sibmacher. Similar books then appeared from French and Italian presses and finally in England from 1587. However pattern books were not readily available and samplers continued to be made as practice pieces and for reference.
The earliest surviving sampler which is signed and dated, was made by Jane Bostocke who included the date 1598 in the inscription. However the earliest documentary reference to sampler making is recorded in 1502. The household expense accounts of Queen Elizabeth of York record that: 'the tenth day of July to Thomas Fisshe in reward for bringing of concerve of cherys from London to Windsore . . . and for an elne of Iynnyn cloth for a sampler for the Quene'.
During the 17th Century, a very simple border was added to the sampler to surround a number of randomly placed motifs. The band sampler, however, remained popular; the bands consisting of geometrical and floral designs in repeating border patterns. By the middle of the 17th century, alphabets were included in samplers. It has been argued that this indicates that sampler-making was becoming more significant as an educational exercise. Borders had also become more elaborate. From about 1650 moral and religious inscriptions were often added. Around this time samplers became signs of virtue and achievement and the teaching of needlework in schools was actively encouraged.
Samplers of the 18th and 19th centuries were in complete contrast to the random spot and band samplers of earlier times. During the 18th century, samplers took on the proportions of a picture. Symmetrically placed motifs of birds, small animals, flowers and trees were arranged to produce a balanced picture. Samplers, having lost much of their utilitarian function, had become ornamental, and were displayed as a record of achievement.
Stitching the alphabet began in the 17th century. By the 19th century, samplers were well established as vehicles for religious instruction, geography, English and mathematics. School girls produced needlework exercises of almanacs, mathematical tables and maps, as well as numbers and letters.
From about 1770, map samplers were worked. These samplers were considered an excellent way of teaching geography although most were inaccurate, because the children copied and drew the outlines themselves. Their making was also a reflection of the growing interest in foreign travel.
Although Medieval embroidery involved both men and women in guild workshops, and was considered to be equal to painting and sculpture the Victorians re-wrote the histories of the craft. Victorian historians meshed history with ideologies of femininity and inferred that embroidery had always been an inherently female craft. Understanding this recast view of embroidery history is crucial to understanding how twentieth-century attitudes to the needle arts were shaped.
Over the centuries the reasons for working samplers have changed, as have the design sources. The print media, for instance, influenced sampler design with the increased circulation of engraved illustrations. In the past, old herbals had been a design source. With the rise of the middle class, and the consequent spread of formal garden design, knot garden patterns became a strong design influence on samplers.
Traces of the rich history of samplers can still be found in commercially produced patterns which idealise the values of the past. Under Victorian ideology, women, when embroidering for their own pleasure, were accused of vanity. The notion of embroidery as a 'vain' and merely decorative occupation undermines the expressive power of embroidery. Today, embroidery is still defined as a leisure-time activity. Magazine articles tell us how to produce something in an evening, day or weekend for the latest addition to the family. The work and skill involved in making these gifts is never recognised as the magazines sell the idea that these items can be whipped up simply, without much thought, skill or effort.
©Sharon Boggon 2005.