Needle Exchange: A Sampling of Samplers


Welcome Back! This week we’re going to look at the history of samplers. What exactly is a sampler? Well, in the early 18th century it became common for needlework pieces that were signed and dated to be called a “sampler”. Pieces that did not have those elements were regarded as “needlework pictures”. Most information says that a sampler is exactly what the name implies, a piece of linen that was used like a scrap book where the stitcher could store new stitches and motifs to keep as a reference for future work. In the 1600’s, stitching samplers became very popular, particularly in New England.

Apparently, New England is responible for the style of sampler we are most familiar with today, Until the early 1700’s, samplers tended to include alphabets and very simple borders. The Pennsylvania samplers we see from this period start to include heavily decorative borders, animals, plants like the “Tree of Life” image and scripture passages.

I’ve read conflicting information that perhaps sampler stitching wasn’t as popular as we’re typically lead to believe, as fabric was precious and would not be used for something so impractical. However, the dominating opion is that this was not the case. Usually a girl’s education would include stitching a sampler, whether she was home schooled or enrolled, usually in a Dame School. In many communities the women would spin flax for linen which would be woven by men on narrow looms. Most of the samplers we see from this era are long and narrow. The inclusion of the maker’s name, occasionally parent’s names, alphabets and numbers as well as ecclesiastical motifs speaks to me of skill building. Not only were these girls learning their numbers, letters, and religious lessons, but also household skills like spinning, sewing, mending and so forth. This evidence dismisses the “impractical” argument for me.

Interestingly, the examples of samplers we have from girls that were stitching these in school tend to be more commercial looking. Usually there was an established pattern the teacher would have the students use, almost like a coloring book. The examples we have from girls that were home schooled tend to be more personal and contain a wilder mishmash of motifs, including representations of their homes and personal statements.

When I came across this piece, it struck me as strange. At first glance it might appear morbid but I have found many other examples of this kind of sentiment stitched into samplers, especially in the Pennsylvania German community in the 1700’s. One bit of text read, “Katherine Meck is my name for you to see when I am dead and laid in my grave and all my bones are rotten. Here is my name for you to see that I am not forgotten.”

In the mid 1800’s we begin to see traditional samplers waning. Perhaps it’s because girls’ education was starting to include subjects outside of the domestic arts and samplers were no longer part of their primary schooling. Cheap cotton production over homespun linen may have also encouraged the trend. It’s interesting to note that around this time we begin to see more family tree style of samplers that list birth, death and marriage records. In concert with family bibles, these samplers mapped the family’s genealogy.

In two weeks we’ll look at contemporary artists who have modernized the sampler. I’ve been digging through the Phat Quarter flickr pool and I’ve found some treasures!

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Penny Nickels is a printmaker that started playing with needles with tremendous effect. She and her husband, Johnny Murder, have been described as “The Bonnie and Clyde of Contemporary Embroidery” and you can discover the power of her creativity at her blog.

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References for this article include The Illustrated History of Textiles edited by Madeleine Ginsburg, Needlework as Art by Lady M. Alford, and Embroidered Textiles by Sheila Paine.

I also found a lot of information for this article on iTunes. There is a section of the iTunes store called “iTunes U” that has FREE lectures on almost any topic you can think of from universities all over the U.S. and Europe. I would highly recommend  going there and watching the lecture “Pennsylvania German Women: Their Textile Traditions” for more info on early American samplers. It’s free! FREE!


Penny Nickels
Penny Nickels is a print maker, a former book binder, currently a fiber artist and fledgling writer.
Penny Nickels

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15 thoughts on “Needle Exchange: A Sampling of Samplers

  • Samplers! I love samplers (even the morbid ones!) Thanks again for an awesome article Penny. 🙂

  • Great article, Penny. I’m reminded that my stitching is voluntary and always for my own selfish gain and I like it.

  • This is a wonderful article, Penny. Thanks!

  • Thanks buddies!

  • Is it okay if I spout useless information? Well, here I go anyways, where you like it or not.
    Samplers where almost always a wealthy girls vocation. The not-so- rich did samplers to some degree too, but in general your Daddy had to have money for you to partake in this skill. Rich girls went to Dame schools. They first learned Plain Stitching, which included marking of clothing, darning, etc.. Clothing was very valuable back then, so you had to keep it in good shape. Second, they would learn Fancy Stitching. That is where the samplers came in. Samplers where a somewhat artist way to say to the world, “Hey look, I’m rich enough to pay for my daughter to go to school to learn a non-functional type of embroidery. Damn I’m rich.”

    I could go on, but I bet you’d get bored. Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.

  • Yep, you’re right about that. However most of the information I read was about Amish Mennonite communities in New England, and although they certainly could have been considered “wealthy” due to their self sufficiency, the daughters tended to be home schooled or educated in the traditional one room school house, but certainly not dame schools. You should take a look at the lecture I cited, it covers both fancy daddies money, and practical home skills.

  • Ooohh!! I love the morbid ones! I want to do one now with those sentiments…. must think how I can do this…..

  • I think it’s a mistake to presume samplers were done only by the wealthy. Maybe this was more the case in the USA, and what examples we do have were treasured because they were done by the wealthy, but for many working classes they were used as a means to practice sewing skills . Being able to sew was an opportunity to earn extra income. Samplers were used to prove their needlework skills to potential clients, shops, employers etc.
    It was also a means for not so rich to record events, family events, births/deaths etc,

  • this is really fascinating. I am intrigued by the content even more than the presentation. It seems to me from some other forms I’ve seen from that time that needlework was kind of a way to self-publish ideas similar in some sense to blogging. thanks for researching this!

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