Samplers were pieces of cloth, usually linen, that featured hand-embroidered designs using thread made of silk, wool, or cotton. In the 16th century, young European girls made samplers as a way of learning embroidery techniques that would be useful in the repair of household linens. Patterns stitched into these early samplers were often sewn as a reminder of a stitch so that the sewer could refer to it later.

One especially common type of sampler was the band sampler, which, as its name suggests, was made of a narrow band of fabric (the decision was one of economics rather than aesthetics because fabric was expensive). But regardless of the shape, by the 18th and 19th centuries, European samplers were used less for sewing practice and pattern record keeping and more for ornamentation. Decorative samplers featured a variety of embroidered motifs, such as people, animals, quotes, and the alphabet, and they often had an embellished border. They were created to be displayed and to showcase the sewer's artistic needlework skills.

In the Colonial United States, samplers played their traditional role. As in 16th and 17th England, Colonial samplers were typically produced by schoolgirls as a way learn needlework skills. Teachers favored the band format for reasons of thrift, although by the 18th century, samplers began to get shorter and wider.

In addition to improving a student’s embroidery techniques, samplers were a way to teach young girls the letters of the alphabet. Map samplers were less common, but once the Colonies became the United States, family-record samplers became quite popular.

A major departure from European teaching practices concerned sampler decorations. Whereas English schoolgirls were taught to be all business when it came to turning stitches on their samplers, Colonial girls were encouraged to decorate their samplers with handsome borders, within which they would also create flowers, leaves, vases, and baskets. Some featured landscapes with animals and figures amid the scenery. By the late 1700s, a renaissance in samplers was about to be unleashed.

Schoolmistresses in different parts of the New World soon developed regional styles that were taught to their young charges. In Essex County, Massachusetts, crinkled silk floss from China was used to create thick, extravagant borders. Teachers in Providence, Rhode Island, encouraged pictorial approaches. And Quaker schoolmistresses in Pennsylvania stuck with the blocky letters taught in Yorkshire, England, but veered in their liberal use of floral elements.

A pause in sampler production during the Revolutionary War did not halt the genre’s momentum. Indeed, the early 1800s were glory years for samplers. Evidence of the influence of ...

By the 1810s, the borders on samplers in Massachusetts were quite wide, cheating into the center of the sampler even further at the corners, with a second, thinner geometric border forming the outline of the sampler’s octagonal core. In one piece, paper markers dedicated to the memory of a 13-year-old’s deceased infant brothers were stitched directly into the scene to produce a very early type of collage.

Family records and genealogies were popular in New Hampshire, sometimes presented as straightforward lists, other times fashioned into landscapes or even trees hung with fruit bearing the names of various generations of offspring. The practice of teaching letters and preserving family histories via samplers continued through the 1800s, although its heyday had ended by the middle of the century.

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