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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Sewing Machine Collector

Sewing Machine Collector

Geoff and Norma Dickens' reference site on vintage toy sewing machines from the late 1800s. Browse the images alpha… [read review or visit site]

LACMA Luxury Textiles

LACMA Luxury Textiles

Textile collectors shouldn't miss this microsite from the LA County Museum of Art, a great reference on European an… [read review or visit site]

American Folk Art Museum

American Folk Art Museum

The American Folk Art Museum's website showcases current and past exhibitions along with their permanent collection… [read review or visit site]

Sensibility Vintage Images

Sensibility Vintage Images

An extensive collection of photos and ephemera illustrating changing fashion styles from 1795 to 1959. Includes por… [read review or visit site]

Anonymous Works

Anonymous Works

This blog combines American primitive folk art, vintage vernacular photography, outsider art, and other interesting… [read review or visit site]

The Outsider Art Pages

The Outsider Art Pages

A modern look at folk and outsider art with a focus on what people are doing to keep these traditions alive. The si… [read review or visit site]

Folk Art in Bottles

Folk Art in Bottles

Whether you call them Bottle Whimseys, Whimsey Bottles, Puzzle Bottles, or Whimsies, this site showcases great folk… [read review or visit site]

Index of American Design

Index of American Design

The Index of American Design project (1935-1942) was an effort to catalog American decorative arts objects from the… [read review or visit site]

Stoveburner.com

Stoveburner.com

A stunning collection of 162 images of stoveburners, those corroded cast iron elements that power stoves, broilers,… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

19thc American Needlepoint Schoolgirl Sampler, Fanny Freeman, Age 13, C.1865, NrAafa Boston, Ma Embroidered Needlework Sampler Antique Abc Schoolgirl SamplerEarly 19th Century Adam & Eve Sampler By Jane Fisher Aged 10 - 1817Early 19th Century Scottish House Sampler By Agnes Reid Aged 10 - 1830Beautiful Lg. Dated 1825 American Sampler Margaretta Mcculloh Minnesota W/ PhotoEarly 19th Century Double Red House Sampler By Charlotte Bufton 1822Late 18th/ Early 19th Dutch? Motif Sampler Initialled Mt C. 1770 - 1800 Early 19th Century Adam & Eve Sampler By Hannah Mayhew Aged 9 - 1822Antique Sampler With Animals Flowers EtcOld Antique Victorian Lace Trim Sampler Book Hand Sewn 137 Samples Owners InfoAntique Sampler Cecily Stead Age 8 - Adam & EveMiniature Early 19th Century Green Work Sampler By Elizabeth Salt 1837Small 19th Century Wool Work Spaniel & Pups Sampler C.1880Vintage Hand Embroidered Floral Picture, With Poppies & Other Flowers, UnframedEarly Antique Sampler Interesting And Rare Flax Fiber Homespun Aafa 1820Early 19th Century Motif & Verse Sampler By Sarah Reynolds C.1845Small Antique Sampler19th Century School Sampler By Mary Jane Adcock - Shustoke School - 1864Small 19th Century Motif & Alphabet Sampler By Dorothy Wilkin C.1890Antique German Cross Stitch Alphabet Sampler From 1899, Redwork SamplerSmall Early 19th Century Alphabet Sampler By Maria Adcock 1837Early 19th Century Sampler By Ann Simons Aged 11 - 1824Antique SamplerVintage Handstitched  sampler Quilt Top 72” X 74” Tans Reds Blues Mid 19th Century Alphabet Sampler By Harriet Martin Aged 10 - 1864Amazing Antique Embriodery Crewel Needlework Sampler, Intricate Very Fine WorkCross Stitched "god Bless Our Home"Rare Antique 1800s Sailor’s Punched Paper Motto Sampler Bible BookmarkEarly 20th Century Silk Work Of A Seated Springer Spaniel C.1920 Antique German Berlin Work Biedermeier Sampler Alphabet Pattern18th C. Patterns From Samplers And Show Towels - Museum CollectionNew Irish Linen Tea Towel Printed With A 1762 Sampler In Fitzwilliam Museum Primitive Old Stoneware Jug 5-1/2" Tall "sampler" Original CorkGerman Framed Religious Sampler Christ Crucifix Stitched Embroidery Yarn Unfinished Cross Stitch Sampler 'a Friend In Need' 18" X 14"