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”)

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]

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]

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    

Georgian C1800 Adam And Eve / Religious Needlework Sampler Early/mid 19th Century Floral Motif & Verse Sampler By Jane Robinson - 1840Mid 19th Century Irish House, Alphabet & Verse Sampler By Mary Wallace - 1847Antique Needlework Sampler - Ann Greenfield 1844Antique Scottish House & Peacock, Margaret Clark 1820's Vanity Sampler FramedAntique 1817 Dated Linen Sampler Signed By Maria Lupardus19thc Antique 1856, Marrion Nimmo, Scottish Folk Art Childs Sampler, NrLate 18th Century Alphabet & Motif Sampler By Jean Lithgow Aged 10 - 1785Eary/mid 19th Century House & Alphabet Sampler By Mary Eve Enetson Aged 10 1840Early 19th Century Alphpabet & Motif Sampler By Sarah Ann Johnson Aged 11 - 1835Georgana Booth's Early 19th C English Silk On Linen Pictoral Sampler *Rare Antique American Linen Sampler 18th Or 19th Century Folk Art Needlework Vintage/antique? Sampler Dated 1806 Named Elizabeth Burcham Letters & NumbersAntique 1823 Dated Sampler Needlework Saredon School Ann Cotterell Berks Co PaSuperb Adam & Eve Antique Sampler, Charlotte Adams 1844, Bird's Eye Maple FrameSmall Late 19th Century Motif & Alphabet Sampler By Mary Evans - 1880Late 18th/early 19th Century Alphabet Sampler By Ellen Mclellan C.1800Dated 1853 Sarah Erington 1853 Framed SamplerEarly 19th Century Motif Sampler By Elizabeth King Deerfield - 1837Antique 19th C Alphabet Silk On Linen Folk Art Sampler Primitive Pink Bunny YqzLate 19th Century Alphabet Sampler By Jessie Ashmore - 1887Small Early 19th Century Motif & Verse Sampler By Elizabeth Bishop - 1814Lovely 1865 Antique Needlepoint Picture Sampler Humming Bird Lighthouse AnchorsAntique Sampler 1885 - Victorian Sampler - Ada Christiana Rusby Aged 11 YrsMid/late 19th Century Alphabet & Motif Sampler By Harriet Forster - 1874Early 19th Century Floral Motif & Quotation Sampler By Mary Chatterton - 1836Georgian Jane Howard 1840 Cat And Wonderful Death Motif Needlework Sampler1921 American Samplers Book Bolton Coe 137 Plates 1stVictorian Embroidery God Bless Our Home Oak FrameEarly 19th Century Motif & Prose Sampler By Hannah Bridges Of Warmington - 1828Mid/late 19th Century House, Motif & Xxiii Psalm Sampler By Sarah Harding - 1877Mid 19th Century Adam & Eve, Psalm & Motif Sampler By Ann Saunders Aged 12 1850Large Antique Schoolgirl Sampler Multi-stitch Embroidery Professionally FramedAntique Sampler- Unusual- Classical Gods/bacchanal. Wool On Sack Cloth. Rare.Exceptional Antique American House & Family Record Sampler, Frances Jeffrey 1843Charming 19c American House Sampler, Antique School Girl Needlework Circa 1830'sBeautiful 1880-1900 Antique French Cotton Swatch Book Harriet Osborne's Pristine 19c Antique Sampler Ca 1856, Names Goodnestone SchoolVintage Superbly Worked Wild Flowers/alphabet SamplerAntique French Wine Sampler (wine Thief) Circa 1850-19006 1849-1854 Cross-stitch Samplers On Punched Paper Elephant Book Flower Bookmark