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]

Anonymous Works

Anonymous Works

This blog combines American primitive folk art, vintage vernacular photography, outsider art, and other interesting… [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]

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    

Antique Chinese Silk Embroidered Face Screen- Cow Bone Embroidery Painting Rare Early 19th Century Figure, Donkey & Cow Sampler By Harriet Hope - 1839Antique Georgian Fine Silk Sampler - Henrietta Russell Kingsomborne School 182219th Century Cat, Bird & Motif Sampler By Esther Mary Farrar C.18451831 Harriet Burlington Mass Sampler, Orig Frame, AafaEarly 19th Century Adam & Eve And House Sampler By Elizabeth Williams 1847 Original Antique Sampler Dated 1860 'susan East Aged 11 Years' Good Detail Early Antique Victorian Sampler Anne Newbould Age 6 1844 Peacocks Flowers19thc Antique 1816/1832 Hand Sewn Linen, Folk Art Sampler, NrAntique American Framed 19th Century Needlework SamplerAntique Pair Redwork School Samplers - Rosa R Saxe 1870s Potterhanworth - Aunt Antique Georgian Alphabet Sampler - Eleanora Woollam 1833Antique Band Samplers X 2 - With FaultsAuthentic 1930's Tudeshk Village Nain Sampler Wagireh Rare 5x5 Collectible NrAntique Vintage Hand Embroidered Needlework Square Panel Sampler Quilt DesignMid 19th Century Peacock And Verse Sampler By Ellen Hay - 1852Antique Pr Redwork School Samplers - Sylvia R Saxe - Potterhanworth 1886 - NieceEarly 19th Century House & Alphabet Sampler By Ellen Mallach Aged 6 C.1820-30Small Antique Victorian Sampler By Annie Linsdell Alphabet And NumeralsEarly 19th Century Silk Work Sampler By Maria Nockells 1825Antique English Georgian Sampler Quaint Verse About "mother Margret" 1828Antique Primitive Miniature Band Sampler - Scottish Dialect - I Canna ForgetAntique Needlework Sampler - Dates From The Late 1840's. Memorial To ChildrenAntique Feb 17 1837 Alphabet & Numeral Sampler - Nice!Antique Sampler Dated 1864Early 19th Century Motif Sampler By Mary Barber 1845Small Early 19th Century Red House & Alphabet Sampler By Mary Cooper 1840Framed Sampler 1845Antique Samplers X 2 - With Faults - Eleanor Duggan 1848Small Antique Victorian Sampler By A Linsdell Alphabet And NumeralsSmall Early 19th Century Green Work Sampler By Jane Wheeler 185218thc Antique 1790 American Folk Art Primitive Needlepoint Sampler ... NrAntique Sampler 1821, Helen Hardwicke, Framed, Alphabet & Numbers, Embroidery19th Century Red House, Figure & Motif Sampler By "annie" 1897American 19th C Sampler School Girl Embroidery Nh New England Ma Needlepoint 19th Century Spaniel & Alphabet Sampler By Anne Eliza Nixon 1892Early 19th Century Sampler By Isabella Duncan Aged 6 Or 8 - 184519th Century Bradbury Family Register Sampler By Sarah Ann Bradbury - 1862Cross Stitch Sampler By Helen C. Edminston - Dated 1864Exc Large Framed 1879 Antique Red Work On Linen Sampler Benndorf C. LorenzOld Vintage Cotton Needlework Sampler Embroidery Art Deco PicturePrimitive Early Style E.g.1857 Sampler ReproCross Stitch Sampler Done By Marian Carr - Dated 1894Old Vintage Cotton Needlework Sampler Embroidery Art Deco"mory Titus 1813" Alphabet Cross Stitch Sampler Embroidery Folk Art NeedlepointAntique Victorian Ephemera- Calligraphy- Sampler-flourishes- "love"Antique 19thc Victorian Sampler Dated August 8 1872