by Aimee-Michele Pratt
Among the most popular items that we conserve at Museum Textile Services are needlework samplers. As a new member of staff, I decided to research what a sampler is and where they are made.
The word sampler is derived from the French word essamplaire, which means anything that is to be copied or imitated. The earliest samplers illustrated this idea as they were pieces of cloth on which embroiderers experimented with stitch effects or recorded patterns for future reference. Effectively, samplers took the place of pattern books, which were not widely available.
In the eighteenth century (in America and much of Europe) samplers took on a different utilitarian function. During this time, girls and young women created samplers as a part of their basic education. They were vehicles through which schoolgirls could practice their embroidery techniques, and learn their letters and numbers. These are the works that many picture when thinking of an embroidered sampler. They commonly include alphanumeric characters, simple sayings, or biblical quotations. In more ambitious pieces, girls included simple pictorial scenes.
Some of the samplers in the slideshow below are familiar, and others defy the common concept of a sampler. Included are examples of ancient reference samplers from Peru and Egypt, elaborate darning samplers, ornate whitework, and a fascinating piece in the textile collection of the Victoria and Albert museum on which a woman has embroidered her entire life story. These examples have expanded our understanding of what a sampler can be, and illustrate the sampler’s evolving form and purpose.
I hope you enjoy this exploration of the wonderful world of samplers.