Samplers derive their English name from the French essamplaire, meaning any kind of work to be copied or imitated. Defying precise definition, the name has come to be used for a type of object whose form and function have comprehensively changed over time, from a practical tool of the embroiderer, through decorative pictures to a formulaic or occasionally more individual schoolroom exercise.
Since its earliest acquisition of a sampler in 1863, the V&A has built up a collection of over 700 examples, ranging in date from the 14th or 15th century to the early 20th. Their range is extensive in country of origin and style, as well as date, reflecting the Museum’s early and continuing recognition of the contribution made by samplers towards documenting the history of embroidery, its teaching and practice. It also reflects their widespread appeal to museum audiences, and to private collectors, whose gifts or bequests have significantly augmented the Museum’s collection.
Of particular importance has been the donation of samplers descended through families, which come with their associated histories, as in the group of six related mid-17th century samplers given by descendants of Margret Mason, a young girl who worked her signed piece in 1660.
In their earliest form, samplers were put together as personal reference works for embroiderers: trials of patterns and stitches which had been copied from others, records of particular effects achieved which could be recreated again. They would have been the work, not of children, but of more experienced embroiderers, and some, from their quality, of professionals.
Such stitch and pattern collections may have been assembled in a number of cultures where embroidery for decorative effect was widely practised, our knowledge of early examples depending on the few pieces to have survived in rare cases. The earliest examples in the Museum’s collection, which were found in Egyptian burial grounds, probably date from the 14th or 15th centuries.
By the 16th century, in England samplers had a particular identity which the considerable number of references in contemporary literature and inventories suggest was readily understood. A sampler was, in the definition of John Palsgrave’s Anglo-French dictionary of 1530, an ‘exampler for a woman to work by; exemple’. It was a source for her to refer to, of patterns and stitches, before the introduction and growing availability of printed designs.
The first printed pattern book for embroidery was published by a textile printer, Johann Schönsperger in Augsburg, Germany, in about 1523, and it was followed by others in Germany, Italy, France and England, borrowing extensively from each other with or without acknowledgement. This German piece (right) is worked mostly with ecclesiastical motifs, probably intended for the decoration of church linen. The motifs are in the style of the earliest group of pattern-books, from 1524–40.
The increasing availability of these pattern books brought new sources of reference for embroiderers to apply to their work.
Throughout the 16th century the sampler retained its place as an effective memorandum, recording, as well as the patterns themselves, the effects achieved by different stitches, types of thread and combinations of colour. Although there are a number of references to samplers in 16th-century literature, surviving examples are exceptionally rare.
The central motif on the Italian sampler, with a design in reserve on a red embroidered ground, was first published in the Esemplario di lavori of Giovanni Andrea Vavassore in 1530 and it is surrounded with border patterns typical of those used in the 16th century for personal and household linen.
Jane Bostocke’s sampler of 1598 is the earliest known example to include an embroidered date. Its inscription commemorates the birth of a child, Alice Lee, two years earlier. The quality of the embroidery is very high, and Jane Bostocke may have been a member of the family’s household employed for her needlework skills.
The sampler is from a period of transition in the practical use of such items, between the 16th century and earlier, when they served as a reference piece for a more or less experienced embroiderer, and what gradually became their nature in the 17th century, a method of measuring and recording the maker’s attainment. It has elements of two different sorts of needlework exercise, which developed in the following decades: the randomly placed working of individual motifs (usually described as spot samplers) and the more orderly arrangement of rows of border patterns (band samplers). Both of these types are well represented in the Museum’s collection, with over one hundred English examples from the 17th century.
So-called 'spot' samplers, characterised by the randomly placed working of individual motifs, appear closest in intention to the earlier reference pieces. The one illustrated on the right shows a typical range of motifs, with areas of repeating pattern, some suitable for the decoration of linen or such costume accessories as purses. It also features creatures taken from Richard Shorleyker’s pattern book of 1624, A ‘schole-house, for the needle’, in which he advertises ‘sundry sortes of spots, as flowers, Birdes and Fishes, &c’.
Part-worked areas and evidence of unpicking in some of these samplers underline their use in trying out new effects, and they frequently display a wide range of stitches, as well as many colours of silk and different metal threads. Some contain initials, but rarely names or dates. The small range of dated examples, covering a wide span of years, indicate that they were made through most of the 17th century.
By about 1630, a characteristic shape and size of sampler was becoming recognisable, with the ground cut from a loom-width of linen to form its length, and a much narrower width. The selvedges of the linen thus formed the top and bottom edges of the sampler. It would typically be filled with rows of repeating patterns worked in coloured silks, sometimes interspersed with figures or floral motifs. Some band samplers are entirely of whitework, cutwork and needle lace stitches, and others combine white and coloured decoration in the same piece, sometimes working from either end towards the middle, as in the unfinished example on the left.
The earliest signed and dated band sampler in the Museum’s collection was worked by Mildred Mayow in 1633. This sampler has at least two other closely similar versions known and may be an early example of a particular school or teacher’s influence. With the composition of band samplers comes the first clear indication in England of the form being used as a method of instruction and practice for girls learning needlework.
Martha Edlin’s two samplers were worked in 1668 and 1669. The first is a lively band sampler in multi-coloured silks, embroidered when she was eight, the second, more subtly patterned and technically sophisticated, with bands of cutwork and needle lace stitches, and whitework, when she was a year older. She went on to embroider the panels of a fine casket, also in the Museum’s collection, by the time she was 11, and a beadwork jewel case when she was 13. The physical dating of all of these pieces suggests the desire to mark them as significant achievements in the stages of her girlhood learning.
The introduction of moral verses into the decoration of samplers is another indication of their role, well established by the middle of the 17th century, as part of a girl’s education. The anonymous worker of the first sampler below, who would almost certainly have been a child of similar age to Martha Edlin, relates that she must ‘bow and bend unto another’s will that I might learn both art and skill to get my living with my hands’.
While many of the girls who embroidered these samplers would not have expected to have to work for their living, the needlework skills they were learning were still important attributes in the future management of their households and the personal adornment of their families and themselves.
Alphabets gave practice for the marking of linen, and the spot motifs and border patterns could be put to use in the decoration of clothes and domestic furnishings. Some of the patterns that appear on later 17th-century samplers, however, displaying origins in 16th-century pattern books modified by repeated copying and adaptation, would have been very outdated for fashionable use by then. These can only have earned their place as part of the tradition of patterns handed on through generations. Elizabeth Mackett worked a fine sampler in 1696, technically accomplished, but using needle lace stitches and patterns which were part of the repertoire fifty years earlier.
The anonymous maker of the beautifully executed mid-17th-century sampler below (far right) worked an alphabet whose design came originally from La vera perfettione del disegno by Giovanni Ostaus, 1561, and was reprinted in England by Poyntz, in New and singular patternes and works of linnen in 1591.
The most curious of these pattern book motifs to appear regularly on English samplers, transformed through copying over many years from its original form, is the small figure given the name of ‘boxer’ by 19th-century collectors because of his stance with raised arm as if taking guard. He appears, repeating across a row, in samplers from the mid 17th until well into the 18th century. The figure of the boxer is ultimately derived from the motif of a lover offering a flower to his lady, found in a number of versions in 16th-century pattern books. He is sometimes naked and sometimes dressed, giving his creator an opportunity to express some individuality in colour choice and stitch. On the first example below, two ‘boxers’ line up back to back eyeing each other like duellists and the lady to whom the 'offering' is being made has herself been transformed into a flowering plant.
A similarity of composition and motifs, seen in another group of samplers dating from the late 17th and the beginning of the 18th centuries, provides helpful evidence of the continuity brought to sampler making by the influence of a teacher on her pupils over a number of years. The sampler shown here (centre) was worked by Mary Groome in 1704. It is one of a group of 12 now known, in public and private collections, which were apparently worked by pupils of a teacher called Judeth (or Juda) Hayle in the Ipswich area, according to research being carried out by Edwina Ehrman of the Museum of London. The group range in date between 1691 and 1710, and between them share a number of the same motifs and patterns, as well as a moral verse, declaring that ‘larnin is most excellent’. Each acknowledges the guidance of Judeth Hayle, either citing her as ‘dame’, or including her initials.
The German and Italian samplers in the Museum’s collection from the 17th century are worked with repeating patterns and motifs that appear to have more practical application than their English counterparts, although there is less variety in the stitches used. The earlier examples may well be the practice or reference pieces of experienced embroiderers. One, signed Lucke Boten and dated 1618, is the earliest dated German sampler so far known.
The format of English samplers evolved in the early 18th century typically into a squarer shape, reflecting the further changing perception of their purpose. It combined in a single exercise the different stages that a girl would previously have gone through in the acquisition of needlework skills, when her task was to embroider one or two samplers followed by a panel or picture. The result was not a long, narrow piece to be rolled up for future reference, but something that could be displayed like a painting or print. The bands of repeating patterns and alphabets did still sometimes occasionally appear with traditional pattern book motifs.
In the top sampler (1), dated 1729, two ‘boxers’ accompany couples fashionably dressed in the styles of more than 100 years earlier, taken originally from Johan Sibmacher’s pattern book of 1601 Newes Modelbuch, and reprinted by James Boler in The needle’s excellency in the early 17th century.
However, samplers increasingly had a pictorial focus, like the figure of Queen Anne in the lower sampler (2), or included lengthy inscriptions of moral or religious verse. Signifying their fitness for display, they would in effect be framed with embroidered border patterns, naturalistic in accordance with contemporary taste in textile design, or stylised with flower heads alternating regularly to either side of a stem, in a form that was to change very little over the next 100 years. By the mid 18th century the motif of house and garden, personalised with added local detail, such as a windmill or dovecot, had become and was to remain a favourite choice of subject.
The sampler below left (3) was embroidered on a woollen ground, increasingly used for English samplers as the 18th century progressed. Its surface was easily worked with the diminishing range of stitches in the young girl’s repertoire, with tent stitch and cross stitch being her predominant choice. Linen ground was retained, however, for a particular type of sampler worked in a needle lace stitch called hollie point, most examples of which date from the second quarter of the 18th century. Hollie point was a practical stitch to learn, used particularly for decorative insertions into baby clothes and occasionally adult garments, and exact counterparts of the patterns worked in hollie point samplers can be found in surviving clothing.
The maker of the large sampler shown in the middle (4) also had a practical purpose in mind. In her experimentation with a flame effect in different stitches, this was probably practice for upholstered chair seat covers. From its colouring and lettering, this sampler is almost certainly Scottish.
Samplers in which the maker demonstrated her darning skills provide evidence of the continuing thread of utility still to be found in sampler-making in the later 18th century. The range of English darning samplers in the Museum’s collection, with points of similarity and of contrast, underlines the varying circumstances of the girls who made them. The anonymous embroiderer of the sampler on the right (5) chose a variety of pastel-coloured silks for her work, and filled the centre of the sampler with a delicate ribbon-tied spray of flowers.
Eliza Broadhead, a pupil at the Quaker school at Ackworth in Yorkshire in 1785, used similar pattern darning stitches but in predominantly brown wool on a coarse woollen ground, achieving a more starkly utilitarian effect (6). Elaborate darning samplers were also worked in the Netherlands and are possibly the source from which English versions derived. They are, however, more usually signed and dated than their English counterparts.
The establishment of sampler-making as part of a girl’s school education gave scope for the demonstration of more than just her needlework skills and the expression of dutiful piety.
Elizabeth Knowles’ sampler of 1787 (7) is worked with a ‘Perpetual Almanack’, by which the dates on which Sunday would fall for the succeeding 50 years might be calculated. Its careful layout, mathematical precision, Latin tag and naming of the school where she was a pupil suggest her desire to show off other attainments as much as her embroidery, which is worked unambitiously in cross stitch throughout.
Geography was also considered a suitable vehicle for the combined demonstration of academic and needlework skills. Samplers depicting maps, at first drawn onto the canvas by the pupil or her teacher, became so popular that printed satin versions could be purchased ready to embroider.
The earlier map samplers have hand-drawn or traced outlines. They were prepared by the teacher or governess in many cases, and that may have happened in the sampler below left (8). We do not know how old Elizabeth Hawkins was when she embroidered the map, but the slightly haphazard spacing of its place names suggests an inexperienced hand, and she probably located these herself. The map of Europe Elizabeth embroidered was one of the most popular choices, but the range of possibilities was wide. A pupil might choose to depict as local an area as the field layout of a nearby estate, or her country, its continent, the two hemispheres of the globe or even the solar system. Such complex maps as the two hemispheres were almost always undertaken on printed grounds, which were effectively sampler kits, although generally left with bare borders to allow for some personalisation.
The European samplers from the 18th century in the Museum’s collection reflect a range of different preoccupations among their makers. Two of the Scandinavian examples below (10) and (11), both dated in the 1750s, continue in the tradition of stitch and pattern exercises. In addition, the Dutch sampler from 1751 (12) shows experimentation with traditional border patterns, elaborate lettering and strong colours typical of Friesland.
Among the Museum’s extensive collection of Spanish samplers, the three illustrated here are in the style which predominated from the later 17th to the 19th century. Large, densely worked with geometric patterns and figurative motifs in a variety of stitches, they are often inscribed with the teacher’s name alongside that of the maker, as you can see on the sampler below left (13).
This pair of samplers below left (16) and middle (17), worked by two English sisters, shows how effectively a little creativity could still personalise what was becoming increasingly a standardised form of unambitious exercise in the early 19th century. Exceptions to this form call particular attention to their makers.
The anonymous embroiderer of the sampler on the right (18) chooses to reveal nothing of herself except her touching affection for her father, among a scattering of random motifs.
In this linen sampler (right), its maker, Elizabeth Parker, uses embroidery, worked in red silk cross stitch in a block of text unrelieved by any ornamentation, to confess to all the errors of her short life. She fixes the reader’s attention with the most direct opening appeal: ‘As I cannot write I put this down simply and freely as I might speak to a person to whose intimacy and tenderness I can fully entrust myself and who I know will bear with all my weaknesses.’
Such a personal declaration is unique among the Museum’s sampler collection, but the inclusion of more orthodox moral or religious text in samplers, first seen in England in the middle of the 17th century, continued to be a frequent choice in their composition through the first half of the 19th century. The practice had been taken out to America by English settlers and absorbed into that country’s developing sampler-making tradition. An example from 1840 (below left), worked in the West African country of Sierra Leone, then a British colony, is evidence of the place such combined lessons in needlework and the precepts of morality still had at that date in British education transplanted abroad.
As well as acquiring samplers of the school-exercise type worked in much of Europe and in the colonial possessions of European countries, the Museum has actively collected samplers with particular regional characteristics. Some of these were already of historical interest when they were acquired, like the example below right, dated 1807, worked in black cotton on linen ground in the typical patterns of the Vierlande area of North Germany.
Others were acquired by the Museum in the 19th century as records of current practice. The sampler below left, predominantly of cutwork and drawn thread work made in the Swedish province of Skåne in 1863, was given to the Museum by the textile historian Mrs Bury Palliser in 1869.
The German drawn thread work sampler below right was one of a group bought new from the Gewerbeschule für Mädchen, Hamburg, a training-school for girls, in 1885.
19th-century Turkish and Moroccan samplers, with their randomly placed patterns suitable for the decoration of household linen and clothing, serve to recall the early function of European samplers as collections of designs and stitch effects.
Samplers did not sustain their role much beyond the middle of the 19th century in the education of girls for whom embroidery would be a pastime or housekeeping ritual in adult life rather than a livelihood.
The exercise in Berlin woolwork below, embroidered in counted thread stitches on a double canvas, may be professional work, intended as a model for amateurs to follow. It is largely with such demonstration pieces that the tradition of sampler-making is represented in the Museum’s collection into the 20th century.