History of samplers: 14th & 15th century
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.