History of samplers: 16th century
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.