History of samplers: 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.