History of samplers: 18th century
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.