History of samplers: 19th century
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.