Samplers & childhood
Samplers are often valued for their decorative effect, but were originally a practical aid to remembering particular stitches, techniques and effects. While some boys were taught to sew, and professional embroiderers were often men, the ability to sew was traditionally considered essential for girls and women of all social classes. This was particularly emphasised in female education and training: sewing was sometimes taught before writing, and several samplers might be made to show growing proficiency.
By the late 18th century the sampler had ceased to be this 'exampler' of stitches, and though still an exercise in skill, was more likely to be the output of a child, and had become significant for its moral and pictorial content.
'Of female arts in usefulness
The needle far excels the rest
In ornament there's no device
Affords adornment half so nice
While thus we practice every art
To adorn and grace our mortal part
Let us with no less care devise
To improve the mind that never dies'
The texts on British and American samplers between 1750 and 1850 tend to be from the Bible, Isaac Watts' religious poetry, or the Wesleyan hymnbook. Religious proverbs and sayings were also much favoured, and those which used a rhyme or a play on words were easily remembered.
'Jesus permit thy gracious name to stand
As the first effort of an infant's hand
And as her fingers on the sampler move,
Engage her tender heart to seek thy love.
With thy dear children may she have a part,
And write thy name thyself upon her heart.'
Authorship is attributed by some to the hymn-writer John Newton (1725-1807), best known for 'Amazing Grace', who is said to have written it for the sampler of his niece. It has also been suggested that it was composed by Isaac Watts (1674-1748) for his niece.
The prose equivalent is probably the Biblical exhortation in use on children's samplers from at least the 1750s:
'…Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them...' (Ecclesiastes 12,1)
By the 1850s, children's samplers tended to concentrate on letters and numbers, with a limited pictorial and textual element. This paring down was followed in the late 19th century by the development of a sampler based on the educational syllabus of the period, teaching household needlework skills rather than embroidery and piety. The pupil made part of a garment, such as a sleeve, to demonstrate mastery of construction and finishing methods and then added examples of techniques for mending clothes, such as darning and patching.
A type of sampler combining stitches to make patterns was still being made in schools in the 1950s. These samplers were usually worked in brightly coloured yarns on binca canvas with prominent squared holes in the mesh, making it easier to count stitches.