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Samplers, Stitches and Techniques

Sampler, Unknown, 19th century. Museum no. T.35-1933

Sampler, Unknown, 19th century. Museum no. T.35-1933

Given technical ability, the effects that can be created through embroidery are almost limitless. While each stitch or group of stitches have their own qualities and characteristics, it is the embroiderer's ability to select and exploit them that will transform a plain piece of fabric into a pleasing and unique work of art.

This power to perform magic with a needle comes through the embroiderer's familiarity with stitches: with their structure, with the hand movements required to make them and with their seemingly infinite variation. In 1980 Mrs Christie classified stitches by their structure and, in a more rigorously scientific way, so did Irene Emery in 1966. Both demonstrated that a great variety has developed from two or three basic stitches.

The straight stitch evolved into satin, brick, long and short, tent, Gobelin, Florentine, Hungarian and others, while the running stitch evolved into double running, outline, stem, darning and more. It is this variety that often causes confusion. 'Hopeless confusion', Marcus Huish called it, and continued: 'It is hardly too much to say that nearly every stitch has something like half a dozen names, the result of reinvention or revival by succeeding generation, while to add to the trouble, some authorities have assigned ancient names to certain stitches on what appears to be wholly insufficient evidence of identity'.

Sampler, Gerarda Gerritsen, 1763. Museum no. T.186-1921. Given by Mrs Grove

Sampler, Gerarda Gerritsen, 1763. Museum no. T.186-1921. Given by Mrs Grove

This plethora of stitch names is not a recent phenomenon. In 1688 the following list was published to explain 'The School Mistris Terms Of Art For All Her Ways Of Sowing':

'A Samcloth, vulgarly a Sampler
Plat-stitch, or single plat-stitch which is good on one side
Plat-stitch, or double plat-stitch which is alike on both sides
Spanish stitch, true on both sides
Tent-stitch on the finger
Tent-stitch in the tent
Irish stitch - Back-stitch
Fore-stitch - Queens-stitch
Gold-stitch - Satin-stitch
Tent-stitch upon satin
Fern-stitch - Finny-stitch
New-stitch - Chain-stitch
Bread-stitch - Fisher-stitch
Rosemary-stitch - Mow-stitch
Whip-stitch - Cross-stitch
Raised work - Needlework Pearl
Geneva work - Virgins Device
Cut Work - Open cut work
Laid work- Stitch work and through stitch
Lap work - Rock work
Frost work - Net work
Purle work - Tent work
Finger work

All of which are several sorts and manners of works wrought by the needle with silk…'.

This almost hypnotic list of stitches, many of them with unimaginable form, serves to illustrate the problem of a nomenclature that has varied over the centuries and across countries and continents. The clearest exposition of both name and form is to be found in Mary Thomas’s ‘Dictionary of Stitches’, 1934, and in the index she usefully groups stitches according to their function. The great variety of stitches has evolved because each stitch has a particular function. Even the slightest variation – in the length of the stitch, the axis of the stitch or the angle of the needle – subtly changes the role that particular stitch plays in an embroidery. It is the understanding of function that gives the embroiderer power to create.The patterns in samplers had their functions too. What could be more functional than a darning sampler with its exercises in how to repair holes and worn areas in woven fabrics? In the most carefully worked samplers holes were actually cut into the fabric, in others (right) there was no hole and the darning was worked entirely on the fabric. Lines of running stitch were made, first along the length of the sampler to replace or strengthen the warp and then across the width of the sampler to replace or strengthen the weft.

To extend the life of a damaged fabric, it was important to reproduce the woven structure as closely as possible in order to eliminate unequal tensions and to maintain any continuity of design. In this case, the stitches have been worked regularly over two threads and under two threads to create a small-scale repeating pattern. Coloured silks have been used to show clearly how the repair should be worked, but if suitable threads and colours had been selected to match the ground fabric, the darned area would have been invisible and would have been as strong and serviceable as the original fabric. Despite the beauty of these darned patterns, which could be used to form interesting backgrounds in other embroideries, they were primarily utilitarian and were never intended to be seen.

In contrast, other patterns recorded on early samplers were first and foremost decorative and fall into two main types: those which add pattern to a basically unaltered ground, and those which create pattern by changing the structure of the ground.

Sampler, Unknown, mid 17th century. Museum no. 739-1899.

Sampler, Unknown, mid 17th century. Museum no. 739-1899.

Simple, delicate border patterns worked in double running stitch (left) were completely reversible, identical on the back and front, and were perfectly suited to decorate any edges where the wrong side might easily be glimpsed – on collars, cuffs and hems, or on the sides of covers and bed linen. Although double running stitch had largely disappeared from West European embroidery by the mid-eighteenth century, it continued to be used elsewhere, especially in Turkey and in North Africa. Some embroideries may have the appearance of double running stitch, but are not reversible. In these examples,the same delicate surface patterns have been embroidered with back stitch, which is a much faster way of working but one which sacrifices reversibility. One stitch may be used alone to create wonderful patterns: it might be the deceptive simplicity of a line of double running stitch or it might be the solidity of densely packed tent stitch.

Occasionally it is possible to see the lines of black ink that marked out the motifs to be embroidered. In this example, if the coloured silks are gently moved to one side, the dark under drawing is visible. It marked only the outline and the main internal lines. As they might have shown through the paler colours of embroidery thread, no lines were used to indicate where the leaves and petals should be shaded. This was left to the eye and the skill of the embroiderer, who sometimes chose slight gradations from pale to dark and at other times chose bolder contrasts. Given that great care was taken to create a naturalistic form in this time-consuming way, it is surprising that faint lines of silk thread are visible through the unembroidered ground fabric as they have been carried across the back from one area to another. The untidiness was of no consequence as the back of these spot motifs would never have been seen: for the most part such motifs of animals, flowers, birds and insects would have been worked on a fine linen and then cut around and applied as ornamentation to a stouter furnishing fabric, to be used as decorative panels or hangings. It was necessary therefore that they should possess a certain degree of stability.A counted thread stitch, such as tent stitch, would allow the embroiderer scope for realistic modelling and at the same time would build a solid and robust motif suitable for applied work.

Sampler, Unknown, mid 17th century. Museum no. T.234-1928.

Sampler, Unknown, mid 17th century. Museum no. T.234-1928.

No underdrawing can be seen beneath the threads of the geometric motifs on the same sampler (left), as their straight lines could be worked by regular counting. These intricate motifs could be repeated across, above and below to form the dense patterns used to decorate small accessories such as purses. There were two desirable requirements for these fashionable articles: they should be hard-wearing and they ought to look as sumptuous as possible. Cross stitch, with equal amounts of thread on the back and the front, served to reinforce the strength of the ground fabric as did the overcasting in the centre, which created a new texture by pulling threads together to form a fine mesh. More texture was added by the use of two colours of metal thread worked in plaited braid stitch. Metal thread gave a degree of rigidity to the embroidery as well as glitter and sparkle, but it was very expensive and so was used as surface decoration to avoid unnecessary wastage on the back.

Texture in embroidery was once of great importance (right). Texture may be subtle, like the contrast between the slightly rough, uneven surface of the rococo stitch in the strawberries and the shiny smooth red satin stitch in the acorns above them. It may be simple, like the slight padding beneath the detached buttonhole stitch that covers the base of the acorns and swirls around to form the centre of the red roses. It may even be outrageous and appear as loose, three-dimensional rose petals in detached buttonhole stitch, anchored only at their base and standing proud of the ground. Colour is not always necessary but texture and contrast are.
Sampler, Elizabeth Mackett, 1696. Museum no. 433-1884

Sampler, Elizabeth Mackett, 1696. Museum no. 433-1884

Sampler, Lucke Boten, 1618. Museum no. T.41-1951

Sampler, Lucke Boten, 1618. Museum no. T.41-1951




It would, for example, be incorrect to think of a whitework border (left) as simple andunassuming. If there is no splash of colour to attract (or distract) the eye, great care must be taken to create a visually appealing pattern by means of contrast. Here the contrast is between the smooth, solid blocks of satin stitch and the diagonal lines of pulled thread work. Above and below the central band, greater contrast has been developed by bringing the needle through, making buttonholed bars and securing them as loops on the ground fabric, sometimes grouping them into rosettes. It is interesting to note that the border patterns on early samplers were only ever worked as straight sections, and never demonstrate how the embroiderer ought to take a corner. Such patterns were designed to be used as edgings and not as frames, and most were to be applied to personal linen such as shirts, chemises, collars, cuffs and caps. In a play written in 1581, a rich man’s wife is described using her samplers to enrich her own garments:

'Now, when she had dined, then she might go seke out her examplers, and to peruse which worke could doe beste in a ruffe, whiche in a gorget, which in a sleeve, which in a quaife, which in a caule, which in a handcarcheef; what lace would doe beste to edge it, what seame, what stitch, what cutte, what garde: and to sitte her doune and take it forth by little and little, and thus with her nedle to passe the after noone with devising of thinges for her owne wearyinge.'

The play is ‘Phylotus and Emilia’ by Barnabe Riche. A gorget was a collar, and a quaife and a caule were types of cap.

Sampler, Unknown, 1758. Museum no. T.27-1940

Sampler, Unknown, 1758. Museum no. T.27-1940

Sometimes the blocks of pattern embroidered on samplers may seem too regular to be used as edgings (left), but worked on a scalloped or shaped piece of fine cotton each of these designs would have succeeded in mimicking the fine bobbin laces that were fashionable in the eighteenth century. Tiny repeating patterns have been formed by manipulating the ground fabric, by pulling threads together and securing them in new alignments, and by darning-in supplementary threads to create thicker spots on the almost transparent cotton.

Less fine but more dramatic effects were created by withdrawing threads from the ground, removing them from either the warp or the weft, or from both. Those threads that remained were stitched together in varying combinations to form decorative patterns (right) suitable for use as insertions or as edgings.

Breathtaking audacity must have been required to take the next step, to move from pulled thread and drawn thread work to cutwork. To remove entire blocks of the fabric, sometimes on a relatively large scale, leaving behind only a few vertical and horizontal threads on which to construct an entirely new structure.

New threads, which travelled diagonally, were inserted and strengthened and then augmented with various types of buttonhole stitches to create additional loops and circles until cobweb-like patterns were formed and snowflakes hung in mid-air (left). Despite the delicacy of these designs, cutwork had to be sturdy if it was to serve as an edging, so the use of a linen ground and linen thread ensured that it would be strong, and an application of starch would impart a fashionable stiffness.

Sampler, Unknown, mid 17th century. Museum no. T.187-1987. Given by Janet Harris, Susan Jones and Lynda Smith

Sampler, Unknown, mid 17th century. Museum no. T.187-1987. Given by Janet Harris, Susan Jones and Lynda Smith

Sampler, Unknown, 1649. Museum no. T.115-1956. Given by Adm. Sir Robert and Lady Prendergast

Sampler, Unknown, 1649. Museum no. T.115-1956. Given by Adm. Sir Robert and Lady Prendergast

Sampler, Gullia Piccolomini, 1600-1660. Museum no. T.787-1919.

Sampler, Gullia Piccolomini, 1600-1660. Museum no. T.787-1919.

Cutwork was not always stark and dramatic. If the fillings were finer and more closely packed the effect was softer, in which case textured elements were often introduced to compensate for the absence of bold simplicity. Detached buttonhole stitch produced scales on the mermaid’s tail and beautifully plump peas in the pods to each side of her (right). Another version of cutwork illustrates the inventive (if rather perverse) side of human nature, which first cuts a square hole in the ground fabric and then patiently fills it with minute hollie stitch until it is whole again (below, left), using needlework skills to transform one thing into another.

Sampler, Mary Tredwell, 1739. Museum no. T.608-1974. Bequeathed by Mary Blanche Dick

Sampler, Mary Tredwell, 1739. Museum no. T.608-1974. Bequeathed by Mary Blanche Dick

An understanding of stitch can help to unravel the creative history of a piece of embroidery. Recently, when a mid-seventeenth century sampler was unframed and unpicked from its backboard, two completely different patterns were revealed. On the front there is a solid and dependable man and woman, for which a fine detached buttonhole stitch has been used to make a satisfactory, if rather stripy, fabric to represent her gown, his doublet and breeches, and the grassy mound on which they stand. When the back of the sampler is examined (left), it can be seen that these items were originally decorated with a light and charming reversible pattern worked in double running stitch. Did this later cause displeasure so that it was concealed on the front beneath a solid skin of detached buttonhole, or was the embroiderer merely demonstrating on the sampler a newly acquired skill? Two stitches and two radically different effects. The creative potential of stitch is almost boundless, and yet from the 18th century onwards more and more reliance has been placed on fewer and fewer stitches until the word ‘sampler’ has generally come to be equated with ‘cross stitch’.
Sampler, Elizabeth Short, 1661. Museum no. T.131-1961. Given by Mrs Q. Toogood, in memory of C. R. Abbott
Sampler, Elizabeth Short, 1661. Museum no. T.131-1961. Given by Mrs Q. Toogood, in memory of C. R. Abbott
Sampler, Elizabeth Short, 1661. Museum no. T.131-1961. Given by Mrs Q. Toogood, in memory of C. R. Abbott
Sampler, Elizabeth Short, 1661. Museum no. T.131-1961. Given by Mrs Q. Toogood, in memory of C. R. Abbott

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