Embroidery – a history of needlework samplers

Our collection includes over 700 needlework samplers ranging from as early as the 1400s, to pieces stitched in the 20th century. They offer a fascinating insight into the practice and teaching of an important domestic craft. Find out how the social and educational significance of samplers has changed over time, as well as their form and function.

The English word 'sampler' derives from the Latin 'exemplum', or the old French term 'essamplaire', meaning 'an example'. Before the introduction of printed designs, embroiderers and lacemakers needed a way to record and reference different designs, stitches and effects. The answer was to create a sampler – a personal reference work featuring patterns and elements that the owner may have learned or copied from others, to recreate again in new pieces.

Such stitch and pattern collections may have been assembled in a number of cultures where decorative needlework was widely practised. Early examples rarely survive, but the quality of the oldest surviving samplers suggests they were made by experienced hands, as well as children, (in many cultures learning needlework was an important part of a young girl's education). The earliest in our collection were found in Egyptian burial grounds, and probably date from the 14th or 15th centuries.

Sampler, unknown maker, 14th – 16th century, Egypt. Museum no. T.326-1921. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by G. D. Hornblower, Esq.

16th century samplers
References in contemporary literature and inventories suggest that in Tudor England, samplers had a very particular identity as a form of reference work. An 'exampler for a woman to work by' is the definition given in John Palsgrave's Anglo-French dictionary of 1530. The first pattern book for embroidery was published in Germany in the early 1520s, and was followed by others in Germany, Italy, France and England. Despite the increasing availability of these books, most embroiderers in the 16th century would still have relied mainly on physical examples of their craft for inspiration and the transfer of specific skills.

Surviving examples of 16th-century samplers are extremely rare. Highlights in our collection include a German piece, worked mostly with ecclesiastical motifs in the style of the earliest group of pattern books (from 1524–40), which was probably destined to decorate church linen.

Sampler, unknown maker, 1500 – 1550, Germany. Museum no. T.114-1956. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by Admiral Sir Robert and Lady Prendergast.

An Italian linen sampler embroidered in silk is surrounded with border patterns typical of those used in the 16th century to decorate personal and household linen.

Sampler (detail), unknown maker, 16th century, Italy. Museum no. T.14-1931. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another example, made in England by a woman called Jane Bostocke in 1598, is somewhere between a reference piece and a demonstration of its maker's skill. The earliest known sampler to include an embroidered date, it also carries an inscription commemorating the birth of a child, Alice Lee, two years earlier. The quality of the embroidery is very high, and Jane Bostocke may have been a member of the family's household employed for her needlework skills.

Sampler, Jane Bostocke, 1598, England. Museum no. T.190-1960. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

17th century
Over the course of the 17th century, English samplers developed from personal reference works for embroiderers, into practice pieces for girls learning needlework. Generally, they featured one of two kinds of needlework exercise: 'spot samplers' featured randomly placed individual motifs whereas 'band samplers' were worked with a more orderly arrangement of rows of border patterns. Spot samplers appear more similar to the reference pieces of earlier centuries, featuring ideas from pattern books such as Richard Shorleyker's A Schole-House For The Needle of 1624, in which he advertises "sundry sortes of spots, as flowers, Birdes and Fishes, &c". Some of these designs appear on an English spot sampler in our collection dated 1625 – 50.

Sampler, unknown maker, 1625 – 50, England. Museum no. 1625-1650. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

By about 1630, a characteristic shape and size of band sampler was becoming recognisable, typically filled with rows of repeating patterns worked in coloured silks, sometimes interspersed with figures or floral motifs. The earliest signed and dated band sampler in our collection was worked by Mildred Mayow in 1633. This may be an early example of a particular school or teacher's influence, as at least two other very similar versions of the piece are known to exist. The composition of band samplers, along with evidence of unpicking, and the variety of stitches used, indicates their increasing use as a teaching tool.

Sampler (detail), Mildred Mayow, 1633, England. Museum no. T.194-1927. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Needlework skills were important for the future management of a girl's household, and the personal adornment of herself and her family. Alphabets allowed girls to practice the marking of linen (sheets, undergarments and other personal items were named so they came back to their right owners after wash day), while spot motifs and border patterns could be used to decorate both clothes and domestic furnishings.

A group of embroideries in our collection by Martha Edlin demonstrates a young girl's neddlework progression. Martha stitched her first band sampler aged eight, in 1668, then another, more subtly patterned and technically sophisticated – with bands of challenging cutwork and needle lace – a year later.

(Left): Sampler (detail), Martha Edlin, 1668, England. Museum no. T.433-1990. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Purchased with the assistance of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund. (Right): Sampler (detail), Martha Edlin, 1669, England. Museum no. T.434-1990. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Purchased with the assistance of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund

She went on to embroider the complex panels of a casket in 1671 (wealthy girls used decorated caskets to store small personal possessions), a jewellery case in 1673, and a series of other items, all of which are in the Museum's collection. Martha dated these objects, perhaps to mark them as significant achievements in the course of her domestic education.

Many of the motifs that appear on later 17th-century samplers are versions – modified by repeated copying and adaptation – of those in pattern books of the previous century, suggesting the continued popularity of traditional designs. One of the more curious of these designs is the small figure that became known as 'the boxer' among 19th-century collectors. Originally derived from the motif of a lover offering a flower to his lady, this figure – always with one upturned arm, as if ready to fight – is found in 16th-century pattern books, yet still appears in samplers from the mid-17th century, and well into the next.

Sampler (detail showing 'boxer' figure), unknown maker, 1660, England. Museum no. T.217-1970. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by Lord Cowdray

18th century
The typical format of the English sampler evolved in the early 18th century to become a squarer shape, and combined different needlework skills. The result was something that could be displayed on the wall in the style of a painting or a print, rather than kept rolled up as a long, narrow reference piece. Repeating patterns and alphabets continued to appear on samplers – alongside decorative borders, pictoral designs and moral or religious verse. By the mid-18th century, the motif of a house and garden, personalised with added local detail, such as a windmill or dovecot, had become a favourite subject.

Sampler, Mary Ann Body, 1789, England. Museum no. T.292-1916. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by Frances M. Beach

As the 18th century progressed, samplers were increasingly embroidered on woollen rather than linen grounds. A woollen surface could easily be worked with the diminishing range of stitches in a young girl's repertoire, with tent (diagonal) stitch and cross stitch beginning to dominate. But linen was retained as a ground for a particular type of sampler worked in a kind of needle lace called 'Hollie Point'. Based on patterns or letters formed with tiny buttonhole stitches, this intricate skill was used to create the highly decorated baby clothes that became fashionable in the second half of the 18th century.

Set of baby clothes featuring Hollie Point work, unknown maker, 1776, England. Museum no. 146 to D-1907. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Samplers in which the maker demonstrated her darning skills provide evidence of utility in sampler-making. A piece by Eliza Broadhead, a pupil at the Quaker school at Ackworth in Yorkshire in 1785, is an unapologetically utilitarian demonstration of the skills a young girl would need later in life to mend holes in her family's clothes. Darning samplers were also worked in the Netherlands but are often more elaborate and more likely to be signed than their English counterparts, like one made by Gerarda Gerritsen in Middelburg in 1763, when she was 13.

(Left); Sampler, Eliza Broadhead, 1785, England. Museum no. T.731-1997. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Bequeathed by Alison Brown. (Right): Sampler, Gerarda Gerritson, 1763, Netherlands. Museum no. T.186-1921. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by Mrs Grove

Geography was considered a suitable subject to express a combination of academic knowledge and needleworking skill. Samplers depicting maps, at first drawn onto the canvas by the pupil or her teacher, became so popular that ready-to-stitch versions in printed satin were developed for sale. Map samplers allowed girls to not only show they had acquired detailed knowledge of the physical form of England and Europe but also the entire world – and even the solar system.

The World, sampler, unknown maker, late 18th century, England. Museum no. T.44-1951. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Bequeathed by Mrs I. M. C. Robinson.
The Solar System, sampler, unknown maker, 1811, England. Museum no. T.92-1939. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by Lady Mary St John Hope

Sometimes the scale of these geographical pieces was far more modest. For example, in a sampler worked by an unknown embroiderer in 1790, we are given a very precise view of the field layout of 'The Farm Called Arnolds', a property in Essex.

The Farm Called Arnolds, sampler, unknown maker. about 1790, England. Museum no. T.65-1954. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

19th century
Samplers became an increasingly standardised and undemanding exercise in late 18th and early 19th century England, so more imaginative examples easily stand out. Two samplers in our collection worked by sisters Mary and Elizabeth Richards around 1800 are similar enough in style to suggest a shared upbringing.

(Left): Sampler, Mary Ann Richards, 1800, England. Museum no. T.96-1939. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by Lady Mary St John Hope. (Right): Sampler, Elizabeth Jane Richards, 1800, England. Museum no. T.97-1939. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by Lady Mary St John Hope

Another standout example includes a unique confessional text-only sampler made by teenager Elizabeth Parker around 1830, who had been working as a nursemaid. Parker's text describes what she sees as her weaknesses and sins, her cruel mistreatment at the hands of her employers, and an abortive plan to kill herself, though thankfully, she actually died in 1889, aged 76.

Sampler, Elizabeth Parker, about 1830, England. Museum no. T.6-1956. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Moral or religious texts, though usually less personal than Parker's, continued to be a frequent choice in the first half of the 19th century. First popular in England in the mid-17th century, these improving or pious statements are central to the often fairly unsophisticated pieces we now recognise as a 'classic' Victorian sampler. This type of piece was also important in the embroidery traditions of European settlers in America, whose strongly felt sense of religious purpose helped to sustain them in an unfamiliar and often unforgiving landscape. A more accomplished piece stitched by 'E Pratt' in the 'New Orphan House Ashley Down Bristol' in 1886 helps demonstrate that in the 18th and 19th centuries samplers were increasingly being used as an educational tool for girls from all social backgrounds.

Sampler, E. Pratt, 1886, England. Museum no. B.547-2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given in memory of Valerie Orr

In England, by the 19th century the sampler had become mostly a schoolroom exercise worked almost exclusively in cross stitch. However various pieces in our collection represent how the European sampler was still used as a tool of reference. These include a piece worked in black cotton in a style typical of the Vierlande area of northern Germany; a cutwork and drawn thread sampler made in the Swedish province of Skåne in 1863; and a group of drawn thread samplers bought new from the Gewerbeschule für Mädchen in Hamburg (a training school for girls) in 1885. Nineteenth-century samplers acquired from Turkey and Morocco, with their randomly placed patterns suitable for decorating clothing and household linen, also recall the early function of English samplers as collections of designs and stitch effects.

(Left): Sampler, unknown maker, 19th century, Morocco. Museum no. T.35-1933. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by G. D. Pratt. (Right): Sampler, unknown maker, 19th century, Turkey. Museum no. T.328-1921. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by G. D. Hornblower, Esq.

Beyond the middle of the 19th century, samplers were increasingly used as models of professional work for amateurs to follow. Our collection includes a number of pieces by Sarah Bland, a Victorian woman well known for designing embroidery and sharing her patterns with other middle-class families. Her exercises in the highly fashionable Berlin woolwork are typical of mid-19th-century embroidery, which was used to make striking chair covers and other home furnishings.

Sampler, Sarah Bland, mid-19th century, England. Museum no. T.240-1967. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by Mrs D. McGregor

Samplers in the 20th century
The upheavals of the First World War contributed to the further decline of the sampler in the 20th century. However needlework guilds and art schools, alongside dedicated individuals, helped to keep needlework skills alive. The V&A was part of this movement and in 1910 commissioned Louisa Pesel, a well-known embroiderer, to make a series of stitch samplers documenting historic English stitches. These samplers were used by the Museum as a teaching aid, and have since been accessioned into the collections as objects of significance in their own right.

Sampler (detail), Louisa Pesel, 1910 – 11, England. Museum no. T.274-1913. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The V&A also holds a number of samplers worked by Grace Christie. Christie was one of the most influential embroiderers of the 20th century. She taught at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and later The Royal College of Art, as well as publishing a major book on samplers Samplers and Stitches in 1920. Several pieces photographed in this book were donated to the V&A in the 1950s and form a core part of our holdings of 20th century samplers.

Sampler, Barbara Dawson, 1948 – 50, England. Museum no. T.50-2003. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The past few decades has seen a revival in interest in embroidery, and historic samplers continue to provide inspiration and instruction for their contemporary counterparts.

Why not try creating your own embroidery designs with our free, downloadable motifs, inspired by a group of beautiful Mexican samplers in our collection.

Header image:

Sampler, unknown maker, 1749, Britain. Museum no. T.205-1929. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by Mrs Lewis F. Day