Friday, November 9, 2007

The Friday Fact

The Sampler

The history of the sampler is a very long and colorful one. (yes, I meant to do that...) It began in the late 1500's/early 1600's in the form known as a band sampler. It was basically a band of linen about 6 inches wide and anywhere from 12-36 inches long. As a girl learned embroidery stitches, she would work those new stitches in bands across the width of the fabric. They were often worked in white on white fabric and gave rise to what we now call whitework.

Two samplers were generally worked. A simple beginner's sampler, and then a more advanced one.

In the 1700's, the sampler began to change. It was still considered a sample of all the stitches a girl could do, but it began to incorporate Biblical scenes, alphabets, letters and repetitive motifs. Many samplers can be connected to a particular region simply by looking at the motifs used on the sampler. In Germany, deer (or stags) were very popular, as was the scene of Adam and Eve with the Tree of Life. This motif sampler also gave birth to counted cross-stitch.

For the motif samplers, the mother would usually draw the pictures onto a piece of linen, and the girl would then cover the pictures with her stitches. Satin stitch, chains, knots of all kinds and stem stitch were some of the most popular stitches.

The art form was carried to the Colonies by the Pilgrims, and the first known sampler stitched on the North American continent was done by the daughter of Miles Standish. It's in the Plymouth museum I believe. The art continued to evolve and spread as the Colonies were settled.

In the antebellum South, the sampler took on a whole new meaning. Not only was it a sample of how many stitches a girl knew, it was also a rite of passage into womanhood. Upon successful completion of her second sampler, a girl was ready to begin looking for a husband. Through her father of course, as every good genteel Southern lady did.

The stitches learned were used to accent clothing and handkerchiefs and for decoration on anything that was made out of fabric- from bath towels to the table linens. Kent Plantation House has a lovely needlebook in its collection that's done entirely with satin stitch and stem stitch. Irises have been embroidered on the front, and a dense buttonhole stitch was used to cover the scalloped edges. The embroidered pillowcases and dresser scarves that your grandmother or great-grandmother used to do, came about out of this lost artform.


  1. Hopped over from Erica's page. I enjoyed your Friday Fact. I used to do needlepoint and counted cross stitch. I love looking at the old samplers and thinking of the hours that went into the pieces.

  2. Very interesting post, Rachel. I love looking at samplers too.