Bewitching stitching: Historic needlework samplers

Decorative stitchery once graced ancient Egyptian robes, embellished Byzantine ecclesiastical vestments and adorned court garments.

Examples of these and other exotic embroideries reached England with expanding international trade of the 16th century. In England, needle working was not only an important pastime, but also, due to the exorbitant cost of cloth and threads, an indication of wealth and stature.

Many exotic types of embroidery, passed from hand to hand, were not only admired, but also copied. If a Spanish blackwork, Florentine, or Algerian-eye stitched piece caught a gentlewoman’s fancy, she might quickly work small squares of it onto long, narrow bands of linen, to be saved for future reference. She might also include any flower, animal, or geometric motifs that caught her eye. These strips of randomly placed embroidery patterns, elaborately worked in subtly shaded twisted-silk and metallic threads, are called band samplers.

Although printed pattern books appeared in the early 17th century, they were difficult to obtain. So women continued adding rows of innovative stitches to their samplers. These valued tools, which sometimes figured in wills, were passed down from mother to daughter.

“Wealthier families would frame the evidence of their female children’s accomplishments,” noted sampler expert Peter Cifelli told The Los Gatos Weekly-Times for an article in 1997.

“It’s only [recently] that much research has been done on the teacher’s influence,” he said. “Now we’re learning that their marks have been there all along, and samplers can be more accurately dated and placed geographically by the telltale signs of a particular teacher.”

Cifelli takes pride in selling samplers to historical museums in the towns where they originated, at no financial gain for himself, he told the Weekly-Times. Samplers have been sold to museums in Norwalk, Conn.; Cambridge, Mass.; and Winchester, N.H.

From the 1700s and into the next century, private elementary “dame schools” run by women for women, required, along with a smattering of basic skills, that their students stitch samplers. A completed wall sampler, like a brother’s school certificate, attested to the knowledge, persistence, and achievement of its creator.

Since schoolmarms usually chose the designs, sketched them, then supervised the progress of their charges, samplers from a single school were often identical in content and stitchery. Some, framed by alphabetical and numerical borders, depict the girls’ schools and locations. Others portray the schoolmarm or the schoolgirl herself.

 These schoolgirls, some as young as six, worked their samplers by laboriously coaxing coarse woolen thread into a minimal number of simple cross stitches across homespun cloth. Their youthful handiwork often features lopsided corners, disproportional forms, and borders that do not quite meet. Some bear traces of lines penciled in to guide borders or free form images. Some were simply left unfinished, threads at loose ends. Since these young girls were barely literate, many are also full of spelling errors. While this may seem charming to some, Mary Jenkins, author of House & Garden Samplers (David & Charles, an imprint of F+W Media, publishers of Antique Trader), comments that their “lettering was a minefield of mistakes, almost as bad as borders but not quite so obvious.”

Many samplers include arbitrary rows of numerals, like one through fourteen or six through twelve – whatever fit in. Others display multiple rows of alphabets standing straight as soldiers, each in a differing stitch, script, and color. Some can be found based on the Latin alphabet and lacking the letters J and U.

During the late 18th century, schoolgirls commonly commemorated christenings, weddings or deaths through samplers. Family genealogy samplers came into vogue soon after. Some trace lineage by simply matching names of family members with appropriate birth and death dates. Others portray leafy trees, their branches burdened with rich genealogical detail. To genealogists, family samplers often prove as valuable as family bibles.

Even if such explicit identifying information is lacking, a sampler’s design alone can sometimes reveal its origins. Variations of samplers that portray slaves serving gentility in the shade of orange trees have been traced to a particular late 18th century Newburyport, Mass., school. Variations of “Elegant Mansion” samplers have been traced to a particular school in Newport, R.I.
Earliest surviving samplers, some of which date back to the 16th century, are carefully preserved in museums or private collections. Those created between 1750 and 1850, the American sampler heyday, however, still surface in antique stores, auctions and estate sales. Collectors are pursuing the best examples, which can be several thousand dollars. A 1797 needlework silk on linen scene of a couple in a garden surrounded by sheep, hounds and flowers sold for $3,045 by Pook & Pook of Downingtown, Pa. The piece measures 14 1/2 inches by 9 1/2 inches. A smaller sampler, measuring 8 inches by 6 1/8 inches, and decorated with three figures under a tree, is listed at $149 in the 2010 Warman’s Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide.

Undated, anonymous samplers are, understandably, the least expensive. So are ones that are faded, stained, mildewed, badly holed, worn or torn. Design and detail count as well. Pictorial samplers are more desirable than simple, alphabetical or numerical ones. Those featuring original inscriptions, which give a greater feeling of intimacy than borrowed ones, are highly collectible too. Clearly recognizable images, full names instead of initials, ages and locations of their creators, names of their schools and dates of completion all also add to a sampler’s worth.