The word sampler is from the Latin ‘exemplum’ – an example
There was a time when needleworkers did not have the use of pre-printed patterns. This meant that when ever they noticed a design or motif that they liked it would need to be captured (stitched) as an example, for future reference.
A cloth would be stitched to form a small example. Soon the cloth was referred to as a ‘sampler’, as it would have randomly placed designs or patterns. Perhaps one day the design or pattern would be embroidered onto a pocket, cuff or hem line. You could almost say that the cloth was a working diary of a needleworker, collected over their lifetime.
The earliest examples of cloth used to record stitched patterns or a design is thought to have been worked by the ancient Peruvian Nazca culture.
A sampler developed into a embroidery produced, by young females, displaying a demonstration or test of their skills in needlework. It would often show some form of figures, motifs or have decorative borders. On occasions the needleworker would embroider their name and the date.
Borders were introduced in the 17th century and by the mid-1600s alphabets came into common use. We also see religious or moral quotations, suggesting that the finished sampler was methodically organised.
By the 18th century samplers seemed a complete contrast to their predecessors. These samplers were stitched to demonstrate knowledge than to preserve skills.
Samplers are scattered all around the world and can be seen in various locations or settings. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York has a sampler made by the Peruvian Nazca culture from cotton and camelid hair. Records suggest the sampler was produced in the 2nd century BC.
The Victorian & Albert Museum, London has samplers by Elizabeth Parker and Jane Bostocke. The earliest dated sampler in Hull Museums Collection was produced by Elizabeth Clark in 1742, with an alphabet and flower motifs. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge has samplers dating from the late 16th century to 20th century. There is a stunning piece worked by Mary Derow in 1723.
I am even surprised to find ‘The Sampler Tea Room & Museum’ in Pembrokeshire. Samplers can be seen at a variety of National Trust properties in historic setting such as Tintinhull House, Somerset; Berrington Hall, Herefordshire; Hill Top, Cumbria and Montacute House, Somerset.
Please contact each individual museum or National Trust property before making a visit to check if the samplers are on public display or if you are required to make an appointment in advance with a curator.
Today, samplers are widely used but for a leisurely activity. You can purchase a kit with the pattern, cloth and threads required to produce your own work of embroidered art.
Without the care and expertise of museums and national trust properties these fragile pieces of embroidered cloth would be lost forever and the makers forgotten.