A History of Embroidery Samplers

If you’ve ever been interested in embroidery-particularly cross stitch-you’ve probably encountered samplers. Perhaps you’ve even made one. If you have, you’ve been carrying on a tradition that’s been in existence for more than 500 years.

The word “sampler” comes from the Latin word “exemplar,” which as you can probably guess means “example.” It’s a word that’s still occasionally used today. And it’s an appropriate name, considering the original purpose of these small pieces of fabric covered with letters, numbers, names, dates, scrolls, and other fancy-and not so fancy-designs.

Beginning in about the late 15th century, embroidery was used to decorate clothing, especially the borders of shawls. It was also used on linens, where it served the useful purpose of identifying the owners, who were usually members of the nobility.

Embroidery was certainly a skill that its makers wanted to pass along to their children. There was a problem, though. The printing press had just been invented, and there were no printed books available to record needlework stitches and patterns. Therefore, accomplished embroiderers began to work the stitches on small pieces of cloth for use as “samples” of what the stitches should look like. Young girls would practice their stitches and techniques by making samplers. And when they grew up, those who were poor or orphaned used their samplers to help them obtain positions as embroiderers, in much the same way as artists today use portfolios.

There were several different types of samplers made. Band samplers were made from long and narrow pieces of fabric and contained many repeating patterns surrounded by fancy borders. Marking samplers used reversible stitches to identify household linens (as described above). Spot samplers contained many different stitches and patterns which did not need to “go together,” because these samplers were eventually cut up and the pieces used for appliquÃ?© techniques.

Samplers may been developed to teach embroidery, but their makers soon discovered that they had other instructional uses. Samplers with letters and numbers taught children how to write these figures as well as stitch them. Some samplers taught arithmetic by incorporating multiplication tables into their designs. And some even passed along religious beliefs by including verses from sacred texts like the Bible.

As samplers evolved they began to be used for other purposes, including the recording of a significant event like a marriage or birth-which made it important to include a date. This had become a common practice by the 17th century, and is standard on almost all samplers made today.

As books grew to be more commonplace samplers were no longer needed as teaching aids, and they became more decorative than functional. The stitches used to make them also changed, from embroidery, drawn thread work, and cross stitch to only cross stitch. Today’s samplers are almost all cross stitch.

From the 15th century to today, samplers have reflected the times in which they were created and the lives of their creators. Because of this, they’re often considered valuable antiques, and are treasured by many, especially if they’ve been passed down through generations of the same family. These little pieces of cloth are also little pieces of history.

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