Friday, March 25, 2011

Embroidered Samplers

I, along with many other people, have always loved embroidered samplers. Even today the antique samplers are still in demand, and command high prices.

In 1975, Levi Brand held a denim contest. That was, after all, still a time when hippies still were going strong.  I decided to enter the contest, so I designed this sampler on the back of a Levi shirt I had.  I based my design on different elements that inspired me from other samplers. And I worked on it diligently even though I was in college at the time and it was near time for exams.  I actually was living in Phoenix, Arizona then, and married to another person, so my name was different. I came within a few days of getting it finished in time to enter it because of my exams.  But it was fun to make and always a treasure.

A few years later, I moved to San Pedro, CA, and eventually remarried after my first marriage ended.  I pulled out my sampler and changed my information on it to reflect my new name and the place. Today I am no longer married to that person (I am still good friends with both former hubbies), but somehow it just didn't seem right to change my name and dwelling place again. So this is how it stays.

This past year, a very good friend of mine gave me the original exhibit catalog that was even signed by all the folks who entered that competition. I think the entries were all clothing items, and they were wild and colorful and reflected the last good times of the hippies.  Mine was much more sedate, but I like it very much, and I am glad I made it. It is wonderful to have that catalog as well. I think that was my one major connection to the hippy culture in those times.

The earliest dated surviving sampler, housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, was made by Jane Bostocke who included her name and the date 1598 in the inscription. But there is a documented references as early as 1502 in the household expense accounts of Elizabeth of York to one Thomas Fisshe for linen for a sampler for the queen.

16th Century English samplers were stitched on a narrow band of fabric 6–9 in. As fabric was very expensive, these samplers were totally covered with a huge variety of stitches, worked in many thread types and often as many as 20 colors. Themes included small flowers and animals, as well as geometric designs. These were known as band samplers and valued highly, often being mentioned in wills and passed down through the generations.

By the 17th century, borders were added to samplers, and by the mid17th century alphabets became common, and used to create religious or moral quotations. The entire sampler was highly organized, and by the 18th century, samplers were a complete contrast to the scattered samplers sewn earlier on. These later samplers were stitched more to demonstrate knowledge than to preserve skill. The stitching of samplers was believed to be a sign of virtue, achievement and industry, and girls were taught the art from a young age.

The word "exampler" or "sampler" is derived from the French word, "√©xamplair," meaning a kind of model or pattern to copy or imitate, which in turn is derived from the Latin word " exemplum," meaning a copy.  By the 16th century, the word was spelled "saumpler," "sampler," or "exemplar."

Before printed patterns were available, embroidery designs were passed from hand to hand, through Europe from the Middle East. The recording of patterns and motifs on fabric for future use was a crucial way of storing information, and stitched references enabled the creation of  samplers. New patterns and stitches were enthusiastically collected and exchanged and patterns were placed randomly over the cloth. These samplers are now referred to as random or spot samplers.

Over time the reasons for creating samplers have changed, along with the sources of the designs. For example, the print media influenced sampler design with the increased circulation of engraved illustrations. At one time, old herbals were a source for design. With the rise of a middle class, and the subsequent spread of formal gardens, knot garden patterns strongly influenced sampler designs.

Today you can purchase kits to make copies of the old samplers or learn about them from a number of sources online.  One such site is:  They carry kits, and many of those kits include an online course as well so that you can learn to do the stitches. They are not cheap, but then compared to the originals, they are very inexpensive, and come with everything you need. I love that there are many styles and periods and areas represented.

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