Samplers All Sewn up In The Saleroom

Samplers All Sewn up In The Saleroom

11/08/2023     General News

In our modern world of television, the internet and social media, it is almost impossible to imagine how people spent their spare time before these electronic distractions were ubiquitous, writes Angela Marshall. 

Before the 20th century, leisure pursuits were very much more delineated by gender; and for women and girls, amongst the most common pastimes were embroidery and cross-stitching.

The ability to sew was regarded as a vital one for women of most classes. Before the introduction of printed designs, embroiderers needed a way to record different designs, stitches and effects, as well as demonstrating that they had mastered skills.

The answer was to create a ‘sampler’, a personal reference work featuring patterns, the alphabet, figures, motifs and so on that the creator had learned or copied from others, in order to be able to recreate them in future works.

The word sampler comes either from the Latin exemplum or the French essamplaire, both of which mean ‘example’.

The oldest surviving European samplers date from the 16th century.  Whenever a needleworker saw a new and interesting stitching pattern, they would quickly sew a small sample of it onto a piece of cloth – their sampler.  They would add to these throughout their lifetime, so the sampler can be a fascinating insight into a woman’s life’s needlework.

During the 17th century, English samplers developed from being these personal reference works into practice pieces for girls learning needlework.  These were typically filled with rows of repeating patterns, sometimes interspersed with figures or floral motifs. 

Learning to sew lettering was important as it allowed women to mark linen which would be sent out of the house for washing.  But samplers could be used for other educational purposes; map samplers became popular, often ready-to-stitch designs drawn onto canvas, either by the teacher or by the pupil themselves.

By the 19th century, samplers had become almost exclusively a schoolroom exercise (as printed needlework patterns obviated the need to reference samplers).

Because of the personal nature of samplers, they are popular in the saleroom.  A sampler can offer a fascinating and very individual view of a girl’s or young woman’s life, often containing personal quotations worked in cross-stitch, as well as beautiful artistic images.

Keys’ Fashion & Textiles Sale next week has a number of early 19th century samplers.  These are lovely because they are almost all named, so we know exactly who made the sampler, how old they were when they did so (some as young as nine years old), and when they were made.

It is hard to imagine the many hours of work which went into these pieces, often done in poor light (no electric lights in those days).  And yet they retain a fresh beauty and vibrancy, as well as that sought-after uniqueness.

Keys Fashion & Textiles Sale takes place on Wednesday 15th August. 

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