Today, I want to talk about samplers, both in the general sense as well as cross stitch. I know your first thought might be “Its a sample, what’s more to learn?” however samplers are a very interesting part of cross stitch history. One that whilst looking rather simple actually has complicated roots.
- 1 – A piece of embroidery worked in various stitches as a specimen of skill, typically containing the alphabet and some mottoes.
- 2 – A representative collection or example of something.
I figured we should start with a definition of a sampler, considering what the topic is about, however that simple definition hides something. In fact, it hides something major about samplers. That simple description suggests that anything cross stitched, unless its a reference tool, isn’t a sampler. However, that simply isn’t true. So let’s break down exactly why.
In our history of cross stitch we see how counted cross stitch was invented just before the 15th century. During this time samplers, we, exactly as you expect; samples. Books weren’t in common print, cross stitch patterns definitely didn’t exist, and so samplers existed as professionally curated parts stitched together into a long scroll-like reference material.
The state of samplers somewhat continued in the same vein for some time, before spot samplers came in during the 17th century. During this time, books were starting to be produced with patterns for purely cross stitch, however, cross stitch was still firmly a hobby for Europeans. In order to appeal to the English, books were put together without cross stitch alphabets, and as a result, started to focus on objects.
This trend boomed. Not only in the intended country of England, but in European countries as well. Pushed on by the import of cheap German wool, cross stitch was no longer a hobby for the super-rich and was possible for the moderately wealthy too (small steps). It meant that wool thread was no longer something to be used sparingly, allowing for greater change and in turn, more creativity. For a time, samplers became works of art. Instead of simply being a sample of something, they were an object in themselves, to be cherished. In fact, samplers were often created for funerals and morning activities. If you want to more about this point in history for cross stitch, check out our article on death and cross stitch.
However, the 19th century is what most people think of when someone says sampler. A usually forced activity that young ladies in waiting would need to complete to show they were marriage material. However, this is where the word sampler starts to get murky. Yes, there were written words in cross stitch during this time, often religious text, mottoes, and icons, however, their purpose was not a sample. In fact, the only cross stitch, was a sampler. A collection that depicted anything the cross stitcher wanted. It could include poems, religious passages, or just images.
So what of modern times? What now? We know samplers can be a collection of mottoes, words, icons, images, they can be reference material or a finished piece.
Well, that says it all. Cross stitch, however, stitched, is always a sampler. It doesn’t matter what it contains, what parts it includes or not, its always a sampler. A piece of work for the simple reason to show off its skill in being made. This, of course, opens up the debate about is cross stitch art or craft, however, cross stitch has always been a collection. A collection of stitches.
I’d like to thank the Victoria & Albert Museum for their resource on the history of samplers, which was super helpful in putting this article together, and a great read.