The Lost Art Of The Cross Stitch Sampler

Your next project should be a cross stitch sampler. Not only do I think that, but I’m 100% convinced that if you do, you’ll not only improve your cross stitch game but also find it fun and rewarding in a way no other cross stitch project can. Today, I hope to convince you to try one.
 
I’m a big fan of samplers, in fact, I’ve made a whole host of samplers from tiny 32 count pirate samplers to officially licensed Disney cross stitch samplers, but the traditional art of a sampler has been lost.
What do I mean by that?
You can go out and buy a whole host of samplers on Etsy that have been meticulously designed and look perfect. But this isn’t really what samplers are.

The oldest surviving sampler. Jane Bostocke, England, 1598 (source: collections.vam.ac.uk)
The oldest surviving sampler. Jane Bostocke, England, 1598 (source: collections.vam.ac.uk)

Why A Sampler?

In a recent post we defined a cross stitch sampler and the short version is simple; a sample of stitches. It’s something to look fancy or neat, it’s something that’s meant to be ugly. It’s meant to be a hodgepodge of stitches, designs, counts, threads, and it’s even meant to be a mess of designs. It’s about experimenting, it’s about being a tool, not a project.
I think that you should start a sampler, a traditional sampler, not to make something pretty, but to learn.

Star Trek Sampler Cross Stitch by samapictures (source: samapictures.com)
Star Trek Sampler Cross Stitch by samapictures (source: samapictures.com)

Giving Things A Try

In cross stitch, there are interesting things out there, things that you might like the sound of, but don’t come across. We mean things like metallic threads, glow-in-the-dark threads, the (rightfully) hated French knots. But actually using them is a whole different thing.
 
Many cross stitch patterns don’t feature complicated threads or threads that you might not have to hand. When was the last time you saw a pattern asking for a variation thread or DMC Etoile? It just doesn’t happen. They do this for mass appeal, but that isn’t to say that the pattern you’re currently stitching wouldn’t look ace with one of these.
But do you want to risk it? The answer is normally no. I don’t blame you, I even have the same thought. But if you don’t try, you won’t know.
 
The first time I tried glow-in-the-dark threads was my Assassins Creed Abstergo poster. It was a huge project, and it looked OK, not my best work, but OK. But I also learned so much about the threads in this project. Had I just tried out a simple design somewhere else first, I could have improved it tenfold. And this is where the sampler comes in.
The sampler is there to test on, to try, even to fail. A simple 10 by 10 stitch using a new thread tells you how it works, helps you avoid failure in the future, or gives you ideas of where it would be perfect.

Assassins Creed Sampler Cross Stitch by Lord Libidan
Assassins Creed Sampler Cross Stitch by Lord Libidan

To Test Yourself

Once you have some simple stitches down on your sampler in fancy threads, then comes testing, trying, and ultimately learning. This is where the real meat of a sampler is to be had. And you can take different approaches here too. Maybe you just need to master petit point, or you want to try your hand at 1-over-2 stitches. This is the place to try.
 
The first sampler I made was an Assassins Creed inspired design. It was nice. But it’s also the first time I stitched a font. We all know how insanely hard it is to find cross stitch alphabets, but by stitching this design, I learned how cross stitch fonts work. How they needed to work. Thanks to this sampler, I made over 50 free cross stitch fonts for people to use! Now, I don’t expect you all to be suddenly flooding the market with alphabets (but would like that), but I didn’t go out of my way to make fonts, that wasn’t my aim. I tested something out of my wheelhouse and thanks to it improved my cross stitch ability.
What will you learn?

World War 2 sampler by imprisoned POW Major Alexis Casdagli
World War 2 sampler by imprisoned POW Major Alexis Casdagli (source: V and A website)

Designing Patterns

Then we get to pattern designing. I know most of you out there aren’t designers, and you might not want to be, but maybe you dabble in changing a skin tone or would like to make minor changes to patterns to make it fit you better?
One of my most loved cross stitch works is from Major Alexis Casdagli, a POW in World War 2. The likes of Etsy weren’t around then, but cross stitch patterns were still how most stitched. But when stuck in a prison camp, he found cross stitch. And he had to design it from the ground up. The thing I like the most about his work is that you can see he started with one piece, and it evolved, became something else, he looked at what he had, and what he could do next. Sure, he also hid some awesome messages of solidarity in there too, but he could only see a place to add those thanks to making this pattern. The first one he ever made.
Is it perfect? No, there are loads of errors, in fact, the whole thing is riddled with mistakes, but that’s OK. It was a sampler, it was made not to be a designed work, but to be a learning activity. It was stupidly taken as a designed piece of work by his captors, and that’s why it’s now famous, but I hope you won’t have the same issues!

19th Century Home Sweet Home Cross Stitch Sampler (Source: PicClick.com)
19th Century Home Sweet Home Cross Stitch Sampler (Source: PicClick.com)

Tradition

Finally, we look at tradition. Cross stitch samplers have been around for a very long time, and there are even histories of very specific samplers like the home sweet home sampler, but by picking up a needle and stitching a traditional sampler, filled with tests, mistakes, mini projects and all kinds of odds and sods; you’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of years work of cross stitchers from all over the world.
 
Have I convinced you to take up a traditional sampler? Or maybe you already have one! Drop us a message below, we’d love to hear your sampler stories (and even see a few)!
 
Happy stitching!
Lord Libidan

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Krystal

    I am officially obsessed with that Assassin’s Creed sampler!

    1. LordLibidan

      Thanks! 😀 It was one of my first ever pattern creations too!

  2. Susan

    History of embroidery in general is my “thang!” And samplers are just way cool for all the reasons that you go into.Mary, Queen of Scots, mentions one in her letters while she was captive.

  3. Susan B Farmer

    One niggle point. The Bostocke Sampler is the oldest surviving *English* sampler. We know about it because it’s signed and dated (and English). See boys and girls, that’s why you should sign and date your work!! 400 years from now, folks could be talking about YOU!! 🙂

    (T.14-1931) is a 16th century Italian Sampler also at the V&A. or this German Sampler from the 1st half of the 16th century (T.114-1956)

    But if you really want to get your jollies, check out this sampler *book* at the Met in NYC. Granted it’s possibly dated to the early 17th century, but there’s this tantalizing line in the description “reflecting its possible origin on the Iberian peninsula in the sixteenth century.” (Accession number 25.92)

    The oldest **evidence** for samplers that I’m aware of is a painting by the Catalan artist Lluís Borrassà (1360-1425) loosely translated at “The Virgin Mary with her classmates showing needlework.”

    1. LordLibidan

      Ah, you know a lot about historic samplers! I wish I had you around when I was writing this! 😀

  4. Aunt Kelley

    Haha I wondered where you were going with a title like that. Great points! Done plenty of sampler stuff. I still need to master the French knot tho.

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