Why Are There Missing Letters In Cross Stitch Samplers?

If you’ve ever seen a traditional cross sampler, after the first look, you might just see that some letters are missing.
This tradition has crossed borders and is even seen in modern samplers too. But why?

The Missing Letters

Most of the time if you ever see missing letters it’s J, Q, X, Y & Z, but can be other letters can be missing too. Many people see this simply as “a choice” by the designer, and there definitely is a part to that. With samplers often being stitched by young seamstresses, letters could be missed due to knowledge or missed due to placement simply not allowing for them. But each of these letters also has its own story behind them, and why letters are still missing to this day.

Modern Dutch Sampler With Missing J Q V X Y Z (Source: The Cross Stitch Guild)
Modern Dutch Sampler With Missing J Q V X Y Z (Source: The Cross Stitch Guild)


Missing J In Samplers

The letter J is by far the most missed letter in cross stitch and embroidery samplers and actually has two distinct stories.

The first is those non-English languages using the Latin alphabet. As we’ve covered in our history of cross stitch, major players in early embroidery history were German and Dutch wool traders. As a result, many young women would stitch using offcuts or excess wool.
However both languages have a distinct lack of the letter J. Whilst there are words using J, most are foreign import words, or have etymology in languages such as Anglo-Saxon English.
To push a stronger sense of identity, these words were often barred from use by women. Therefore, most women simply wouldn’t use the letter. And if it was, it could be replaced with an I or U.

Cross Stitch Sampler from 1760 with three alphabets all missing the letter J (Source: Wikipedia)

This tradition continued for a long time in embroidery, and even other languages in general, until the 1820s, when the use of J started becoming more commonly used across all languages.
However, by this point, many samplers were instead being stitched by young girls and were used as proof of skills. Therefore, letters like J and W were not stitched, as they were very similar to T and V respectively.

Missing Q In Samplers

Much like the underused J, Q is also heavily underused in any language. Almost always the second least used letter, Q became a large letter to stitch and looked very similar to O. For a small period of time, Q was often depicted as a reverse P even in capital fonts, however, this too fell out of fashion, before the letter was again ignored for large periods of sampler history.

Cross Stitch Sampler Featuring Alphabet With Missing J Q W X Y Z (Source: Modern Folk Embroidery)


Missing X, Y & Z In Samplers

Finally, we have the X, Y and Z issue. This also occasionally contains W as well, but to a lesser extent. All of these letters are not only rarely used, but also are parts of other letters. An X is two Vs, a Y is half of an X, a Z is a backward S and a W is an upside-down M.
To conserve space, and make a more interesting sampler, these letters were skipped.

Other Missing Letters In Samplers

So what about other missing letters? Well, many designers still do hark back to the design elements of tradition and skip letters, but also, many designers use hard-to-find cross stitch alphabets which often come with missing letters. In addition, adding all the letters in the alphabet can be a pain to fit into a pattern, often leading to three rows due to modern frame sizes.

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

However, there are some traditional samplers with other missing letters too. But these are almost always mistakes; after all, many samplers surviving to today were stitched by young girls learning the language as they were stitching.

Have you noticed any missing letters in samplers?

Happy stitching!
Lord Libidan

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