Samplers – Their Origin and Development

The word sampler comes from the Latin exemplum meaning a copy, pattern or model. A dictionary published in 1530 defines ‘sampler’ as an exampler for a woman to work by. This is an indication that men no longer formed the majority of embroiderers, as had been the case in earlier centuries.

The original function of the sampler was most certainly educational, first as stitches and patterns to be learned; and second, as a permanent record and reminder. Although one may suppose that practice pieces have been made for as long as embroidery has been practised, the earliest recorded references are in the 16th century.

When the earliest samplers were made, pattern books did not exist. The first printed patterns originated in Europe in the early 16th century and were eventually printed in England. One of the most notable was ‘The Needle’s Excellency’, written and compiled by John Taylor, which had run to 12 editions by 1640.

Needlework was an essential part of a woman’s life, whether she had a leisurely lifestyle or was of the lower classes, in which case her needlework was a means of survival. Thousands of samplers have survived the last four centuries, bearing testament to the fashion of their day. They have evolved from the very early examples in which the motifs were varied and displayed at random, to ones in which the designs were placed in more orderly rows. Alphabets were later added. Figures and houses became a popular addition in imitation of tapestry pictures.

The religious verse or moral tract was prodigious in the 18th and 19th century samplers, and it became a firmly established tradition at this time to name and date the work to bear witness to the skill o the worker. This is particularly true of school ( or Dame school) samplers, many of which can be found to contain the same alphabets, numerals and motifs, and reflect not only the skill of the young worker, but also the preferences and sometimes wit of the teacher.

The popularity of Berlin woolwork from the 1840s onwards can be said to have contributed greatly to the eclipse and virtual decline of the sampler. By the 19th century, published patterns were widely available and thus eliminated the need for worked examples. The plain sewing sampler was introduced to schools by the end of the 19th century to teach basic sewing skills, but after the First World War, with the widespread use of the sewing machine, even this elementary education in the art of fine needlework was deemed unnecessary.

Symbolism of Sampler Motifs

Adam & Eve Good and evil
Angels Martyrdom
Apple Love/fertility
Bee Chastity/Virgin Mary
Butterfly or moth Immortality/resurrection
Candle or candlestick Devotion/prayer
Carnation (pink) Maternal love
Cat Idleness
Cherry Fruit of heaven
Columbine The Holy Spirit
Cock Watchfulness/penitence
Cross Faith
Crown Hope/eternity
Daffodil or leek Wales
Dog Fidelity
Duck Marital fidelity
Eagle Empire or the ascension
Falcon Pride/nobility
Goose Stupidity/gullibility
Garland Victory/merit
Hare Timidity
Harp or lyre Purity/music
Hart Baptism/gentleness and pride
Heart Charity
Honeysuckle Enduring faith
Horse Fertility
Lily Purity
Lion Strength
Marigold Obedience
Monkey Laziness/mischief
Olive Peace/goodwill
Owl Wisdom
Parrot Gossip
Stork Parental love/bringer of happiness
Strawberry Perfect righteousness
Swan Love
Thistle Scotland
Tortoise Strength/slowness
Tree of life Immortality
Tulip Perfect love
Unicorn Chastity/purity
Violet and daisy Humility/modesty
Weathercock Preacher
Weeping willow Sorrow/unhappiness
Peacock Vanity
Pelican Resurrection
Pomegranate Hope/eternal life
Rabbit Gentleness
Rose Love/patience/beauty
Shamrock Ireland
Ship Journey
Snake Reward/wickedness
Squirrel Mischief

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