The Mystery of Samplers

Monday, 11 July 2016 Mystery  No comments

Basically, the word Sampler refers to the sample made by a young girl as practice in stitchery. The mystery lies in knowing so little about these exceptional pieces of history.

My heroines, at twenty-one years of age, for example, live in the Regency era, 1800-1820. As little girls at the age of eight or nine years of age, they would have made Samplers. Where are the many Samplers made by young girls of that era, and before? Some have been preserved in museums, but I suspect a great many are in private homes, passed down from family to family.

My husband’s family, (from Yorkshire, England) had a great, great, great aunt, who made an exquisite Sampler in 1798, at nine years of age, while Jane Austen was alive. It is beautiful in its complexity, and much better preserved than one we saw in a museum in Southampton years ago. Ours brought “Oohs,” and “Ahs,” from elite Museum ladies, who stood behind, as an agent from Christies in New York evaluated it. I also have a Sampler from the family made in the Victorian era–less delicate, less beautiful, perhaps produced in a school. It is on record that Jane Austen and her sister, Cassandra, as well as the Bronte sisters made one.

I did a favor for an acquaintance who was visiting from England. As a thank-you, she sent a book on Samplers from the Victoria and Albert Museum since we had been chatting about my family Sampler. The examples in the book begin with Egyptian work, then continental, but most Plates concentrate on English Samplers up until the Victorian Period, of course.

Many books have been written about Samplers. You can find examples on various web sites. Shakespeare spoke of Samplers in Titus Andronicus and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If you go to Wikipedia you can learn a History of Samplers–even the mysteries, and there are a number–of the Bayeux Tapestry, a fascinating example of superior needlework.

When I first considered writing about this subject some years ago, I approached Ask A Librarianin England. I found two of the three books the Senior Librarian suggested in my University Library. The one I would like to recommend below, I found there, but it was not her suggestion. This one, however, I believe is more interesting and comprehensive. In the Introduction, the author says, “The earliest surviving example (of a sampler) is thought to be an ancient Peruvian work of early Nazca culture, which has been dated approximately at between AD 200 and 500.” How mysterious that sounds! She explains the detail on the work, done with cotton and wool on a cotton cloth, and “portrays some seventy-four figure motifs…They include several birds, human and mythological beings, plants, a toad, a fish and a scorpion all worked in simple running stitch. Some of the motifs overlap each other…” Experts are uncertain as to its purpose. She goes on to talk about Egyptian examples made around 400-500 AD. The German and Italian examples are in my Sampler book. The earliest English one is dated at 1598. Dates vary from different sources. We know so little about these early examples.

Curiosity comes to the fore when I view these often exquisite pieces of history. Who were the children or men and women who made them? What were their lives like? I know so little about my own lovely pieces. Records get lost, or are not kept. Unless the families come forward and reveal their works of art, perhaps the majority of these unknown Samplers will always remain a mystery.

Samplers. Five Centuries of a Gentle Craftby Anne Sebba, published by Weidenfield and Nicolson, London. 1979.

Copyright by Audrey Moorhouse

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