A Brief History of Samplers

sailing ship sampler

"Oh, no man knows
Through what wild centuries
Roves back the Rose"
All That's Past: Walter de la Mare


Take a look at the history of samplers through the ages, and investigate the different styles and techniques used in their construction at different periods of time.

Sampler Origins

The term sampler comes from the Latin exemplum meaning 'an example to be followed, a pattern, a model or example'. It is believed that, although the earliest dated samplers and references to them come from the 16th century, they probably were stitched long before this time.

The first known dated English sampler was made by Jane Bostocke in 1598 to celebrate the birth of her daughter (or possibly niece) Alice Lee, and is housed in the sampler collection at the Victoria and Albert museum. This sampler is covered with random motifs in a variety of stitches and shades, and includes metal threads, pearls and beads.

Sampler Development

It is believed that the early samplers were sewn mainly by women, rather than by young girls as were those of a later date, and were intended truly as examples, both of designs and of different stitches, such as cross stitch, eyelet, Algerian eye, long armed cross etc. These long, narrow band samplers contain a variety of different designs, alphabets, and sometimes cut or pulled thread work. Many consist of elaborate scrolled designs in double running or Holbein stitch.

Later in the 17th century the style changed to spot samplers, random motifs worked in silk, which were often intended to be cut out and appliqued onto bed hangings or other furnishings. During this period printed pattern books became available, so samplers lost some of their use as works of reference. Many of the designs from these books can be seen repeated in English samplers from this time onwards.

school sampler

From the mid-eighteenth century, it became more common for young girls to work samplers as part of their education, of which needlework formed a major part! These samplers began to take on the form probably best known, with decorative borders, alphabets, motifs such as animals, flowers and houses, and they usually also contained some sort of verse.

Marking samplers included various alphabets in reversible stitches, crowns and coronets, which could be used to mark for identification of the household linens of the aristocracy. Other samplers contained pious verses or religious symbols, and yet others taught geography in the form of embroidered maps, or mathematics in the guise of cross stitch multiplication tables!!

Samplers Today

During Victorian times, samplers became more pictorial, and metamorphosed into decorative articles to be hung by proud parents on the parlour walls! As the designs became more elaborate so the number of different stitches used was reduced, until generally only one stitch remained in use, thus ending up with the cross stitch samplers so well known today.


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which was originally created on 19th April 1996; this version 12th September 1998: last updated on: 09 May 2002

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