Needlework Samplers

by Dr. Lori Verderame

A sampler once described fabric swatches with examples of various stitches on them– a guidebook for stitchery. Various stitches were used on samplers such as florentine, tent, cross, Italian cross, running, double running, rice, etc.

Samplers were ornamental objects highlighting family history. 18th Century samplers usually depict family trees, alphabet lettering, pictorial images, geometric patterns, or life events such as weddings, births, or deaths.  Other attributes found on samplers are structures like homes and schools, date of production, maker’s name, and decorative borders.

Sampler School

In many parts of America, girls were schooled in the art of needlework. By the late 1770s, alphabet samplers were used for instruction or didactic purposes. Young girls who made samplers were taught about religion, math, geography and mapmaking, and letter forms in the process of stitching samplers. Samplers showed a girl’s needlework or embroidery skill.

SamplerWhen assessing a sampler, look for imagery relating to events in the stitcher’s life. For instance, a house or a school building may be prominent on a sampler and these images may show the place where the sampler’s owner lived or was educated.

Some samplers featured maps–they could not be relied upon for geographic accuracy–which help to date a sampler. Samplers were made on the occasion of an important event such as a birth, wedding, or death and particular icons were used to highlight these events. For instance, a willow tree or cemetery scene on a sampler suggests mourning over the death of a loved one.

Key distinctions between English and American samplers are:

English samplers

-produced on wool

-showed greater detail

-composition featured details around a central image

-symmetrical imagery

American samplers

-no symmetrical imagery

-border details

-colorful pictorial images

-verses or texts from the Bible or literature

With many American samplers, Biblical verses help date a sampler and show the location where the maker was educated. One of the best ways to identify where a sampler was made is to look at the type of landscape that is pictured on the sampler. For instance, evergreen trees appear more commonly on New England samplers whereas they would not be as common on samplers from other parts of the world.  In America, it is more common to find a 19th Century sampler from New England and the Mid-Atlantic than from the Southern states.

On today’s antiques sampler market, American samplers are rare and command a higher value than their English counterparts.

Condition is key to the value of any sampler. Samplers that are cut, re-stitched, stained or torn are not as valuable as those that are in good condition. Age is not an automatic value indicator, but if your old sampler has quality stitching, good threads, details of workmanship, hand dyed colors, and provenance, then you have a piece with all of the attributes that impact value. If you have a sampler from an ancestor, hold onto it or hand it down to another family member. These samplers will increase in value over time if they stay in the family. If you have a sampler in a frame, be sure that the sampler is not hanging in direct sunlight or in an area of your home where dirt, heat, or moisture can damage it.

Get an online appraisal of your sampler from Dr. Lori.