A Brief History of Band Samplers

By Lily Homer
August, 2018

 

Samplers first appear in historical text in the early 1500s. A 1502 expense document of Queen Elizabeth of
York states: “…for an elne of Iynnyn cloth for a sampler for the Quene’[1].” In 1530, John Palsgrave published an encyclopedia with the following entry under ‘sampler’: “exemplar for women to work by; example.”[2] These early textual references mark the approximate entry of samplers into common use.

T.190-1960.H x W: 42.6 x 36.2 cm, Victoria & Albert Museum, Embroidered linen with colored silk and metal threads, seed pearls and beads, Sampler (England), Jane Bostocke, 1598, 
Photo: The earliest dated British sampler.

Around this time, band samplers, strips of fabric, often linen, with embroidered or needleworked text and designs, served as pattern records in decorating clothing, textiles, upholstery, and so on. Sarah Halsey, SNAD Board Member and president of the Bay Area Sampler Guild, explains, “coming by linen during this period was not easy – it was expensive and families wanted their garments to last.” Early on, we see samplers used for documenting letters and numbers. Women could initial their household linens, “so when they were laundered and spread out on a big grass field to dry with everyone else’s laundry,” they were easy to sort and retrieve.

By the late 1600s, and more heavily in the 1700 and 1800s, schoolgirls worked band samplers as class exercises. This is a critical and fascinating period in history: for a long time, these samplers were one the few established means of education for women. Learning to decorate linen meant a means through which to learn reading and writing, a vehicle for teaching girls what they otherwise would not learn. Looking back on history, band samplers allowed for a way out of illiteracy.

 

Photo: Sampler (England), Anne Tricker, 1711 Queen Anne, Band sampler, linen, embroidered with polychrome silks in cross, satin and eyelet stitch, H x W: 15.3/4 x 8.5/8 in, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Bequest of Mrs. H.A. Longman, T.25-1938.

 

As the printing press became more widely available and printed materials more common in the mid 1600s, sampler making began to change. In approximately 1523, Johann Schönsperger from Augsburg, Germany published the first printed textile guide.[3] It was sold across Europe, allowing for a sharing of styles and patterns in a way that would have been impossible a century prior. Across countries and cultures, we begin to see design elements borrowed and copied without credit.[4]

There are two main types of traditional band samplers known to have been worked in the 1600s: polychrome and whitework[5]. Common stitches (double running stitch, long arm cross, marking cross, and Montenegrin, all of which allow for pleasant patterns on the back of the sampler as well) were worked in grid-like sections.

 
Photo: Sampler (Italy or England), ca. 1600, cutwork, H x W: 36 x 7 in, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase by subscription, 1909, 90.68.23.

 

By the late 1500s, patterns, including small flowers and animals, influenced by German and Italian decorative designs (monochrome organic forms) and border patterns from imported Eastern carpet designs, gained in popularity. Arabic-style geometric patterns and stitches arrived in Europe through Mediterranean trade with Islamic Spain, many belonging to the embroidery traditions developed in Islamic Egypt 300 years earlier.

As fashion changed over the centuries, sampler styles stayed close to their long-established designs. This is an indication that tradition, inheritance, and education were important aspects of sampler-making. For example, Elizabeth Mackett’s 1696 sampler features needlelace and patterns that were popular in fashion fifty years earlier.[6]

Hand-worked band samplers evolved from valuable artistic and decorative sources, to modes of educating youth, to collectible treasures, now housed in the world’s most prominent museums.

SNAD has just launched The World’s Longest Band Sampler project, and you’re invited to participate! We want to stitch together bands from our friends all over the world, into one massive piece. Please visitour website for more information.


[1] “Needlework Samplers,” Bay Area Sampler Guild, accessed July, 2018, http://www.bayareasamplerguild.org/history.html.
[2] Clare Brown, Samplers: From the Victoria & Albert Museum (London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 1999), p 7-11.
[3] “A History of Samplers,” Victoria & Albert Museum, accessed July 2018, http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/h/a-history-of-samplers/.
[4] Clare Brown, Samplers: From the Victoria & Albert Museum (London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 1999), p 7-11.
[5] Kathy Staples and Lynn Tinley, “Some Honest Worke in Hand…” English Samplers from the Seventeenth Century (Greenville, South Carolina, 2001), p 7-15.
[6]Ibid.