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  • Lesson Object as Object Lesson:The Embroidery Sampler
  • Ashley E. Remer (bio)

What girls think and do has not been of great concern to traditional systems and institutions, so recording and documenting the material culture of girlhood has been a low to non-existent priority of collectors and museums. However, there are particular objects made by girls that museums have collected for other reasons. For the focus of this issue's Object Lesson, we have an object with a lesson—a British textile sampler—as evidence of girls' work. While many museums have acquired samplers to demonstrate the development of embroidery and design, they have unwittingly preserved artifacts that provide insights into social history as well as textile records. Samplers also inscribe girls' education for employment, and these have been bound together in girls' lives for hundreds of years since girls' education was valued for what would prepare them for domestic life or to support their families. Popularly known as an embroidery sampler, these relatively small textiles evolved over time from a reference tool to a symbol of female education. However, these objects contain more information in their diminutive stitches than meets the eye—in particular, glimpses into past girls' work lives.

To understand how the sampler came to be associated with girls' work, we begin with its etymology. The sampler's origins are from the Latin exemplāris, meaning "pattern." Emerging later in Old French as essamplaire, meaning "example," it is in Middle English that we get the word "sampler."1 Today's sampler is a combination of these ideas—an example of patterns to be copied or repeated. Early samplers were produced by experienced embroiderers—adult men and women, not girls. They were records of stitches, patterns, effects, and other designs that professionals once replicated and repeated. Later, the sampler shifted into the home and became a teaching tool. In Palsgrave's 1530 edition of the Anglo-French dictionary, a sampler was an "exemplar for a woman to work by."2 This definition indicates that before the availability of printed [End Page 345] designs, samplers served as models of cultural and social patterns meant to be copied by women.

Girls have long been trained, either formally or through observation, to be women performing tasks in the domestic sphere. This is the nexus of girls' vocational education and employment: teaching girls skills necessary for household maintenance. Samplers served to teach girls how to mend clothing and linens or, when needed, obtain work as seamstresses in order to support their families. As embroidery decorated clothing, furniture, and linens, the sampler provided a practical way to train for this type of work.

An embroidery sampler is a piece of cloth, often square or rectangular, like a tablet or slate, used to practice sewing stitches and designs. As it was meant to be a guide, there would be different types of stitches to be practiced, using several different motifs to demonstrate sewing skills. The template or background of the sampler was typically made of linen. The embroidery threads or floss could be made of linen, cotton, or a blend. Those made by girls in families with greater financial means could also be silk. During the seventeenth century, samplers in Europe morphed into a way to teach girls sewing.3 With colonization, the practice spread throughout the world, with many styles and purposes. There are several different types of samplers, including marking, darning, and text. The most common is the marking sampler, which typically included one or more versions of the alphabet, pictures, Bible verses, and the name of the maker and the date it was completed. It is called this because it prepared girls to "mark" or label a household's linens, since using names or initials and numbers to keep track of household goods was a common practice.4

While there are variations, there are three basic parts to a sampler's composition: bands, borders, and dividing lines. The overall design was usually organized by horizontal bands; however, some used a free-form or random layout. The border framed the design elements and these were separated by the dividing lines. This kept a formality meant to both structure the design and...