Updated: Aug 18, 2021
You know what a sampler is, right? It’s a piece of fabric with some pictures and maybe words made out of colored thread.
Yes, and a sampler is much more than that.
It was part of a young girl’s education – her portfolio of household skills that would help her catch a husband. A young girl’s first sampler was usually done at home by the age of six. Girls from affluent families would go on to fine embroideries of silk, wool, and beads – ornamental work such as bible covers, samplers, and pictorial needlework. Some attended small community schools, called “dame schools” for the women–usually widows or spinsters–who ran them. Others were sent to Convents that educated girls and taught them needle arts. In addition to sewing various stitches, they learned numbers and the alphabet as well as symbolism, particularly religious.
Samplers and other needlework were proudly displayed in the family’s home as proof to eligible bachelors and their mothers that a young girl showed evidence of wealth, social standing, appreciation for the arts, and skill in domestic arts. This was a socially acceptable way to flaunt a young girl’s skills and gave her mother bragging rights to extol her daughter’s skills and marriagiability. Bead samplers particularly illustrated wealth and skill as beads were very expensive compared to thread.
Different cultures had different ideas of what a sampler should be. French, Spanish and Portugese girls focused on nature and scenery and signed their samplers.
Most samplers were needlepoint or cross stitch on fabric and some were stitched onto punched paper.
To hone additional skills, samplers were also knitted or done on a loom.