American history and the sampler
The word "sample" comes from the Latin, exemplum, "a sample," meaning "small quantity from which the general quality of the whole may be inferred." The word "sampler" came into recorded use around 1300 as "an example to be imitated" and later (1523) became specific to works of embroidery, especially by a beginner to show their skill. Early samplers demonstrated stitches and served as a model (or example) to refer to while stitching since there were no pattern books available. Many of these were simple strips of linen with stitches placed randomly, looking nothing like the samplers we know today.

By about 1650, the making of a sampler became integral to the education of any young girl. Between the ages of 5 and 8, she would learn to stitch her letters and numbers on a simple piece of linen, often bordered with geometric figures. This taught her both the basics of this very practical art and often her letters as well. The samplers of older girls included more complicated stitching and designs, including sayings, verses, pictures of animals, flowers and buildings and human figures. These samplers were displayed prominently in the home, and care was taken to preserve them. Many became family heirlooms, and are popular collector's items today. During Victorian times, the samplers became more pictorial and centered on a particular theme. The designs became more complex, but the number of different stitches decreased and simplified until we arrived at the simple cross stitch samplers we know today.

The oldest known American sampler was made by Loara Standish, daughter of Mayflower passenger Myles Standish.

Since we are moving into the study of the colonization of America, I thought looking at samplers would be an excellent course of study in art. Working with our definition of art, Mouse and I are looking at samplers as a product of human skill and purpose. I find samplers particularly interesting because they combine the education of a young lady in colonial times with one of the few acceptable art forms open to women of the time. Also, Proverbs 31 includes at least four references to the fine sewing of the virtuous woman. What a wonderful way to connect our studies! As part of this, I am teaching my daughter to cross stitch. She chose a simple ladybug today and I went through a pattern book I bought on clearance over two years ago (and promptly stuck in a drawer and forgot about). She couldn't wait to get started and worked cheerfully on her ladybug, asking if she could stitch to her heart's content, while I knitted and checked her stitches. Now that she is more independent with her stitching, I am working on a cross stitch sampler myself.

If you are interested in looking at this unique piece of history, check with your local museums. Here are some links with more information and photos of historic samplers.

16th century samplers
Greencastle Museum (history and several antique samplers)
Girlhood Embroidery, Samplers at Pilgrim Hall Museum

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