The Historyof European embroidery is a long and illustrious one with every conceivable surface having been embellished with the art of needlework. Garments and items of all kinds for both religious and domestic use were richly embroidered. During the Reformation in the 16th century, which involved the dissolution of English monasteries, many of the church vestments were burnt. That, coupled with the general wear and tear on domestic items, resulted in few early examples of European embroidery surviving. Those examples that do survive show us what a highly developed art embroidery was. These European traditions in needlework were taken to America during the 17th century by the early settlers and there is a great similarity in both the style and motifs used between early American embroidery and its European counterpart.
In the medieval period up to the end of the 14th century, English embroidery was considered to be the best in Europe and was known as opus anglicanum (English work). It was carried out by guilds of craftsmen and women who were mostly centred on monastic houses and medieval convents. Made solely for the Church and exported throughout Europe, its importance is shown by the fact that many of the best artists, who worked on the books and illuminated manuscripts, were also employed to design these great works of embroidered art.
On the domestic front it was mainly the women of noble houses and their servants who stitched the garments and items used in daily life. No well-born girl would have been considered a lady without being able to sew; all the Queens of Europe were well skilled with their needle. The Spanish Catherine of Aragon, Mary Queen of Scots educated in France and Elizabeth I of England were all noted for their skill at embroidery.
Although embroidery is considered to be a woman’s art there were men who were employed as embroiderers in Royal households.
Queen Elizabeth of York, wife to Henry VII, employed one Robynet, who was paid £2 a year by the Privy Purse. Mary Queen of Scots, who embroidered away the hours of her long imprisonment, employed Pierre Oudry between 1560—67 and later Charles Plouvart as her embroiderers. The popularity of embroidery and the demand for rich and sumptuous garments became so great in medieval Europe that there were various attempts to control what was seen as an excessive desire for finery. Edward III in 1363 decreed that:
“no one whose income was below four hundred marks per annum should wear cloth of gold or embroidery.
Later in 1586 a petition was presented to Catherine de Medici of France on The Extreme Dearness of Living, which declaimed that:
“mills, lands, pastures, woods, and all the revenues are wasted on embroideries, insertions, trimmings, tassels, fringes, hangings, gimps, needlework, small chain stitching, qui/tings, back stitching, etc: new diversities of which are invented daily”.
Samplers begin to make an appearance in the history of European embroidery from about the beginning of the 16th century although as long as people have embellished and embroidered cloth it is reasonable to suppose that they have made use of a sampler. In essence a sampler is a piece of cloth with diverse patterns and stitches used as a personal reference source. It is also an easy way to experiment with embroidery before starting a major project. Samplers appear in various European countries all at the same time with a great similarity in style and motifs used but there are some notable national differences. Italian samplers show a preference for cut and drawn thread work which seems to be influenced by the lace pattern books that were printed in Venice. Spanish samplers have bright colours and geometric designs perhaps related to the Moorish influence on Spanish decorative arts. German samplers are more restrained in colour and patterns whilst Delft vases can be found in Dutch examples. However, cross stitch is always the main embroidery technique used.
The earliest surviving sampler in England is one from the late 16th century worked by Jane Bostocke in 1598 to commemorate the birth of one Alice Lee but there is sufficient evidence to show that they were a common and useful tool before this date. The earliest mention of a sampler in England is in 1502 as an item in the Privy Purse expenses for that year which refers to a piece of linen cloth bought for Elizabeth of York as ‘. . . a sampler for the Queen.’ Later in 1546 Margaret Thomson of Freestone in Lincolnshire bequeathed in her will, ‘. . . to Alys Pynchebeck my sisters daughter my sampler with seams.’ In 1552 in a household inventory of Edward VI there are two entries relating to samplers: one being a ‘. . . sampler of Normandy canvas wrought with green and black silk . . . and a sampler and book of parchment containing diverse patterns.’ These written records show that sampler making was carried out by the Queen and her ladies of the court and that samplers were imported from continental Europe. These were also important enough in themselves to be recorded. In an age when books were costly and rare the sampler, which was a personal book of patterns and stitches, would have been a valuable item worth passing on to the next generation.
Samplers were also mentioned in literature, an interesting example being in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where reference is made to a sampler being stitched by two people.
These are Helena’s words to Hermia :
Have with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key,
As if our hands, our sides, voices and minds,
Had been incorporate. ‘ACT 3 SCENE II
The above quote also seems to imply that samplers were made in childhood. Girls were taught to sew very early on in life and probably did make samplers; however, due to the high standard of workmanship it is generally considered that the surviving examples of early samplers were made by adult needlewomen. It is unlikely, prior to the 16th century that samplers would have been worked by women of all classes: the cost of materials was high (linen cloth and silk thread have always been expensive (and this type of decorative embroidery was probably only worked by wealthy ladies with time on their hands.
The shape and content of samplers changed gradually during the 17th century until in the 18th century they take on the more familiar square shape with spot motifs and inscriptions. These are generally referred to spot samplers. By this time the sampler had ceased to be a personal book of stitches and become either an exercise in sewing competence produced by young girls or simply an embroidered picture made to be displayed in a frame. There has never been a standard shape or size for a sampler and over the centuries any piece of left over cloth has been used. It was not until 1882 when sampler making had virtually ceased to exist that Canlfield and Sawards’ Dictionary of Needlework gave written instructions as to what a sampler should be both in size and design content.
The patterns and motifs found in early samplers tend to be fairly similar from one to another which suggests that they were traditional designs passed on from one generation to the next. From the first half of the 16th century printed pattern books, as design sources for embroiderers, begin to appear in Europe. They were from presses either in Germany, Italy or France and proved so popular that many were reprinted in several editions. One of the most influential of these books was Schön Neues Modelbuch published by Johann Sibmacher in Nurnberg in 1597, which was later reproduced in England as The Needles Excellency. Richard Shorleykers’ A Scholehouse for the Needle, also published around this time, was full of fruit, flower and leaf spray motifs but more importantly it was the first book to give instructions for enlarging or reducing the size of a design by using a squared grid, a simple and efficient method still used today. The patterns in these books were not necessarily original as there was no copyright law to stop the practice of borrowing designs from all sorts of sources. Motifs used in American samplers prior to the 18th century can be traced back to these European pattern books. Many English ladies went to settle in the new colonies and took their pattern books with them. Often they would make their living by teaching needlework and advertised themselves as having the latest designs from England.
During the 18th century pattern books lost favour with embroiderers in Europe as they tended to use printed fabrics as design sources and increasingly alphabets and moral verses replaced the more decorative spot or band patterns. By the mid 18th century pattern books were being published in America and many of the needlework teachers drew their own patterns and motifs for embroidery. This, coupled with the increasing population of America and the associated need to develop a more refined culture, led to the distinctive American style in samplers. While European samplers were becoming more rigid in content and style, the American ones became freer and more pictorial. Houses and landscapes became the preferred subject for samplers and a variety of materials such as beads, hair, ribbons and even paper were added to the wool or linen background to increase the surface interest. From this point on these American samplers should really be considered as embroidered pictures.
Sewing was an important part of any girl’s education. It was a necessary accomplishment for a young lady and for less fortunate girls good sewing skills would at least afford them reasonable employment. From the 17th century onwards the sampler became a means of not only teaching girls how to sew but also a certificate of their competence. Their importance was not lost on teachers and the inclusion of inscriptions and verses served to give the girls a moral education. Later on the craze for map samplers combined the teaching of geography with needlework. These schoolgirl samplers were produced in vast numbers and show the high level of skill achieved by even very young girls.
During the 19th century there was a steady decline in the practice of sampler making as other forms of needlework took over in popularity. Knitting, crochet and tatting were all favoured and popularized by the new magazines aimed at women. Books on needlework became cheap and plentiful and cloth printed with a design ready to stitch was also available. In the middle of the 19th century the sewing machine was invented and the need to teach girls how to sew by hand ceased to be important which led to a sharp decline in sampler making. Nowadays there is a renewed interest in the art of sampler making and many individuals and museums realize the importance of collecting these unique documents of social history.
Nowadays embroidery and cross stitch is not so much a profession anymore and is enjoyed by haberdashery enthusiasts.