After discovering what was meant by a sampler*, I became a hunter and gatherer – at least I would like to have been! Bill and I were newly arrived in the Cotswolds and I had given up my nursing career to look after my little boy James. We were very short of cash and antiques were certainly not on the shopping list!
I started my cross stitch business back in 1983, and once a month I took classes in sampler design at The Ladies Work Society in Moreton-in-Marsh. I was surrounded by various beautiful samplers used to decorate the classroom area. On one occasion I noticed a label hanging from the back of a large sampler and had a peak. It was priced at £180.00 and I experienced the feeling that I still get when on the cusp of buying a sampler for the very first time – it had not occurred to me that these samplers were for sale.
After some deep breaths, I rang home, had the conversation with Bill, and it was decided. This would be a special purchase for me, my first genuine antique sampler and I happily agreed that it could be instead of an eternity ring. Heavens, who wants diamonds when you could hang a sampler on your wall? You can see my purchase above, quite an unusual format for the time. (Sadly the colours have run when someone tried to wash the sampler but it doesn’t spoil how special it is to me.)
This was the first of many such purchases over the years and still love them and never tire of looking at the stitching… I still find it difficult to imagine children as young as eight, working away at some fine embroidery for hours at a time. When you consider poor nutrition, no electricity, rough needles and complete lack of equipment, it is even more incredible that these beautiful pieces of stitching were completed at all! During the 30 years I have been designing and stitching, I still love to work traditional samplers on unbleached linen, attempting to emulate the standard and excellence of school-age children.
If you are interested in owning a little piece of history yourself, you might like to look at the two lovely sampler scraps in my collection of Treasures. There’s an unusual house, and tulip borders in gorgeous old frames.
*The term ‘sampler’ comes from the Latin exemplum, meaning an example to be followed, a pattern or model. It is believed that although the earliest dated samplers and references to them come from the 16th century, they were stitched long before this time – simple embroideries on linen have been found in the tombs of the Pharaohs. Some of the earliest samplers from the 16th century, typically band samplers, included a huge variety of stitches. They were made from long, thin strips of linen and were not intended to be decorative but to act as a reference to stitchers and were kept rolled up in a drawer to be referred to as necessary. These now very valuable treasures demonstrate the skill, diligence and patience of the embroiderers and leave us in awe of their talent. We also have to remember that the fabric had to be woven and the threads dyed before the stitching began in earnest.