What is a Sampler?
Derived from the Latin word exemplum (meaning a model or an example for imitation) a sampler is a specimen of needlework skills stitched onto a piece of fabric. Samplers allowed the needleworker to practice and learn new techniques and also to record stitches and patterns that could be used as a point of reference for future work.
The earliest existing sampler is thought to have been made in Ancient Peru, c. 200-500 AD, but Coptic pattern samplers have also been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, dating around AD 400-500. The earliest known dated sampler in Europe is from 1598, but documentary and literary evidence suggests that sampler making occurred in the early years of the 16th century, following a tradition of preceding centuries.
Over time the purpose of sampler making changed, but it primarily remained the work of girls and women. In the 17th century, a woman would usually embroider a narrow band sampler as an aide-mémoire to record varied and complex stitching techniques. The narrow shape allowed the stitcher to roll up and store away her needlework for further use or for reference. In the 18th and 19th centuries, samplers were increasingly being used as an educational tool for girls from all social backgrounds. The function of the finished product, however, would be different. For an affluent girl, her sampler might now be displayed in the home to prove to family and friends her skill in needlework, good upbringing and domesticity. For a girl leaving a charity school, her example would prove to potential employers her ability to sew, mark and mend personal and household linen. Furthermore, it was around this time that the shape began to change from narrow to rectangular, to accommodate moralising texts, pictorial motifs and personal information. This change, however, was a gradual process, and some narrow band samplers continued to be made in the early decades of the 18th century.
Sampler Collection at the Fitzwilliam
The Fitzwilliam Museum has around 400 samplers in the collection, dating from the late 16th century to the 20th century, predominantly English but also from continental Europe. There is one Egyptian Mamluk sampler which probably dates from the 15th century or earlier. The collection is particularly rich in dated 17th century examples. The samplers entered the Museum’s collection by major bequests from Dr J. W. L. Glaisher FRS (1848-1928), in 1928, Mrs H. A. Longman in 1938, as well as various gifts and bequests such as those from Lady St John Hope (1869-1952) and Friends of the Fitzwilliam.