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What's Up Magazine


Nov 09, 2010 04:48PM ● By Anonymous

In 2007, a book was published by the Maryland Historical Society and distributed by Johns Hopkins University Press entitled A Maryland Sampling: Girlhood Embroidery 1738-1860 by Gloria Seaman Allen. With its lovely color illustrations of Maryland samplers and pictorial embroideries, it reminded me of the important role needlework played in early female education.

Samplers first came into being in England during the 16th century, where they served as pattern books for ladies to assemble stitches and designs they might later wish to copy onto their linens. With the introduction of printed pattern books, these types of samplers became unnecessary.

No one knows for certain who first introduced the concept of samplers being used as an educational tool. Young women studying at Dame Schools—establishments run by women, in contrast to schools run by a traditional schoolmaster—as well as young women at finishing schools were all obliged to successfully complete samplers in 18th-century America. One girl wrote directly on her sampler, “Patty Polk did this and she hated every stitch she did in it.”

Sewn on homespun or linen with brightly colored silk or woolen thread, the most desirable samplers are those that are dated and signed with an original inscription and place of origin, in addition to some sidebar illustrations.

Due to age, many antique samplers are badly faded, torn, stained, or mildewed. You can check for fading by comparing the color on the back and front of the piece. Prices vary from hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on condition, subject matter, and size. A sampler in its original frame is always more highly prized than one that has been reframed or trimmed. The original frame should be the exact size as the piece, with no signs of new saw marks or nail holes.

Clues in placing the age of samplers that are undated can be found by examining style and illustrations. Early 18th-century samplers are long, narrow, and decorated with horizontal bands of lettering and illustrations. By the beginning of the 19th century, samplers had evolved into a square form with decorative borders, more verse, and figurative designs.

Nineteenth-century samplers often have genealogical listings and illustrations of public buildings that can be helpful in determining the origin of the piece if it has not been identified.

Many people are charmed by the misspellings and inaccuracies present in many samplers. As an example of folk art, each piece carried its own unique charm that can be either crude and primitive or skillfully executed and detailed. Do not confuse antique samplers with needlework mottos, which first became popular during the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th century. Generally done by hobbyists on cotton or linen that was marked with a pre-drawn pattern, they usually feature a domestic scene and a homespun saying. Needlework pieces utilizing unusual designs and materials are the most valuable of this genre, but their value today usually falls between $25 and $100.

The best place to buy samplers is from antiques dealers who specialize in Americana as well as at reputable auction houses and estate sales.

A piece of history, samplers can be seen and admired at a number of historic homes and museums. One of the samplers pictured in A Maryland Sampling: Girlhood Embroidery 1738-1860 is part of the collection of the Queen Anne’s County Historical Society. A trip to Washington, D.C., will provide an opportunity to visit the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Museum, which currently has an exhibit entitled “Telling Their Stories: Samplers and Silk Needlework.” The DAR Museum is located at 1776 D Street, N.W. Call (202) 879-3241 or visit for more information. Another Washington, D.C., museum to visit for viewing samplers is the Textile Museum, located at 2320 S Street, N.W. For more information, call (202) 667-0441 or visit