The stitching of embroidered samplers is an ancient art.
The first samplers were constructed in the 15th and 16th Centuries. As there were no pre-printed patterns available for needleworkers, a stitched model was needed. Whenever a needlewoman saw a new and interesting example of a stitching pattern, she would quickly sew a small sample of it onto a piece of cloth - her 'sampler'. The patterns were sewn randomly onto the fabric as a reference for future use, and the woman would collect extra stitches and patterns throughout her lifetime.
16th Century English samplers were stitched on a narrow band of fabric 6-9in (15-23cm) wide. As fabric was very expensive, these samplers were totally covered with stitches. These were known as band samplers and valued highly, often being mentioned in wills and passed down through the generations. These samplers were stitched using a variety of needlework styles, threads, and ornament. Many of them were exceedingly elaborate, incorporating subtly shaded colours, silk and metallic embroidery threads, and using stitches such as Hungarian, Florentine, tent, cross, long-armed cross, two-sided Italian cross, rice, running, double running, Algerian eye and buttonhole stitches. The samplers also incorporated small designs of flowers and animals, and geometric designs stitched using as many as 20 different colours of thread.
The first printed pattern book was produced in 1523, but they were not easily obtainable and a sampler was the most common form of reference available to many women.
The earliest dated surviving sampler was made by Jane Bostocke who included her name and the date 1556 in the inscription. However the earliest documentary reference to sampler making is recorded in 1502. The household expense accounts of Queen Elizabeth of York record that: 'the tenth day of July to Thomas Fisshe in reward for bringing of concerve of cherys from London to Windsore . . . and for an elne of Iynnyn cloth for a sampler for the Quene'.
A border was added to samplers in the 17th century, and by the middle of the 17th century alphabets became common, with religious or moral quotations, while the entire sampler became more methodically organised. By the 18th century, samplers were a complete contrast to the scattered samples sewn earlier on. These samplers were stitched more to demonstrate knowledge than to preserve skill. The stitching of samplers was believed to be a sign of virtue, achievement and industry, and girls were taught the art from a young age.
Samplers are still stitched today, usually using kits purchased from needlework shops. These kits usually emphasise how quick and easy they are to produce, using simple stitches and quite basic patterns. Much more elaborate kits are available, but few modern needleworkers have the time available to stitch them to completion. Embroidery is seen as a leisuretime activity, and leisure is scarce in today's society.