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Wrapped in History: Unveiling our textile collection

We have an extensive textile collection. This month we are diving into needlework from the 17th century up until the present day. The collection includes clothing, patchwork and a wide range of intricately stitched samplers. This blog post is the first of small series that will focus on unveiling the needlework in our care.

Emma Smith Sampler 2

We will take a quick look at some of the samplers that caught my eye and that will perhaps be of interest to you. The brightly coloured designs, together with the delicate stitching, encouraged me to find out more about the museum's sampler collection and the history that accompanies them.

The needlework collection was started in 1928 by Miss Joan Drew, who donated a number of her own pieces of embroidery to the museum. This led to the development of a vast collection of embroidered textiles - we have approximately 120 samplers.

The sampler collection contains pieces from the 17th century, but samplers were known to be used by needle workers in Europe as early as the beginning of the 16th century. They were a way for embroiderers to demonstrate and practice their needlework skills, and acted as a "sample" of their embroidery technique. They also functioned as a place to trial new patterns or stitches. Common samplers include the alphabet, decorative symbols, motifs, and moral and religious verses.

There is a noticeable shift in design between samplers created in the 17th century and the 18th century. While early samplers were often used as reference sheets for embroiderers, later they were used as a work of reference for educational exercises. They were frequently worked by children and used as a learning activity in schools and at home. There is less distinction between the 18th and 19th century samplers, except for the increased use of samplers as works for display in the home as opposed to reference material.

Blog   Blog

This sampler is from 1843 and contains the verse "On Youth" which is a section of a poem by John Dryden (1631-1700). The verse is surrounded by cherubs, birds and flowers. The lower part of the sampler has a central urn of flowers with trees and a variety of animals including a peacock, horse, dog and butterfly. Sewers would often finish their samplers by adding their names, dates of completion, and sometimes the name of their teacher or school. In this case, it is signed "Isabella Whinyates's Work Aged 7 Years 1834". She has used a variety of stitches including cross stitch, tent stitch and satin stitch to create this sampler.

Emma Smith Sampler 2   Emma Smith Sampler

Created by Emma Smith in 1883, this example of needlework is primarily made of canvas and silk. The border is a geometric pattern, deviating from the usual zigzag border that is characteristic of 19th century samplers. The alphabet is cross stitched over four lines, with letters in blue, mauve and yellow thread. The edges are sewn with blue silk and sewn with back stitch. Samplers were largely used as school exercises during the 18th and 19th centuries and by the 1850s, most samplers produced by children focused on letters and numbers. Girls were taught needlework from a young age and the stitching of samplers was believed to be a sign of virtue and achievement. There are a few holes in this piece, but they do not detract from the intricacy and design of the borderwork!

Pope’s Universal Prayer sampler

In the early 19th century, samplers had become significant for their moral content. This particular sampler contains a verse from 'Pope's Universal Prayer' and would have been used a school exercise for a child. Along with the verse, the sampler contains a zigzag border, the alphabet and numbers 1-6 worked in cross stitch. In all centuries, texts, lettering and numerals are frequently worked in cross stitch, although other stitches were often present in other sections of the sampler. An element of symmetry was also a common trait in samplers of the 19th century.

1815 Sampler

Done almost a decade later in 1815, this design contains the same verse as the one above, but here the embroidery is a combination of silk and wool. With the use of wool the colours appear brighter. During the 19th century, printed patterns imported from Germany gave rise to a fondness for Berlin wool-work, facilitating the use of brightly coloured thread in works of embroidery. The piece contains a traditional to the period zigzag border around the entire piece of work but is also decorated with strawberries. There are several embroidered crowns on this sampler with the letters D, M, V and E denoting 'Duke', 'Marquis', 'Viscount' and 'Earl'. The entire sampler is a mixture of cross, satin and eyelet stitches.

architecture sampler

Strong symbolic motifs including an embroidered house, flowers, birds and several other images scattered over the main part dominate this sampler design. There is no border around the sampler, though a single line of cross stitch surrounds the alphabet at the top and continues down the left side. The house is the definitive feature of this sampler, with architecture starting to become a common motif in many 19th century samplers. This sampler is thought to be unfinished and many parts do not appear symmetrical.

Map sampler

The museum also possesses a few samplers that are embroidered maps. This sampler is from 1873 and shows a map of "Palestine in the time of Our Saviour". During the last quarter of the 18th century and most of the 19th century, map samplers were extremely popular. They often had a combination of multi-coloured wool cross stitch and backstitch and would be used as an educational exercise. Samplers became ways to demonstrate knowledge, thus the high number of educational themes found. This particular sampler is framed with lines of red with a green scroll around it and is signed "Ellen Ingram 1873" at the bottom. She was aged 13 when she made this sampler.

Several of the samplers are on display in the museum, along with highlights from the rest of the needlework collection.

Samplers remain popular in the needlework community, with modern kits available to purchase from needlework shops or the internet. Popular designs include those commemorating special occasions, family trees and family mottoes. Forms of embroidery are widely seen in high streets' clothing shops and in the works of high-end designers and fashion houses. For example, Dior's creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri turned to the past when designing the Dior Cruise 2019 collection, getting her inspiration from 19th century archival collar.

The golden age of samplers may have passed, but their legacy remains firmly appliqued onto modern society. Would you agree? Please leave your comments below.

You can also browse some of

Stay tuned for more threads from our next textile collection blog.

Blog post by Parul Obhrai, a Guildford Museum volunteer.