On Samplers

A couple of weeks ago I posted a photograph of a kantha cloth stitched during January to record how the earth turned green when the rains finally fell in this part of the word. I called it a sampler and resolved to make one for each month of 2020.

Kantha sampler for February 2020 (27 x 35 cm; 11 x 14″)

And here is my February sampler. The second month of the year brought some searingly hot days and some more rain. The zeros in the number sequence are a representation of the hot sun and the green band at the bottom is for the beautifully verdant vegetation that flourished during the heat and the moisture.

A sampler is “a beginner’s exercises in embroidery; a piece … worked in various stitches as a specimen” (OED). It is an apt word to describe my experiments with kantha stitching. I began stitching on one of those 40 degrees centigrade days and, without much thought, threaded yellow silk and began stitching from the centre outwards to make a representation of the hot sun . The idea was to expand on the circles I had stitched on the January sampler by making a bigger round shape. Because I started in the middle the stitching distorted the cloth as the circle became bigger. As it is a practice piece, I did not unpick to get rid of the bulges. But, for the second circle, I experimented by stitching from the perimeter inwards and got a much smoother result. So, I learnt a practical lesson. (I could not resist playing with the fact that the numbers for February in the year 2020 make a palindrome.)

Now it is March and I am thinking about what to stitch for this month. Meanwhile, I looked further than the Oxford English Dictionary to research the story of the sampler and found a good, comprehensive description in one of the books on my shelf, A South African Guide to Cross Stitch Embroidery by Jan Eaton (Struik Timmins, 1991).


Personal collections of stitches and designs have been embroidered for hundreds of years by both women and children. These collections are called samplers (from the Old French ‘essamplaire’, meaning a pattern which could be copied) and many have survived to the present day, forming a unique record of domestic needlework from the fifteenth to the twentieth century. Samplers were worked primarily as a learning process to try out different stitches, techniques and designs which could then be used as reference material. The designs were probably copied by one person and then passed on to someone else, so many of the samplers show similar designs worked in different ways. The earliest reference occurs in 1502, when the account book of Elizabeth of York showed the purchase of ‘lynnyn cloth for a sampler’.

Early samplers show realistic and fanciful flowers, fruit, animals, birds and figures as well as border patterns, and many of the designs were copied from printed pattern books. The samplers were worked on linen fabric or fine canvas using silk, linen or wool threads and used a variety of stitches and techniques including cross stitch, cut and drawn thread work and metal thread embroidery. Later samplers, particularly those from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, are worked mainly in cross stitch and show an increasing use of alphabets and religious texts.

During the nineteenth century, the majority of samplers were stitched by children in schools and orphanages as part of their general education. Embroidered samplers were based on the alphabet to give pupils a thorough grounding in the sequence of letters, spelling and also in practical embroidery skills.

Eaton, p. 10-11

Remembering how I hated school sewing lessons, my heart goes out to all those girls who learnt their alphabets by stitching the letters! Personal memories aside, samplers are a rich source of history and stitching inspiration. The V&A website is a good source for anyone wanting to read more about this.

(Delving into this area of stitchcraft has reminded me of my intention to create a little workbook of the embroidery stitches that my (simple) sewing machine can do, with notations of the stitch lengths and widths so that I can use it for quick reference. This would, I suppose, be a kind of sampler.)

Finishing LIne

Merry Go Round (122 x 122 cm, 48 x 48″)

The quilt that I started in a class three weeks ago is finished, thanks to machine quilting with a walking foot. I eat my words about not enjoying machine quilting after my happy discovery of the combination of hand and machine quilting. I first hand quilted around the curves and then machine quilted along the straight lines (in the ditch), then finished it off with a rows of machined lines around the border.

This quilt is Diana Vandeyar’s Improv Wedding Ring design and the class I attended was taught by Joy Clark.

16 thoughts on “On Samplers

  1. What a fascinating post! I’m glad I didn’t have to stitch my alphabit, it would’ve taken me forever! Haha. Your February sampler is thoughtful, yet fun. Will be interesting to see what you come up with for March. Good finish on the little quilt!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I made several samplers when I was young, very simple patterns and so poorly done. I was impatient and disliked the designs. I haven’t thought of stitching a thing in decades but your posts are causing me to think hmmmm… maybe? They are inspiring.


  3. Ha ha. I also hated sewing lessons at school, but you have transcended those and taken them SO much further- if only current school kids could see your quilts and see how beautiful sewing can be.xx


  4. How serendipitous…my African Fabric wallhanging is morphing into a part hand – part machine ‘quilted/embroidered’ piece…still exploring possibilities on samples.
    BTW: the masses of stitches on your Kantha piece are amazing!


  5. Oh I read this post the other day but only commented on it in my mind not actually typing anything – ha! I spent some time in the link you provided for the Victoria and Albert museum – wow I would like to visit there someday – and those antique samplers were amazing and complex! Yes I could not imagine learning my letters by having to stitch them! I like your February kantha stitching piece!


  6. Glad you enjoyed the V&A link. I was fortunate to visit the museum and it is amazing. But I was unlucky that they did not have any quilt or embroidery exhibitions on at the time. Even so, it was a remarkable experience.


  7. The tiny detail on the sampler is amazing.
    On the subject of samplers, many years ago when we moved to a small town for a bit and I did not have employment I learnt to knit (from books no Internet then!). I knitted samplers experimenting with different stitches and types of colour knitting – although using only three colours. In the end I added some plainer squares and sewed them all into a patchwork blanket that we still have. The sample patches each have unique memories even now 🙂


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