Learn more about samplers stitched in Europe in the 19th and beginning of 20th century
The patterns featured here are from Muriel Brunet's own collection of antique samplers. They are of European origin and most date back to the 19th century. All are available as reproduction sampler charts. >> see her collection
19th century European samplers
The earlier sampler patterns are rich with symbolic representations including trees of life, birds, flowers and religious symbols. Red was the predominant color used by stitchers with brown, green and blue as a complement. Trees of life, usually stitched in red, were a prominent feature. They symbolise the link between the earth and the sky, representing life and hope. To the right is a detail of the "M.B. 1841" sampler with a remarkable series of nineteen trees of life.
Other favorite elements of early samplers include flowers (often in flower pots), birds, crowns, baskets, hearts, crosses. Pictured here is an extract of a sampler of Swiss origin, stitched in 1868, that features a great variety of these symbols of charming simplicity.
Later 19th century pieces became more structured. Compositions were designed within framed borders and more attention was paid to symmetry.
Those borders were more sophisticated with elaborate floral compositions. Alphabets grew more complex with rich monograms, sometimes intertwined with flowers. Featured here is a detail of the "Hélène Bonnefond" sampler that has an intricate frame with a variety of borders.
While the trend might have taken a while to reach the countryside, a major innovation appeared in samplers sometime in the mid 19th century. Instead of "flat" representations of objects, stitchers started using a combination of colors to provide density to their stitching and create more realistic effects. A larger choice of silk embroidery colors provided more flexibility (DMC had started developping its fabulous ranges of silk colors). The detail shown here is from "C. Mathy", a sampler stitched in 1878.
Some elements of the patterns were inspired by - or may have originated from - Berlin Work patterns that became popular at the time. Berlin Work introduced the principle of copying a pattern from a colored grid (the first printed charts!). This major change unable stitchers to include more elaborate wildlife and landscape patterns. Birds and flowers remained the favorite patterns of stitchers but little rabbits, contryside scenes and other cute animals were included too. Shown here is a detail of the antique "Poppy sampler".
Stitched Alphabets and Monograms:
Most sampler patterns include alphabets. It is very rare to find a complete alphabet in antique samplers. While there might be some errors, inversions or omissions due to the youth of the stitcher, some missing letters are no accident. A certain number of letters were often merged such as "I" and "J" as well as "V" and "W" and other letters, often the less useful such as "X" or "Y" were simply dropped out. The detail of the sampler to the right, "Maria Braillon 1877" is a typical example.
The prime function of a sampler was not only to teach young girls the basics of stitching. Samplers were used as records or templates of letters. These letters were used for "marking" household linen such as bed sheets and tea towels, usually in red (learn more about red embroidery threads). Many items were not only stitched with initials but also numbered for easier identification. This antique bed sheet is a fine example of a tiny cross stitched monogram and sheet number (Normandy, mid 19th century). The monogram is 3/4 " high.
The tradition of "marking" household linen continued well into the 20th century but printed templates , allowing for a much wider variety of style, replaced the original alphabets.
While the word "sampler" is used in English, the French make a distinction between "marquette" and "marquoir". A "marquette" is a monochrome alphabet sampler, ranging from the simplest alphabets a young girl would learn to stitch on canvas to elaborate monogram letters that would serve as a reference for future stitching and passed on to the next generation. Shown here is the "Antique Rose alphabet sampler" .
A "marquoir", on the other hand, is a personal piece of work, signed and dated. While it also includes alphabets and numbers, it leaves much more freedom of design to the stitcher, who would add decorative and symbolic elements, border and frame patterns as well as the occasional text.
Stitches, threads and fabrics used for samplers
Stitches used for samplers are predominantly cross stitch, with occasional backstitch, and eyelet stitches. Some pieces would serve as stitch samplers and cover a variety of stitches including darning stitches, such as the German one shown to the right "R. Werner reproduction sampler dated 1907" .
At first, a young girl would learn by stitching on a rather loose canvas, allowing for easier counting. The thread used would usually be wool. As she gained expertise, she would move on to evenweave linen and often use silk thread. Household linen was "marked" with red cotton thread (Andrinople or Turkish red) and required very good eyesight as it could be stitched on very fine linen.
Many fine heirloom pieces have now been transcribed into modern counted cross stitch charts. If you would like to replicate an antique piece, browse through our collection of reproduction samplers and find the one that's right for you!
We would like to thank Muriel Brunet for providing the illustrations for this article as well as for all the information she contributed to this article
>> see the full collection of Muriel Brunet's antique samplers and reproduction sampler charts
>> learn more about red embroidery threads
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