Textile Samplers Article

  • Contents
  • Why are Samplers appealing?
  • Social History
  • Materials & Stitches
  • English Sampler types
  • Other Countries
  • Real, modern or fake
  • Conservation
  • Value

'A form of embroidery that evolved in the 17thC, used to demonstrate needlework skills...'

To read our article on samplers, click on the blue tabs above. Some of the samplers illustrated are available for sale from our website.  Other pictures are taken from Madelena's research archive.

We hope you find our article of interest. Corrections, comments, etc. are most welcome. Please email davidtulk@madelena.com.

Why are they so appealing?

What do samplers have that makes them unique antiques?


Social History

Discover the changing significance of samplers in the lives of women and girls over the centuries.


Materials & Stitches

Find out what was used and when.


English Sampler types

Enjoy an illustrated compendium of sampler types and themes.



Other countries

A brief summary of sampler making countries other than England.


Real, modern or fake

Some tips on how to tell the difference.



Condition, conservation and care.



What makes a sampler valuable?


They resonate with social history.

The changing significance through the centuries of embroidery and stitch work in the lives of women, from royalty to ordinary school children, is utterly fascinating. Motifs were often full of symbolism, passed from generation to generation over centuries and across national boundaries by means of pattern books and borrowed examples. But the patterns were not static. They were continuously adapted. Some motifs reflect a very English curiosity about nature and the English garden: shells, plants, flowers, birds, and animals.

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They have strong decorative appeal.

Available in sizes from miniature to two feet square.

Unusual sizes occur e.g. a rare whitework sampler 34ins. long

They come in monochromes or in colors, from muted to loud, in value from $100 to $200,000, suitable samplers can be found and frames matched to enhance any decorator theme, fitting conveniently into spaces on the walls.

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They are a constant reminder of your own impeccable taste.

Individually, or grouped, samplers make compelling decor. They make a powerful statement about your own good taste and appreciation of art and history.


They are the only antiques in existence that were made by children

Children are adored universally, well almost. To preserve, to own, to display the work of young girls and women who were alive as long ago as the time of the Mayflower , to glimpse something of their schooling, their homes , their families’ country estates , holds an irresistible appeal. When occasionally we sense their emotions as they stitch - unfettered frustration , joy , sorrow - we cannot help but be moved.

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15th Century 1400-1499

Egyptian sampler fragments survive from as far back as the 14thC, possibly due to the dry climate.

Some of the earliest examples of decorative needlework in Europe date from the 15thC, but no samplers, nor references to samplers exist.

16th Century 1500-1599

Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541) and into the reign of Elizabeth (1558-1603) decorative needlework becomes a highly fashionable occupation for upper class ladies, a mark of wealth and status. Their work was invariably unsigned , with rare exceptions . Examples survive, together with one solitary signed and dated sampler.

References to the stitching of samplers in the literature of the day can be found, and pattern books were in print from 1520 onwards, so there is little doubt that undated unsigned samplers do exist, but identifying them is difficult when so few examples are available to compare.

17th Century 1600-1699

Social patterns gradually change. The traditional modesty over signing and dating of samplers is relaxed. Education for girls and the poor is considered for the first time. Needlework and literacy, become elements in any curriculum.

Early samplers, which were unsigned and undated, recorded only motifs and patterns. Skill in letters and numbers was not a requirement. This gradually changed until by 1660 most band samplers included alphabet, numerals, and name, and were dated, though spot samplers almost never were.

Inscriptions too, were appearing more often, intended to improve the mind.

Inscription from circa 1650 whitework band sampler ‘This is my beginning. God be my good spe? In grace and wit’

Pattern books continued to spread knowledge.

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18th Century 1700-1799

The moral issue of relief for the poor was beginning to be taken up by philanthropists who had made fortunes in commerce. Some institutions and schools were built to improve life expectancy and to provide some hope for the needy. Useful needlework, with sampler making in some cases a purely recreational adjunct, formed a significant portion of the curriculum.

Household linen, clothing etc. continued to be hand-made, marked, repaired and embellished by womenfolk. Her ability to read and if necessary to write her name, was becoming an important consideration in addition to needlework skills when a gentleman was seeking a wife.

Heralding further change in domestic embroidery, new color printed cottons were becoming available despite legislation protecting against cotton imports from 1700-1774.

1780 dress: resist dyed, mordant dyed, overprinted with gold spots, India fabric.

Sampler forms had changed in direct response to their change in purpose from pattern records to decorative objects. Band sampler rigid patterns and long thin shape gave way to a rectangular form suitable for framing behind glass and hanging.

1739 Silkwork Sampler by Barbara Hogan. Good example of the transition from long thin bands to rectangular with borders. This one is half way.

1757 Silkwork Band Sampler by Marie Areton. A good example of a late band sampler in transition, half-hearted bands, name, date, alphabet, numbers, the latest pattern craze and some Algerian eye the only variety in stitches, impossible to believe that fourteen year old Marie had any intention of keeping this as a pattern sample for future use, in fact the sloppy stitchwork towards the end, and the fact it was unfinished leaves us with a definite sense that she abandoned it in disgust.

Borders could now enclose pictorial elements, with more freedom of artistic expression, trailing flower and leaf patterns, and new stitches .

Emphasis moved to longer inscriptions, prayers, bible verses, and hymns, and to more landscapes, pictorial scenes, houses, buildings, genealogies, memorial samplers, and biblical samplers.

From circa 1780-1820 there was a craze for the oval format, seen in map samplers , darning samplers, and Quaker School extract samplers. The fashion came, and just as suddenly disappeared.

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19th Century 1800-1899

The founding of new schools continued. But for the desperately poor, living in squalor with no sanitation life expectancy was short. Until mid-century it was believed that disease was caused by bad air. In 1852 it was proved that bad water was the cause. Action to provide piped fresh water followed, with sewers soon after .

Aniline dyes began replacing vegetable dyes in the 1840’s.
Home sewing machines for embroidering were becoming available in the 1850’s.

Compulsory education was introduced in 1870. Simple school samplers were stitched by children as young as six years of age and were used for the teaching of alphabet and numbers, often with a short ‘improving’ inscription. Older girls progressed to more ambitious designs, usually with longer ‘improving’ inscriptions, verses, and extracts, in addition to collections of practical needlework.

20th Century 1900-1999

In 1900 the first ever major exhibition of samplers was organised by the Fine Art Society Exhibition, showing 340 samplers from 1640 onwards.

Patterns continued to be published, and samplers stitched for fun, but the need for samples for reference had long ceased, and skill with the needle was no longer a necessity of life. Needlework and sampler making were at a low ebb for some decades.

Happily publications, guilds, research, attainment of the highest levels of skill, and the sheer pleasure of stitching have in recent decades enjoyed a strong revival.

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A variety of materials and stitches have been used in samplers over the centuries.

16th Century 1500-1599

The materials in use were all extremely expensive at this date.

Grounds: Linen

Threads: Silk, silver, gold, seed pearls and beads. 16th Century colors were predominantly light in tone, but included some black, some dark ruby, mid-browns, and mid-greens.

Stitches: A great variety of stitches and techniques were in use.

17th Century 1600-1699

Grounds: Linen, bleached and unbleached; some yellow; hand loom widths 20-24 inches translates into band samplers 20-24 inches long with selvedge top and bottom; width 6 1/2 to 12 inches.

Threads: Silk, linen, silver and gold.

Stitches: A great variety in use including those used in open work; needlepoint lace as trimmings for caps, cuffs, handkerchiefs, cravats, etc. and raised work.

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18th Century 1700-1799

Grounds: Linen, wool, silk , cotton. Circa 1720 saw the introduction of tammy cloth, a fine, even, woollen canvas, somewhat prone to moth damage. Circa 1770-1800 Tiffany was in vogue. By the end of the century the selvedge edges of hand looms are gone. Sampler edges were now hemmed or over sewn.

Threads: Silk, linen, some silver and gold.

Stitches: The variety of stitches drops off as this century progresses. Between 1700-1750 eyelet stitch and satin stitch were used predominantly for letters in alphabets, numerals and inscriptions.
By the 1790’s cross-stitch had become so predominant that it had become known as ‘sampler stitch’.

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19th Century 1800-1899

Grounds: Linen, wool, silk, cotton, paper. After circa 1850 woollen canvas grounds were more common than linen. Perforated paper also came into use circa 1850. Circa 1880 a coarse double mesh cotton canvas became very popular for wool work.

Threads: Silk, linen, wool. From circa 1830-1880 Berlin wool work was all the rage.

Stitches: Mostly cross stitch.

20th Century 1900-1999

Grounds: Linen, wool, silk, cotton, paper.

Threads: Silk, cotton, cotton-like, wool, metallic, also beadwork.

Stitches: Mostly cross stitch.

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Every type of sampler we encounter looks the way it does for two reasons: what it was to be used for, and what society expected of the stitcher.

Types and themes were sometimes mixed, providing added interest for today’s collectors.

Certain samplers fall into groups of particular interest, not exactly types. We have tacked these on to the end of this section.

We will incorporate revisions to Earliest /Latest dates ongoing.  Our research to arrive at some of the dates shown here has been limited, so contributions from readers will be most welcome.

Spot samplers: Collections of spot motifs.

Dated specimens are very rare. Was used as a collection of motifs for future reference; lived in the needlework casket or bag, rolled up; ideal shape long and thin; society had no influence on it’s form whatsoever.
Earliest/Latest Date: c.1640/c.1717

Band samplers: Series of horizontal bands

Used in part as a collection of patterns, stitches and techniques, an aide memoire; therefore needed to be rolled up and stored with the rest of the embroidery materials; ideal shape long and thin; evolved into an display of educational attainment and needlework skills so had to be neat, tidy and presentable.
Earliest/Latest Date: 1627/1757

White work samplers: Band samplers, all in white.

A speciality band sampler to display the skills in open work and cut work that were fashionable at a particular period in time.
Earliest/Latest Date: c. 1620/ c. 1690

c. 1690 White work sampler segment with numerous variations of hollie-point and needle-lace fillings

c. 1650 Whitework Band Sampler, exceptional length.

Map Samplers: Maps of Yorkshire, England, Ireland, Europe, Palestine, Africa, The World, etc.

Used to teach needlework, writing, and basic Geography; results were expected to be on display so ideal shape rectangular; map samplers were greatly in fashion from circa 1780-1820.
Earliest/Latest Date: 1787/1853

1853 Silkwork Palestine Map Sampler by Emma Waldron aged 11, St. Paul’s School Worcester. An unusual combination of a rare map with a rare school.

Miniature Sampler: Very small samplers, watch covers, etc.

c. 1800 Miniature Silkwork Sampler by Ann Gould. 6.75ins by 5.5ins.

1832 Circular Miniature Mourning Sampler by M L. 6ins.

Darning Samplers: Collections of darning patterns

Used partly as a collection of techniques for future reference, partly for display, so shape rectangular; the fashion for darning samplers coincides with the fashion for map samplers circa 1780-1820. Darning samplers were often ‘in addition’ to a girl’s school-leaving sampler.
Earliest/Latest Date: 1775/1829

1829 Silkwork Darning Sampler

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Quaker School samplers: Extract and Medallion samplers distinctive of the Quaker Schools in USA, England, and Ireland:

Extract samplers: Used to exhibit meticulous fine calligraphy skill with needle, high morals, and plain Quaker ethos, within a simple border.
Earliest/Latest Date: 1785/1837

Close up of one of a rare Pair of Ackworth School extract samplers by sisters Sarah and Theodosia Candler

Medallion samplers: Used to emphasise community as well as skill with needle.

1806 Quaker School medallion sampler

Bristol Orphanage samplers: Distinctive of the Bristol Orphanage Schools

Used to evidence needlework skill in marking and to prove attendance at an institution with a reputation for the highest moral values. Typically with densely grouped alphabets and numbers, very finely stitched.
Earliest/Latest Date:1842/1878

‘Named School’ Samplers: Samplers showing name of school in addition to name of stitcher and date.

Knowing the name of the school can help when researching.

'Named School’ samplers are generally more advanced than common alphabet/marking/school samplers.
Earliest/Latest Date:  1790/1890

1820 Rawden School (Yorkshire) sampler by Mary Holmes aged 10. A refreshing freedom of expression in motifs and design and advanced skills at such a young age indicates a wealthy background.

House Samplers: Depict house / castle / church /school and surrounds

Of various complexity, these were frequently stitched at home under the supervision of a governess, often to a high standard. Used to display attainment in needlework, individuality and imagination in design. Verses usually lighter, not so darkly religious, possibly reflecting an abnormally lengthy life expectancy among the inhabitants of country houses.
Earliest/Latest Date: 1776/1852

Large 1818 Castle Sampler by Mary Smith.

1841 Wilton House Sampler by Maria Tomlinson Condition generally Good. No holes. Stains around the edge. Age darkening of the ground. No stitch losses. Colours are mostly good and strong with no noticeable fading. The silks bright and glossy. Very slight colour run around some of the dark green threads. Stretching is slightly uneven. Frame showing some wear, but is structurally sound and in our opinion could be hung 'as is'. Air bubble in the glass.

Alphabet Samplers: Alphabet and numbers, sometimes name, date, verse

The simplest and most common of all samplers, also known as marking or school samplers - used to teach the basic lettering and numbers required for marking household linen.

Earliest/Latest Date:  c.1740/1910

1792 Alphabet Sampler by Bessy Barr.

c. 1740 Unfinished Alphabet Sampler.

Genealogical Samplers: Showing a Family Tree, or Births & Deaths

Used to teach family relationships and values. Possibly to comfort a sibling in mourning for a family member.

Memorial Samplers (Mourning Samplers): Depicting figures in mourning.

The deaths of Queen Charlotte, 1812, and Prince Albert, 1861, both of them much loved consorts to the monarchs of the day, prompted a flurry of tombs, urns and willows. Mourning pieces are more usually found as silk embroidered pictures.
Earliest /Latest Date: 1790/1865

1823 Mourning Sampler by Sarah Winn Bird.

Commemorative Samplers: Commemorate an actual event.

Early ones are rare.  'Commemorative' is sometimes used to describe also Memorial Samplers commemorating the death of a loved one.
Earliest/Latest Date:  1692(London earthquake)/ 1952(Coronation Queen Elizabeth II)

1802 Silkwork Commemorative Sampler.  The first section refers to the Treaty of Amiens 1802 between Britain and France.  It was short-lived.  Thirteen years of war followed - the ‘Napoleonic Wars’ - culminating with the Battle of Waterloo, 1815.  The section reads ‘SUSANAH SMITH HER WORK IN THE 9 YEAR OF HER AGE.  HAPPY WE ARE THAT PEACE W (then realizes her spelling mistake) ONCE MORE AS AN CHORD (once more has accord) ON OUR NATIVE SHORE.  Meaning: peace once more agreed with France.  Could it have been her father dictating this unique first phrase?  The others are more usual.  The sign-off ‘This I have done that you may see what care my parents took of me.’

Music and Math Samplers:  Having music or arithmetic as their focus.
Rare, clearly not adopted by the general education system, used to focus on one aspect of a particular subject.
Earliest/Latest Date:  c.1820 / 1885

c. 1820 Multiplication Tables Sampler  

1885 Silkwork Musical Sampler by R.A.W.


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Praising Samplers:  Eulogising Family, King, etc.

A Praising Sampler will have been referred to as a verse sampler or possibly a commemorative sampler before now but we think a new sampler type is worth an airing.
Earliest/Latest Date:  1782/1848

Here is one combining praise to parents with a rare mention of stitching ‘On this fair worsted does my needle write… each finish’d line appears, To shew the improvement of my growing years…’

1814 Sampler by Phebe Edmonds entitled ‘The Virgins Prayer’.

And here are the verses of two more in full:
'On King George: Long may the King Great Britain's Scepter sway While all his Subjcts peaceably obey: And when God's Providence shall him remove From these below to highest Realms above To his own Race may he the refign For ever to continue in that Line. Signed and dated Elizabeth Spencer August the 3 1782.’

1715 Silkwork ‘Praising’ Band Sampler by Mary Male

Unusual Verse samplers: novel, special or in some way unusual verses:

Collectors seek out interesting verse.  Mostly they were copied but occasionally we like to think we have found an original composition.

Extract from 1814 Silkwork Sampler by Mary Priestley

1815 Silkwork Sampler by Marjory Stewart. Very unusual and attractive verse. 'In Life's Gay morn, when sprightly youth> with what ardour Glows:> and shines to all the Fairest charms> Which Beauty can disclos; > The rose had been wash'd, just wash'd in a show'r, > which Mary to Anna convey'd, > The plentiful moisture incumber'd, the Flow'r,> And weigh,d down its Beautiful head,> The cup was all Fill'd And the leaves were all wet> And it seem'd, to a Fanciful view,> To weep For the Buds it had Left with reGret,> on the Flourishing bush where it Grew.'

1839 Unusual Verse Silkwork Sampler by Sarah Redhouse. Verse is Thomas Gray’s 'ELEGY'
'Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath
Can Honours voice provoke the silent dust
Or flattery sooth the dull cold ear of Death
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air'.

‘Teacher’ Samplers: Samplers by a known teacher.

Very rare. Juda Hayle samplers often include distinctive motifs, patterns, and usually the IH initials. These are also sometimes known as school samplers.

Pictorial Samplers:

Samplers including needlework picture in addition to motifs.

1847 Silkwork Pictorial Sampler by Miss Margaret Fudge.

Biblical samplers:

Biblical stories and texts.

1826 Silkwork Sampler by Eliza Mary Ratcliffe. A good example of a mixed theme sampler including biblical text, house with man and dog, Adam & Eve rather well clothed, and many other motifs including the most delightful boat and hatted passengers.

Lords Prayer, 23rd Psalm, Ten Commandments, Ezekiel

Adam & Eve

Earliest/Latest Date:1714/

Detail from 1838 Silkwork Adam & Eve Sampler by Caroline Dowdeswell Corner. Available for sale at time of going to press, an exceptionally fine and ‘free’ work with motifs including a wonderful house and an amazing flag carrying creature on a magic flying carpet?

Solomon’s Temple

1840 Silkwork Solomon’s Temple Sampler by Sarah Ann Wilde.


Flight to Egypt

The gloom of the verse in this sampler is offset by light, cheer, and beautiful stitching. One hopes that eleven year olds back then took no more notice of dire warnings from adults than they do today.

1846 Flight to Egypt sampler by Alice Lewellin Morgan.

Verses read ‘The rising sun with cheerful beams Shines o'er the silver lea The woods and vales fresh sweets display And smile on all but me The village youths with lightsome steps Trip o'er the fields in glee While on the spray the blackbird sings And all seem Gay but me. My sins have pierc'd my saviour's side Have nail'd him to the tree And yet I spurn'd His offer'd grace Although He died for me To whom shall I my troubles tell Or where for comfort flee Dear Jesus cast a pitying look And deign to smile on me'.

Spies of Canaan

1805 Spies of Canaan Silkwork Sampler by Sarah Hewitt.

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Samplers were stitched throughout Europe where family exchanges were not uncommon. Further afield, the womenfolk of working ex-patriots and emigrants took their needlework with them wherever they travelled.

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Rare c. 1880 silk and beadwork Sierra Leone sampler

Materials also varied to some extent from place to place, country to country.

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Seeing for ourselves so few American, Dutch and other European samplers in the UK, we leave these to those better qualified to comment than Madelena.

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REAL: Old. Stitched in the year depicted.
Samplers were stitched from the 1600’s to the present day. Old samplers usually have a degree of fading, smell ‘old’, usually suffer from stitch loss or wear, perhaps with staining, and usually with signs of folding or previous mounting. Ground material and thread type and colour were continuously developing with new technologies and are often, therefore, distinctive to an era.

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MODERN: 20thC sampler in 20thC style; or 20thC sampler repro in the style of old samplers, marked irreversibly with name of stitcher and date stitched. Modern samplers are made with no intention to deceive, and they do not pretend to be old.

FAKE: As above, a sampler that has been reproduced, but is being re-sold with the intention to deceive, purporting to be old.

A buyer in any doubt should ask the seller “Is it real? Could it be modern or fake? How can you tell?” Vague answers could mean the seller does not know or will not say.

To detect real from fake for yourself here are some tips, pointers, warning signs to look out for, for those times when you are in doubt or when you are not 100% confident in the seller.

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These are only pointers. Exceptions occur. Never judge a piece by one or two indicators alone.

    -Too clean.
    -Too bright and unfaded.
    -Too little wear and tear.
    -Too good to be true.
    -High value selling cheap.
    -No evidence of previous mounting or folding.
    -Wrong letters or numbers or motifs for the period.
    -Wrong ground or threads for the period.
    -Wrong colors for the period.
    -Wrong smell.

Compare real with fake side by side whenever possible, handle every piece you can, and you will learn to distinguish one from the other. Collectors and experienced dealers are seldom fooled.

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Wear and damage is to be expected. Samplers in very good condition are extremely rare. Many sellers do not draw attention to holes, wear, stitch loss, fading, color run, stretching, repairs and conservation in as much detail as we do, so when buying do not forget to ask “Is there any deterioration or conservation?”

The extent of damage and the quality of any conservation will affect value, depending on the rarity of the piece.

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Spotting damage, and conservation no no's:

If your eyesight is not great, use a lens and bright light.

Look for tack holes, insect holes, stains, reduced or re-hemmed edges, fold marks, stretching, color run, fading, and stitch losses.

Look also for re-touching of faded color, glue, and over-framing.

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Conservation and Care

Current best practise in textile conservation commences with light suction through fine gauze, or light brushing, to remove dust and dirt. No attempt is made at washing . No attempt is made to repair holes. Instead holes are backed with similar material. The sampler is then stitched to a pad.

Framing would include spacers between glass and material, and a composition backboard.

Never hang samplers where they can be reached by direct sunlight.

A needy sampler can be improved pending future conservation by removing the backing, the sampler, and the glass. Clean the glass then replace the sampler and backing, sealing with new tape to prevent dust ingress.

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Factors that affect value are:

Rarity: A rare sampler or type of sampler will add value.
Any sampler of a known teacher will be extremely rare.
A map sampler of Africa is rarer than one of Europe.

A sampler commemorating an actual event is rare.


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A pair of samplers is rarer than a single.

Pair Ackworth School Candler Sister Samplers dated 1804 and 1810, 'extract' samplers, the chosen extracts being 'One' and 'Solitude'.

Age: Earlier samplers command higher values than later ones.

Provenance: Value added if a sampler has been in the ownership of a renowned collection or a famous family.

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Condition: Samplers in good condition command higher values than those showing damage or deterioration.

Appeal: A sampler with strong appeal will command higher value.

Quality of Workmanship: 40 count may command higher value than 20 count; Rarely seen stitches may be more desirable than commonly seen ones.

Artistic merit: While printed patterns were used to transfer many motifs to samplers in progress, scope remained for the exercise of artistic choice in design, layout and colors.

Prices reflect value plus some additional factors.

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