Madelena Antiques

Antique Samplers & Needlework - DISCOVER

Antique Samplers

1829 Antique Sampler By Margaret Main Aged 12

Antique Samplers - In a nutshell

Samplers are a form of embroidery that evolved in the 17thC, used to demonstrate needlework skills.

Most commonly, samplers are stitched by children, using silk or wool thread, onto a canvas ground. They often feature alphabets, numbers, verses and motifs. They are then mounted into a frame, ready for hanging on a wall.

Samplers have been stitched for many centuries and are still stitched today. We are mainly interested in samplers created between around 1650 and 1850.


Antique Samplers

Antique Band Sampler

Antique Samplers - Appeal

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.

They have strong decorative appeal. Available in sizes from miniature to two feet square and larger. 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. Individually, or grouped, samplers make compelling decor.

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.


Antique Samplers

Jean Siméon Chardin - The Hard-working Mother (c.1740)

Antique Samplers - Social History

Samplers resonate with social history. The changing significance through the centuries of embroidery and stitch work is explored below.

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. Pattern books continued to spread knowledge.

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.

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.

Marie Areton above, 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.

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.


Antique Samplers

Antique Sampler Close Up

Antique Samplers - Materials & Stitches

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.

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’.

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.


Antique Samplers

Rare Antique Sampler Type with Multiplication Tables

Antique Samplers - Types

Samplers can be found in many shapes and forms.

In this article, we illustrate some of the better known sampler types.

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.

Approximate period: 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.

Approximate period: 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.

Approximate period: c. 1620/ c. 1690

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.

Approximate period: 1787/1860

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

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.

Approximate period: 1775/1829

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.

Approximate period: 1785/1837

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.

Approximate period: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.

Approximate period:  1790/1890

The sampler above shows a refreshing freedom of expression in motifs and design. Advanced skills at such a young age indicates a wealthy background.

House Samplers

Depicting houses, castles, churches, schools 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 religious, possibly reflecting an abnormally lengthy life expectancy among the inhabitants of country houses.

Approximate period: 1776/1852

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.

Approximate period:  c.1740/1910

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

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.

Approximate period:  1692(London earthquake)/ 1952(Coronation Queen Elizabeth II)

On the sampler above, 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.

Approximate period:  c.1820 / 1885

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.

Approximate period:  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…’


Unusual Verse samplers

Novel, special or in some way unusual verses. Collectors seek out an interesting verse. Mostly they were copied but occasionally we like to think we have found an original composition.

Marjory Stewart's verse reads, '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.'

  • '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.

Biblical samplers

Biblical stories and texts. Includes Lords Prayer, 23rd Psalm, Ten Commandments, Ezekiel, etc. An example below 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.


Antique Samplers

Antique Sampler With Spanish Text

Antique Samplers - Other Countries

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.

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

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.


Antique Samplers

Modern Sampler Dated 1927

Antique Samplers - Real, Modern or Fake

Samplers have been stitched from the 1600’s and continue to be made to the present day.

Real: Old. Stitched in the year depicted.

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.

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: sold with the intention to deceive

As with modern samplers, fakes are samplers that have been reproduced. But they are 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. 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.


Antique Samplers

Antique Sampler Detail of Someone's Conservation Work

Antique Samplers - Conservation

Wear and damage is to be expected. Samplers in very good condition are extremely rare.

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.

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.

Spotting damage, and conservation:

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.

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.


Antique Samplers

Antique Sampler Detail of High Value Early Band Sampler

Antique Samplers - Value

Determining a Sampler's value is not an exact science, but consideration of a number of factors, can make a good starting point.


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.

A pair of samplers is rarer than a single.


Earlier samplers command higher values than later ones.


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


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


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.


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