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Mainly A Woman's Hobby
( Originally Published 1913 )
Chaucer mentions "ensamplers," but no fourteenth or fifteenth-century samplers have survived. A few seventeenth-century and plenty of eighteenth-century samplers are collectable still, and an interesting study they make, especially for a woman. Closely examined, they reveal much more than one would suppose, and there is always the chance of a quaint discovery. For instance, the one now before me ; it must often have been seen by John Ruskin, for it used to hang in his father's house at Judd Street. It has been rebacked with satin, by somebody who esteemed it. A comparative study of dated samplers shows that it belongs to the eighteenth century, though it mentions no year. It possesses a feature which makes it unique. Above the Noah's Ark trees of the (very) formal garden, above the Noah's Ark house, and in among the usual birds, butterflies, and zigzag ornaments, is rising a balloon, very well imitated in marking-stitch. I think this sampler celebrated the first balloon ascent from British soil, by Tytler, in 1784 ; even so in 1910 a girl might have stitched into her sampler the new wonder of the aeroplane. The usual alphabet is missing in this case, and the only lettering is " Mary Ann Jane Yoxall, aged 10 years."
Traces of Locality and Date.-A lady, searching for old samplers to collect, frame, and hang in her " own room," should keep in mind the fact that Yorkshire and Lancashire samplers done in the eighteenth century were smallsized as a rule, and were worked in coarse wools upon a browny-white background.
The letters of alphabets worked into samplers done in Scotland are usually large and highly ornamented. If a sampler is decorated with sacred monograms and symbols of the older faith, it was probably done in Ireland, at a convent school.
If the needleworked parts of the sampler are enclosed in a worked border, the date is subsequent to the year 1740, most likely. The oldest samplers extant are borderless. If the border be simple in design and narrow, the date is prior to 1770 probably, for about that time the sampler borders began to be broad, sprawling, and ornate.
Samplers containing alphabets and lettering were intended to show that the girl knew both how to sew and read. Samplers containing maps, intended to encourage the study of geography and needlework simultaneously, seem to have come into popularity about the date of the great French Revolution. That sudden upheaval, and the Napoleonic wars which followed it, would give a zest to geographical study at the time, just as the Boer War did to the study of maps of Africa.
The material worked upon conveys indications of date, in those cases where the sampler does not mention the Anno Domini. Early eighteenth-century samplers were worked upon yellow linen; white linen indicates seventeenth-century work; sampler-cloth, or canvas, did not come into use until about 1750, but, after that was used almost invariably, so long as samplers were worked at all.
The style of ornament indicates something. Careful study of a sampler will sometimes detect an Italian influence on the ornament, or a Louis XV influence, or a " Chippendale " influence, or an " Adam " and " Empire " feeling, as the case may be.
The kind of stitch is sometimes indicative. Satinstitch and bird's-eye stitch bespeak the seventeenth century ; marking-stitch began early in the eighteenth century ; darning-stitch seems to have been in vogue between 1780 and 1820, or thereabouts.The Earlier Samplers.-" The older the better, and the more worth collecting," is almost a maxim for sampler collectors ; the seventeenth-century samplers excel their successors both in needlecraft and design. The original purpose of the sampler, done at boardingschool or elsewhere, was to prove the girl's mastery of the needle; but in the end the sampler became a kind of formal picture, in which the things represented assumed more importance than the skill and beauty of the stitching.
Most seventeenth-century samplers are narrow and long-strap-like, in fact; one at South Kensington now is nearly six feet long. Most late samplers are broader and oblong, nearly square; these began to be the fashion late in the eighteenth century. The earliest samplers extant consist of embroidery done in several kinds of stitches ; sometimes they show "insertions" of lace done by the girl's own hand. Drawn-work and cut-work also adorned some seventeenth-century samplers. Early in the eighteenth century these features disappeared. A sampler containing lace is specially valuable.
The earliest-dated sampler extant seems to be one which shows the year 1643 ; a few bear the date 1648. But these were not the earliest of all. A book of songs published in the year 1612 mentions " a short and sweet sonnet made by one of the Maides of Honour, upon the death of Queen Elizabeth, which she sewed upon a sampler in red silk." So far, no sampler of such date has been found.
I suppose this kind of work has practically ceased to be done. Rarity will ensue, and prices will enhance, but at present even the most desirable examples are not dear; one dated 1648 has been sold for about £7.
Dirty samplers can be cleaned; decayed ones can be repaired. Samplers are daintily ornamental when framed and hung. When I see one, I think of Becky Sharp, at Miss Pinkerton's Academy for Young Ladies, in Chiswick Mall.