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Whether made today or yesterday, the sampler recalls an era when there was time "to sew a fine seam." These embroidered pieces of linen showing many different kinds of stitches and carrying alphabets and verses and mottoes make, when framed, excellent decorations for use over a fireplace or above an antique chest of drawers. In a living room or in a hallway they often aid in creating an appropriate atmosphere for cherished pieces of old furniture. Fortunate are they who can use for this purpose a faded though still beautiful sampler embroidered by some ancestress who placed her name, her age and the date, with perhaps a naive line, on handiwork of many years ago.
One of the earliest samplers still in existence owned by the Metropolitan Museum discloses in its close and variegated series of bands of formal design a wonderful bit of work. Beginning at the top with small stitches and designs, the patterns become larger and more open in their effect as the work proceeds down the strip. At the end the industrious needlewoman formally attests: "Mary Pots wrought this sampler and this date, 1648." A still older American sampler is in the Essex Institute at Salem. This narrow piece of linen was worked all in white by Anne Gower, the first wife of Governor John Endicott of Massachusetts, some time before 1628.
Seventeenth century pieces reflect the simple directness found in the embroidery work of the Jacobean period and earlier. Within strict limits there is a delightful play of color in the making of flower, animal or human forms that recalls the art of the Renaissance, when embroidery was one of the most popular crafts.
Eighteenth century samplers were often made by little girls, and even by a few little boys, as part of their early education. This was the period, too, when the making of samplers, and with them the art of embroidery became a more democratic art. The long, narrow shape was then displaced by a square or rectangular form.
With this greater popularity one sees more individuality creeping in. Small Annabelle would stitch on her sampler square, after doing the required alphabet and numerals, a representation of her house or her school (a square of embroidery with windows and a peaked roof); and perhaps her pet pony would be shown, or the chickens and squirrels of her country home.
As a rule, however, we see the guiding hand of an elder person in the choice of designs and especially in the mottoes, verses and inscriptions stitched in delicately colored wools on linen that has now the beautiful tone of age. One could well imagine, of course, that little Annabelle would be interested in the picturing of some biblical story; but solemn verses from Isaac Watts or a perfect couplet by Alexander Pope seem, even for those staid days, austere for the youthful worker, "age 8."
Patriotic sentiments and verses might well stir the young woman who embroidered them on her square of linen. One, recorded in "American Samplers" by Ethel Stanwood Bolton and Eva Johnston Coe, admonishes:
Americans be not dismayed
Another and very practical young miss prays:
When in love I do commence May it be with a man o f sense. The making of samplers today is no longer a task for little girls, done as part of their education. It has become a pleasurable art for maid or matron who stitches for the joy of it, as did those ladies of high degree who worked the earliest and most beautiful forms of samplers three hundred years ago. Because it is not a task, the modern sampler tends to achieve the fine workmanship and beauty of the seventeenth century.
Today's samplers recall the old ones in general form, and, like them, carry verse and embroidered pictures recording incidents in the daily life of the maker. They often show better technique than do those of a century ago.
Yet sprightly as are the new samplers, they have not dimmed interest in the bits of handiwork of days long past. Samplers made a hundred or more years ago are more eagerly sought than ever before, in antique shops and attic trunks.
The framing of a sampler allows a variety of treatments. The simpler the frame, the better the beauty of the work displays itself. Narrow, black, old-fashioned frames with a tiny line of gold give a charming touch. Or one may have a frame of half rounded mahogany with squares of wood at the corners. Sometimes, if the sampler be small or an odd shape, it may be mounted upon a bit of modern embroidered silk. This method suggests a style of design found in some samplers, where the square containing the numerals and alphabets is surrounded by an embroidered floral design.