Home Uncategorized 7 Fun Facts About Needlework Samplers

7 Fun Facts About Needlework Samplers

Way more than a hobby

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You’ve no doubt seen a needlework sampler at one time or another, framed and hanging on a wall. Perhaps it spelled out a pious saying, numbers, the alphabet, a charming border of fruits and flowers. Some may belong to collectors, prized as antiques created by a child in the 18th or 19th century. Some may have a more recent provenance, the handiwork of a gifted needleworker.

But you may not know the history of these cloth artworks. Here are seven fun facts to get you started.

Sampler made by 12-year-old Patty Coggeshall of Rhode Island, dated 1792

1. Boys made needlework samplers, too.

Young girls as well as young boys made samplers as teaching tools. They learned their letters and numbers by stitching them onto a piece of cloth, usually linen. Girls also learned the embrouidery techniques they would need as adults.

Girls generally didn’t get the same education as their brothers, because their household duties would circumscribe their lives. But they would have to know numbers and the alphabet, especially to meet the Puritan literacy requirements for reading the Bible.

A Connecticut sampler by Elizabeth Smith. in 1825.

Girls learned needlework from their mothers, grandmothers or from small local schools called “dame schools.” They resembled today’s grammar schools, and boys attended as well. Some boys made samplers, too. They called them “marker samplers.”

2. Needlework samplers helped catch a husband.

After grammar school, the well-to-do then sent their daughters to ladies’ boarding schools. There they learned more advanced stitches along with Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, Geography and English Composition. The finished sampler had more of a pictorial, decorative theme than that first marker sampler.

A needlework sampler from Salem, Mass. Good enough to snag a spouse?

The finished sampler, with the girl’s name on it, was often framed and hung on the parlor wall. That showed a prospective suitor that she had a family wealthy enough to send her to school. It also showed her skill at needlework, essential for managing a household. And it displayed the desirable qualities of patience and submissiveness.

The needlework schools flourished from about 1785 until 1830, and then faded. Perhaps young women lost their appetite for obedience.

3. Myles Standish’s daughter made the oldest known American sampler.

Loara Standish of the Plymouth Colony made the sampler around 1645, according to the Pilgrim Hall Museum.  It measures 23-1/2 inches long and 7-1/4 inches wide. Loara, about eight years old at the time, used a variety of stitches to make an acorn, a rose, a carnation and this saying:

Loara Standish is my name
Lord guide my heart that I may do thy will
Also fill my hands with such convenient skill
As may conduce to virtue void of shame
and I will give the glory to thy name

Loara’s brother Josiah then inherited her sampler, and it remained in the family until 1844. The family then donated it to the museum.

For $299 you can make your own reproduction Loara Standish sampler with a kit from Etsy.

4. Older samples have missing letters.

They don’t have “J” and “U,” according to the National Museum of American History. The early Latin alphabet didn’t use those letters, so the needleworker used “I” for “J” and “V” for “U.” And “s” often looked more like an “f.”

Detail from an English sampler dated 1712. A few letters are missing.

The museum has a collection of 137 samplers. Lydia Dickson of Boston made the oldest in the Textile Collection, in 1735.

The world’s oldest sampler, by the way, dates from 200 BCE –300 CE. It came from the Nazoa people of Peru.

5. A collector once paid more than $1 million for a needlework sampler.

Sotheby’s sold the sampler at auction for $1,070,500 in 2017. Mary Antrim, a New Jersey schoolgirl, made the sampler in 1807. She stitched a large house next to poplar trees, with flowers and farm animals — a horse, a cow, chickens, a dog. She probably wouldn’t have minded getting paid herself for her work.

This one priced at $5,200 by 1st Dibs in May 2024. Late 18th century by Eliza Jordan.

6. Different schools of needlework taught different styles.

Some needlework samplers from the same town or region have remarkable similarities. That suggests one teacher or school taught a specific style.

For example, the White Dove school of needlework thrived in Deerfield, Mass., from 1798 to 1826. The samplers feature white doves outlined in black, and usually had an arrangement of baskets holding fruits and flowers. Above the picture was an alphabet or verse, and a border surrounded the whole thing.

A White Dove sampler from Deerfield, Mass.

In the 1830s, the Connecticut towns of Bantam, New Haven and Guilford produced samplers with a wispy, feathery appearance. That resulted from the use of the ray stitch for the lettering and design.

Sarah Stivours taught affluent young women embroidery in Salem, Mass., from 1778 to 1794. Her students’ distinctive samplers featured an Adam and Eve scene. They embroidered with the long satin Stivour Stitch on the diagonal across the linen. Inside a square, the alphabet and numbers took up the center of the sampler.

7. Needlework samplers could get stinky.

In colonial America, families spun their own thread and made their own cloth. They dyed the thread as well, with all kinds of substances: indigo, rusty nails, bark, moss, sassafras, poison ivy, elderberries. They also mixed indigo with something they euphemistically called “chamber lye.” We call it urine.


With thanks to A gallery of American samplers : the Theodore H. Kapnek Collection by Glee F. Krueger.

Images: English sampler missing letters by By Davidmadelena – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75216819. Connecticut sampler by Metropolitan Museum of Art, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication (“CCO 1.0 Dedication”.

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