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16th Century Samplers

by Carol Hanson/Caryl de Trecesson

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It's traditional to start off any discussion of samplers with the etymology of the word. The English word "sampler" (also "exampler") comes from the Old French "essamplaire" or "exemplaire" and the Late Latin "exemplarium" (Latin "exemplum") for a pattern or example to follow.

One of the earliest dictionary definitions was: "exampler: for a woman to worke by exemple" (Palsgrave, 1530). By 1828, Webster's dictionary defined the word as "a pattern of work; a specimen; particularly, a piece of needle work by young girls for improvement." The latter part of that definition is the most commonly understood meaning today, but the earliest samplers were adult (and even professional) examples of patterns that could be referred to when planning a project. They were meant to be kept in the workbasket and not for display as finished pieces.

Ethel Stanwood Bolton and Eva Johnston Coe in the book American Samplers define a sampler as "a piece that is signed and dated by its creator" but museums and needlework historians would find their number of works significantly reduced if they followed that restriction.

The earliest known written reference to needlework samplers comes from England in 1502. This was in a list of expenses for Queen Elizabeth of York and the item concerns monies given to Thomas Fisshe on the 10th of July for various goods, including "an elne of lynnyn cloth for a sampler for the Quene." (The original source is the Privy Purse account books in the Public Record Office, quoted by M. Jourdain in English Secular Embroidery, 1910, p. 177, and cited in several other texts.) Throughout the rest of the century there are numerous references in poems, plays, and account books, which shows the popularity of the form.

The earliest physical examples are more debatable. I have heard of pieces from early Peru and China described as samplers but seen no pictures or specific citations. There are many Egyptian works that certainly seem to be samplers. One is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston from the Mamluk period in Egypt, c. 1300-1420. It's a fragment in "undyed tabby-woven linen ground embroidered with blue and red silk and undyed linen; bands of varying widths showing small-scale geometric and conventionalized floral ornament" [MFA exhibit info]; there are three bands of embroidery and the center one is very wide and complicated in design. There are two Mamluk samplers in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England. One is dated 14th-16th century and the other is dated 15th-16th century. Both are sewn in silk threads on even-weave linen and both use double-running stitches; the second has pattern darning stitches as well.

The earliest European piece with a worked date is the "Iane Bostocke: 1598" English sampler in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Victoria and Albert also has a German sampler that's now dated to the first half of the 16th century and an Italian sampler believed to be from the end of the 16th century. These are the three samplers used as examples in this article. The best color plates are in the newest book Samplers from the Victoria and Albert Museum (Browne and Wearden), but they've been pictured in many other texts, sometimes with little information. For identification, it's safest to use the museum's acquisition number:

English sampler, 1598 (Jane Bostocke)
German sampler, first half 16th century
Italian sampler, 16th century
Spot samplers and band samplers are the two earliest European forms. There are some band samplers from the 16th century but the style became much more prevalent in the first half of the 17th century. Band samplers are a length of linen, usually the full loom width of the material, with bands of embroidery across the narrow width of the fabric. The general dimensions are about 6 to 9 inches wide and 20 to 30 inches long. The only 16th century example I've seen pictured is an English one from the Museum of London from around 1580-1600. It's done mostly in drawn-thread work with needlepoint fillings in silk, linen and gold threads on linen. It contains the arms of Elizabeth I and the name "Susan Nebabri" within one of the bands.

The German and Italian samplers discussed here are spot samplers, where the motifs are embroidered apparently at random over the surface of the material. The Italian doesn't even maintain a single orientation (the cloth was obviously rotated for ease of stitching). The English sampler is more organized, and was possibly worked as a gift rather than as a private reference. It has individual motifs at the top and bands of border patterns in the lower part. But it's still usually classed as a spot sampler since the shape of the material is almost square and the bands are in sections rather than running across the fabric.

The styles of the patterns within these three samplers convey their different purposes. The German sampler has ecclesiastical designs that suggest it was used for patterns for church linens and vestments. The Italian sampler is composed almost entirely of borders suitable for clothing and household linens. The English sampler has heavier borders and all-over patterns and includes representational figures that seem meant for cushions, hangings, or similar furnishings.

Materials and Stitches
All three of these examples, as with most of the fabric embroidery from the same period, are in silk threads on a linen even-weave tabby ground. The English sampler includes some metal threads and seed pearls and beads as well. Wool yarns were used in canvas embroidery (needlepoint) and occasionally in fabric embroidery where silk threads may have been harder to obtain (Germany, Iceland). Linen was the ground of choice for almost any embroidery other than directly on clothing. Occasionally embroidery would be done on silk or velvet, but often instead the figure would be first worked on linen and then cut out and applied to the silk or velvet ground.

By the 16th century there were a wide variety of stitches available to the embroiderer, and many were used in these samplers:

Algerian eye
detached buttonhole
double running
French knots
long-armed cross
two-sided Italian cross
English, Italian
English, German
German, Italian
German, Italian
English, Italian
English, German
Other needlework stitches and methods known to have been used in the 16th century were applique, basket, beading, braid, cord, darning, double-coral, fishbone, gobelin, gold-work, hem, herringbone, laid, laid & couched, long & short, loop, oriental plait, pattern darning, plaited braid, raised, running, sequins, split, split-brick, square double-chain, stem, tent, and wire-work.

Comparisons and Charts

All charts are under copyright by their creators. Please ask for permission before anything other than private use!

Example 1: Blackwork
The wide availability and use of pattern books meant that similar styles of embroidery were known all over Europe. Pattern books were not only sold and reprinted in other countries, sometimes a new book would "borrow" patterns from others. Flowers, acorns, and scrolling vines were very popular in blackwork patterns and these samplers have many examples.

Blackwork is characterized by generally using a single color in double-running stitch (if reversible) and/or backstitch to create a design that looks as if it were sketched with pen & ink. It was called "Spanish work" in England and in Italian it's called "punto scritto" or "writing stitch." More elaborate designs were later made from outlined figures filled with speckling or geometric patterns of stitches. Blackwork was used on clothing and on household linens.

The patterns from the Jane Bostocke sampler and the second pattern from the Italian sampler were charted by Carol Hanson from photos. The first, third, and fourth patterns from the Italian sampler were charted from the original by Elizabeth (Zwanzig) Bennett, used by permission.

Example 2: The Pelican in its Piety
Compare the two pelicans from the English and German samplers. Since popular pattern books were reprinted over many years and older needlework was used for inspiration, many examples from later works have been traced back to period sources: there's a very similar pelican design in an English sampler of 1759, a hundred and fifty years later.

Animals and plants were often used for their symbolic meaning: the pelican was said to feed its young on its own blood and so symbolized devotion and self-sacrifice. In the SCA, the design of a pelican "in its piety" is reserved for use by members of the Order of the Pelican, an award given for extraordinary service to the Society. (If you would like to use these designs for a non-OP use, you could substitute a more generic bird, or remove the parent pelican and leave the nestlings.)

Both pelican patterns were charted by Carol Hanson from photos of the original samplers.

Example 3: Circular Knotworks
In The New Carolingian Modelbook (plate 37, pattern #4, page 78) there is a pattern for a "Perpetual Knot Circular Motif" from Convivio delle Belle Donne, an Italian pattern book c. 1530-1540. There is an almost identical pattern in Nicolo Zoppino's Gli Universali de i belli Recami of 1537, as shown in Flowers of the Needle. Note the similar patterns from the German sampler and also from a Swiss tapestry carpet of 1533. Patterns used in embroidery appear in tapestries, carvings, and other artistic forms, and vice versa.

Notice also that none of these "Celtic" knotwork motifs are from Celtic countries; knotwork designs were extremely popular everywhere in the 16th century.

First pattern charted by Kim Salazar, used by permission. Second and third patterns charted by Carol Hanson from photos of the originals.

Example 4: Various Patterns
These are some of the variety of patterns seen in the German sampler. The leafy border at the lower left is very similar to one in the Italian sampler. The three samplers have patterns that could be used for clothing, household linens, pouches, cushions, rugs, wall hangings, ecclesiastical vestments and linens, and all of the many places embroidery was used to ornament period life.

All patterns charted by Carol Hanson from photos of the original.


Some of these books are no longer in print, or privately published and difficult to obtain. You're welcome to contact me for more information if you have difficulty locating them.

    Arthur, Liz.
    Embroidery 1600-1700 at the Burrell Collection.
    From the exhibition "The Needle's Prayse," 23rd Feb. to 14th May, 1995
    The Burrell Collection, Pollock Country Park, Glasgow.
    London: John Murray (Publishers) Ltd., 1995.
    ISBN: 0-7195-5413-6
    Beck, Thomasina.
    The Embroider's Story: Needlework from the Renaissance to the Present Day.
    Devon: David & Charles, 1995.
    ISBN: 0-7153-0238-8
    Browne, Clare, and Jennifer Wearden.
    Samplers from the Victoria and Albert Museum.
    London: V&A Publications, 1999.
    ISBN: 185177-309-6
    Cain, Elizabeth A., and Carol Mitch, as Elspeth of Morven and Kathryn Goodwyn.
    [currently Elizabeth A. Cain and Kathryn Newell.]
    Flowers of the Needle.
    Cambridge, MA: 1985 (privately published).
    Hanson, Carol, as Caryl de Trecesson.
    Designs, Period.
    Malden, MA: Chanson Press, third edition 1996 (privately published).
    King, Donald.
    Samplers [Victoria and Albert Museum].
    London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1960.
    ISBN: 0-11-290149-2
    King, Donald, and Santina Levey.
    The Victoria & Albert Museum's Textile Collection: Embroidery in Britain from 1200 to 1750.
    New York: Canopy Books, 1993.
    ISBN 1-55859-652-6
    Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
    Samplers: on-line exhibit
    Includes "Common Threads," showcasing the 291 samplers in the MFA's collection.
    Salazar, Kim Brody, as Ianthe d'Averoigne.
    Counted-Thread Patterns from Before 1600.
    Maryland: Black Rose Press, 1983 (privately published).
    Salazar, Kim Brody, as Ianthe d'Averoigne.
    The New Carolingian Modelbook: Counted Embroidery Patterns from Before 1600.
    Albuquerque, NM: The Outlaw Press, 1995.
    ISBN: 0-9642082-2-9
    Schuette, Marie, and Signid Muller-Christensen. Text translated by Donald King.
    A Pictorial History of Embroidery.
    New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1964.
    Sebba, Anne.
    Samplers: Five Centuries of a Gentle Craft.
    New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1979.
    ISBN: 0-500-23300-4
    Staniland, Kay.
    Embroiders ["Medieval Craftsmen" series].
    Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991 (reprint, 1997).
    ISBN: 0-8020-6915-0
    Wardle, Patricia.
    Guide to English Embroidery [Victoria and Albert Museum].
    London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1970.
    ISBN: 0-11-290030-5
    Zwanzig, Elizabeth, as Airmid Godwin.
    [currently Bennett, Elizabeth Z., as Alys Gardener.]
    Notes on the History of Counted Thread Work c. 1300-1650.
    Privately published pamphlet, date unknown.

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last modified on November 30, 2001

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