hen exactly the first sampler was found is not known until now. However, we do know that on a painting of Joos van Cleve “The holy family” made in Antwerp around 1520, one can see a sampler.
The oldest Dutch sampler dates from 1572. It is part of the collection of the merklappenmuseum (sampler museum) in Dieteren (the Netherlands).
Samplers were probably made before that time already because the first pattern books were printed and published in 1523 by Johann Schonsperger in Augsburg. In Holland they did not work from books so early but one worked from the patterns of mother’s sampler or ‘designed’ their own based on biblical scenes. Looking at every single sampler one wonders who the maker was and what the circumstances were under which she worked.
Samplers were made by girls between 5 and 14 years of age as a way to practice embroidering and marking the linen and/or clothes for their outfits. The alphabet was used for marking the linen and the figures to indicate the special items they possessed.
In the early days one used to have their linen washed and bleached once or twice a year. To prevent exchanges or robberies the linen had to be marked.
The samplers were mostly made under mother’s direction, but later also under the direction of a ‘Matrasse’ (teacher). In most cases the teacher was the headmaster’s wife. In about 1880 a school law was initiated in Holland which mentioned that at elementary schools girls had to be taught fine needle work.
That’s why after 1880 we see so many of the well-known red school samplers.
When you see a piece of needlework, generally called a sampler, for the first time you see a great variety in design and construction. We also name them differently. There are family samplers, religious samplers, character samplers and darning samplers. Which is which?
On a character sampler only characters are embroidered in various sizes using various techniques. On a family and religious sampler different motifs are also embroidered (in any given place) just to practice and improve the skill. The motifs used have a mostly symbolic value. The samplers are generally worked in cross-stitches but on some of them you also see running stitches, satin stitches, Algerian eye stitches, eyelet stitches, and Holbein stitches.