Needlework samplers come in a variety of forms, and many countries are known for the production of samplers. Western versions often include the alphabet, figures, motifs, decorative borders and sometimes the name of the person who has embroidered it and a date. There are various types of samplers, such as the alphabet sampler, band sampler, Berlin wool work sampler, darning sampler, marking sampler, stitch sampler and text sampler.
Early European examples tend to be made out of various pieces of cloth with individual stitches or patterns worked out on the material (more appropriately called samples). These are generally known as piece samplers. This type of sampler is also known from Morocco (Moroccan sampler).
A change took place in the fifteenth century, when the purpose of samplers moved from memory aids to (public) demonstrations of skill. The first examples were made from narrow bands of cloth and are sometimes called band samplers. In sixteenth century Europe, samplers subsequently started to be made from a single, large piece of cloth, usually rectangular in shape. One of the oldest known samplers of this type from England was made by Jane Bostocke and dates to 1598, but there are written references to earlier examples. A border was added to samplers in the seventeenth century. By the mid-seventeenth century, alphabet and text samplers became popular. These often had religious or moral quotations.
Sampler making was very popular in the nineteenth century and came in many different forms. Suitable patterns in Berlin wool work, for example, became widely available from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. Patriotic samplers with flags, portraits of famous people, notable events etc., were produced in various countries. By the end of the nineteenth century another form of band sampler started to be made, which included small panels of cloth being sewn together. These were often made in schools and were used to demonstrate a girl’s mastering of a structural and decorative sewing technique: one technique for each panel.
Throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries sampler making remained popular. Some are designed at home, others come from books or in kit forms. Designs range widely in style, from accurate reproductions of historical pieces to more contemporary styles.
The term sampler is often interchanged with sample, but the latter is generally a far simpler form not made for public display.
Source: Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: ‘sampler’.
V&A online catalogue (retrieved 20 March 2017).