Embroidered band sampler, Mary Pots, Silk embroidery on linen; double running, satin, detached buttonhole, Montenegrin cross, herringbone, and chain stitches, British

Embroidered band sampler

Mary Pots
Silk embroidery on linen; double running, satin, detached buttonhole, Montenegrin cross, herringbone, and chain stitches
L. 34 1/2 x W. 8 1/4 inches (87.6 x 21 cm)
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1913
Accession Number:
Not on view
Band samplers comprise neatly worked rows of patterns suitable for repeating motifs or figural motifs on the long narrow strip of linen canvas. This is the most common type of extant seventeenth-century sampler, and its standard format was established by about 1630. The foundation was generally cut from one complete width of plain-weave linen, so that the selvages are present at what becomes the top and bottom of the finished work, and the sides are hemmed. Polychrome band samplers are typical, although some band samplers combined rows of whitework, cutwork, and needle lace with the polychrome patterns (see MMA 57.122.368). A band sampler such as this would have most likely been a task completed by a schoolgirl under the supervision of an embroidery instructor of some kind. In fact, a band sampler was usually the first piece worked by a budding embroiderer beginning at about age seven or eight. The complete embroidered works by Martha Edlin, the only extant group of a young girl’s educational work, now housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, begins with a band sampler as her earliest accomplishment.

This example is fairly typical of band samplers produced in the middle of the seventeenth century. The sampler is dated 1648 and inscribed "Mary Pots wrought this sampeler and this date," although her age is not noted. A similar sampler, dated 1629 and executed in a more somber range of colors, is in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. The variety of stitching techniques in the rows of Mary Pots’s sampler serve as a visual catalogue of her abilities with regard to contemporary decorative embroidery vocabulary. Such skills were considered particularly important, not only to the management of Pots’s future household and family, but they would also have served as evidence of her education and of her parents’ ability to provide her with one.

The truncated alphabet at the bottom of the sampler and her inscription speak to her ability to mark household linen, since it was common practice to include initials and numbers on household linens so that women could track their household goods when they were laundered. That the Pots sampler includes letters in both capital and lowercase forms suggests her potential ability to master a number of alphabets. The inclusion of an alphabet on samplers became increasingly common toward the middle of the seventeenth century, as did the inclusion of small figures and moral verses that reflected the supposedly virtuous nature of a woman’s education. The combination of the growing importance attached to literacy and the decline in popularity of complex raised-work and needlelace techniques inevitably reduced the variety of stitches on samplers. This transition is illustrated on a sampler dated 1694 in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, which includes an embroidered motto in which the connections between learning, embroidery, and morality is made explicit: "Look well to wh / at you take in ha / nd for larning is / better then hou / se or land when l / and is gone and mo / ney spent then larning is most ex / celent."

Samplers acted as records of acquired needlework skills; their survival illustrates the tradition of handing down designs from generation to generation and the conservative nature of the education of young women. Motifs used on seventeenth-century samplers are often identical to those first worked in the sixteenth century (or based on sixteenth-century patterns), and certain motifs recur with uninterrupted frequency. A particularly interesting motif seen in a number of permutations is that of the "boxer," three of whom are rendered upside-down in the fourth large band of the work. Boxers, named for their pugilistic stance, often grasp an object identified as a branch or flower. These figures may be derived from Renaissance putti included in early Italian pattern books or from images of confronted pairs of lovers who extend their arms to offer tokens to each other. A 1581 story entitled "Of Phylotus and Emilia" lists the types of fashionable accessories on which we can expect to find the border patterns that were first practiced on samplers: "then she might seke out her examplers, and to peruse which worke would doe beste in a ruffe, whiche in a gorget, whiche in a sleeve, whiche in a quaife, whiche in a caule, which in a handkerchief." But the point in time when a sampler ceased to function as an exemplar has not been determined. Spot samplers are identified as having been made into the mid-seventeenth century, and the experimental nature of unfinished motifs on these works suggests that their practical function continued well into the seventeenth century.

[Emily Zilber, adapted from English Embroidery from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580-1700: 'Twixt Art and Nature / Andrew Morrall and Melinda Watt ; New Haven ; London : Published for The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York [by] Yale University Press, 2008.]
Signature: Mary Pots wrought this sampler and this date/1648
[ Eustache B. Power , New York, until 1913; sold to MMA ]