Sampler, Canvas worked with silk and metal thread; tent, cross, back, plaited braid, knots, laid work, and detached buttonhole stitches, British


mid-17th century
Canvas worked with silk and metal thread; tent, cross, back, plaited braid, knots, laid work, and detached buttonhole stitches
H. 21 3/4 x W. 10 5/8 inches (55.2 x 27 cm); Framed: H. 22 3/8 x W. 11 3/8 x D. 1 inch (56.8 x 29.2 x 2.5 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Irwin Untermyer, 1964
Accession Number:
Not on view
The canvas ground of this spot sampler is a crowded, asymmetrical flurry of ornamental designs; these include fauna, such as birds, snails, a boar, and butterflies; a variety of fantastic flora in the form of flowering and fruiting branches and stylized blossoms known as slips; and geometric interlacing patterns similar to those of newly fashionable "knot" parterres, designs for which were first published in England by Thomas Hyll in his Proffitable Art of Gardening (1568). The sampler is divided roughly into two parts, with the natural world presented at the top and geometric motifs below.

Spot samplers may have come closest to fulfilling the etymological destiny of the sampler, or exemplar, as "an example to be imitated; a model, pattern; an archetype." They are composed of collections of patterns and stitches to which the maker might refer when she was in need of inspiration or guidance for a particular technique. They generally do not include a date or a name in the body of the work that would allow a connection to be made with an embroiderer at a certain point in her education.

A. J. B. Wace cited the existence of samplers as early as the beginning of the sixteenth century, writing that one was purchased for Elizabeth of York, who died in 1503, and that Elizabeth, Countess of Oxford, who died in 1537, left her two sisters twelve samplers in her will, although it is not clear that these were the work of her own hand. The earliest extant English sampler is preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum; it was inscribed and dated by Jane Bostock in 1598. A sampler with a very similar composition to the present example composed of tent-stitch slips and animals above a group of geometric designs worked in silk and metal threads, is also in the Victoria and Albert Museum (inv. no. T.234-1928).

Spot samplers were originally dated to the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, but more recently they have been reassigned to the mid-seventeenth century on the basis of a group of dated spot samplers that Carol Humphrey has brought to light. Spot samplers are relatively rare survivals compared to seventeenth century band samplers, which may result from their continuing usefulness as pattern references, a function that would have worn them out. The fact that these are rarely dated or signed may indicate that some are the work of professional teachers or embroiderers, in which case they would not have been treasured and saved by the descendants of the makers in the same way as "schoolgirl" accomplishments. Nevertheless, early in their existence they were certainly valued by the women who actually referred to them. The manner in which the maker of this sampler used materials and the fact that several individual motifs in this piece were left half-finished suggest that this is the first draft of a final work. Once the maker had mastered the technique and produced enough of the design to judge the final effect, there was no need to waste precious materials, particularly metal threads, and time in completing the motif.

Geometric patterns similar to those found on this sampler were used on small purses and other decorative accessories; a cushion in the Colonial Williamsburg collection (inv. no. 1967-62), for example, is decorated with a similar diamond-shaped motif. It has been suggested that the tent-stitch motifs, or slips, on spot samplers were intended to be cut out and applied to another ground fabric for the production of valances, bed hangings, or cushion covers. It seems more likely that these were intended to be saved as design ideas rather than used in another end product. Surviving unused slips suggest that when these were worked in any quantity for use in appliqué, they were organized methodically in rows of identical motifs, rather than squeezed into the available space at different angles of orientation.

[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.]
Irwin Untermyer (by 1960–64; to MMA)