SAMPLERS (Part 3): A Mark In Early American History 1600’s Through the Early 1800’s

By Anita Spitzhoff, NAN-Certified Teacher

This article first appeared in NANthology, the NAN newsletter in spring 1993.

The information learned about American sampler materials, as well as their unique design elements, enables the historian to formulate the different categories or types of samplers that are recognized today. This characterization often assists in determining the period of work that is undated.

Several ground fabrics were used in sampler work. The most common of these fabrics was linen. Some samplers were worked on fine bleached linen with an open weave and coarse threads. Linen was sometimes dyed to a dark teal, yellow, gray, or black. Narcissa Lyman of York, Maine stitched her work of 1827 on black linen. A fine, but sheer linen was utilized in the early 1800’s. It was known as tiffany or tiffany cloth.

Alice Earle wrote that in early colonial days, every farmer raised sheep for wool and cultivated flax for linen. The wife and daughters would spin them into thread and yarn. Even in large cities, nearly all women would spin yarn and thread. Many had hand looms at home to weave cloth. Several states passed orders for colonists to grow flax and strongly encouraged spinning and weaving for young girls and boys, along with their parents. Flax was grown in Virginia, South Carolina, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. Linen was important to the family economy. This firmly woven fabric was exchanged at community markets for necessary household commodities. In early colonial days it was readily sold for forty-two cents a yard.

Linsey-woolsey was another ground fabric commonly used in samplers. It was a fabric with a vertical blue-green linen (warp) with a yellow-green horizontal wool filler (weft). Numerous samplers dating from 1798 through 1832 from Washington D.C., Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania were documented to have used this fabric.

Another sampler ground was made of fine wool. This particular wool fabric, often called “Tammy” or “Tannery Cloth” was probably imported or brought home from a trip abroad. This fabric was notably used between 1700 and 1800 in the British Isles. It was used as a ground fabric of an American sampler (Elizabeth Whitman) as early as 1796.

Thread, another element of this sampler, was used for stitching the piece of needlework. Silk, linen, wool, cotton, and metals were the materials used in threading the stitcher’s needle while working on this type of stitchery. It is interesting to note that stitchers rarely, if ever, experimented with using threads that were out of character to the specific sampler styles that are currently documented.

Nearly all stitchers used silk thread for their samplers. A twisted silk, silk floss or a combination of the two threads are most often seen. Another imported Japanese silk, brought to this country by sea captains, was highly twisted and produced a crinkled look when applied with long satin stitches over the surface of the ground fabric.

Linen thread was used primarily on white-work samplers of the seventeenth century. It was Glee Krueger who noted, “The threads created geometric surface patterns, smooth satin stitches and the lace areas of some reticella designs.” She also states, “It is used with some frequency in the next centuries, but silk dominates the sampler work.”

Wool appears infrequently in the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century work. Few samplers have been found to use wool, probably because most of the product was used in knitted garments or woven fabrics. Wool became an important thread in the 1830’s when Berlin work gained in popularity.

In early writings about colonial life, Alice Earle makes and important, yet historical note about the creation of another spun thread used in sampler stitchery. “Cotton thread was first made in 1792 by Pawtucket women named Wilkinson on their home spinning wheels.” It was incorporated in some early nineteenth century darning samplers as students began to experiment with this newly created American product.

Few American samplers used real metal thread. Cost certainly must have played an important role in the lack of availability of this item. It is said that English women who used gold or silver in their stitchery would often “pull out the threads” and restitch them into other, more important pieces of needlework, indicating that the threads were not in abundance, even in England. Silver threads were found sparingly used in samplers from the Polly (Mary) Balch school of Providence, Mrs. Mansfield’s school in New Haven, and in those of children of Salem and Norwich Connecticut.