Samplers are embroideries that showcase needlework skills. The word “sampler” is derived from the Latin exemplar, meaning “model.” The oldest surviving samplers date from the fifteenth century, and were used by women and girls to practice stitches, alphabets, and other designs. Their motifs were worked in horizontal bands, and referenced when embroidering clothing and domestic textiles. As pattern books became readily available in the 1750s, sampler arrangements were increasingly pictorial, usually featuring a central image or design surrounded by scattered motifs, names, initials, letters, and verses on religion or morality.
Sampler designs not only vary by date, but by country and region. Like many other samplers from the country at this time, this nineteenth-century German sampler was worked in an array of stitches in red thread on a cream-colored cotton ground. German samplers were among the first to include alphabets, and those from the nineteenth century often feature multiple versions, usually with one rendered in a Gothic script, as seen here. The maker’s delicate, naturalistic rendering of leafy wreaths and sprigs is also characteristic of samplers made in nineteenth-century Germany.
Although samplers were sometimes worked at home with a governess, this sampler was likely made at school. Many nineteenth-century German samplers of this style feature armorial crests that bear their school’s location and initials, such as “Dresden” and “O. P.” in the center of this example. The elaborate initials “H” and “E” on either side of the armorial may reference the maker’s instructor, and the scattered and sometimes repeating names that surround it could allude to the embroiderer’s classmates.
A stylistically similar German sampler, dating to 1844 and once belonging to Queen Victoria’s governess Baroness Louise Lehzen (1784 – 1870), may be found in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection.
Laura Camerlengo is an Exhibitions Assistant with the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Costume and Textiles department. She is the author of the Cooper-Hewitt DesignFile e-book, The Miser’s Purse.