Decorative embroidered samplers were made by daughters of the well-to-do for display in their homes, and were symbols of gentility as much as of skill. For daughters of the poor, instruction in needlework, while equally important, often had a more practical purpose: to prepare them for work as domestic servants. Going into service for a wealthy family would be a desirable opportunity compared to factory or mine work, and the creation of a neat sampler as a demonstration of skills to a potential employer was key.

“Plain sewing” samplers demonstrated proficiency at hemming, seaming, patching, darning, buttonholes and plackets—all the skills necessary for making and caring for household clothing and textiles. This sampler, made by a twelve-year-old girl, shows five plackets along with various types of eyelets, buttonholes and fasteners stitched neatly across the top.

Susan Brown is the Associate Curator of Textiles at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

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