The term “sampler” comes from the Latin word exemplum, meaning an example to be followed, a pattern or a model. Pictorial samplers began life as plain samples of different stitches worked onto a single piece of fabric. A girl would add to it as she learned different needle work techniques, a standard part of her education.
By the mid 17th century, decorative samplers with borders were considered to be a mark of refinement. They were worked with horizontal bands of stitching, featuring letters, numbers and traditional motifs, such as the dove of peace. Later, poetry or religious quotations were added, and ornate borders became common.
The stitching of samplers was believed to be a sign of virtue, achievement and industry, and girls were taught the art from a young age. Samplers are still stitched today and are often worked to celebrate a joyous occasion, such as a birth or baptism.
In 1806 Hanner Passell stitched a sampler of fine coloured wool threads on linen. This sampler is very fragile and damaged, but you can still see her mistakes – she has not allowed enough room for the word “away” in the third line of the verse. The verse has a dire warning about wasting time:
Exonerate your mind of worldly cares
Spend each Lords Day in Spiritual Affairs
Such wretched souls as squander that aw[ay]
Repent it sorely at their dying Day
And in very faded thread at the bottom we can read: “Hanner Passell Made this in the 11th year of her age”. Hanner is an unusual spelling for the name Hannah. It could be a family name, but it might be that Hanner was a poor speller. Genealogy records show that a Hannah Passell was born in Sussex in 1795 – that might fit.
While Grace Combe’s sampler is faded, you can still see the skill and charm of her work. Silk threads on fine linen demonstrate cross, feather, herringbone and satin stitches. Sample sewing of the alphabet, homilies and designs of flowers, crowns and geometric motifs all feature. And only just visible under a strong magnifying glass at the lower edge is “Grace Combe March 24 1724.”
E Gregory’s sampler was made in England in 1820 and comprises images of grand buildings and floral motifs, all delicately hand stitched in cotton thread. While we don’t know who E Gregory was, or if and when she came to New Zealand, it is an excellent example of the sampler craft. For new arrivals to New Zealand, samplers were a reminder of family left behind and a way of making a new house more comfortable. A few home comforts transported across the world helped mitigate the hardships of settling in.
Young Caroline Octavia Hopwood made a simple sampler of wool thread on fine canvas in cross stitch. Lines of the alphabet are repeated in different colours; there is also a line of numbers and small motifs comprising a bunch of grapes, two dragons, a flowering plant in a basket and a deer. The whole is surrounded by a vine with geometric leaves attached. Caroline has stitched her name and age, a mere eight years, at the bottom of the sampler. You can see why it is simple – she is just learning.
The very old sampler on fine, natural-coloured linen was completed by Hannah Hopkins in 1729. The deep flower and leaf border is stitched with two strands of twisted silk thread in satin stitch, French knots and cross stitch. The centre panel spells out the great Psalm XXVII, proclaiming absolute faith. It is easy to recognise what sort of beliefs Hannah’s family had:
The Lord is my Light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear, the Lord is the strength of my life of Whom shall I be afraid.
The eccentric punctuation of the lettering is matched by the eccentric switch from rose red to yellow thread, which is very faded and hard to read. Perhaps Hannah ran out of the red and only had yellow left to match the rest of the sampler.
Libby Sharpe is the Curator at the Whanganui Regional Museum.