A Maker’s Abecedary: A is for . . . Alphabet Sampler


Samplers from the collection at Shelburne Museum, Vermont.

One of the wonderful things about being a maker is the choices we have available about what to make. Depending on your interests, values, and aesthetic sense, there’s a craft or art form for every taste, from A to Z.

As our hands shape our chosen materials, we are shaped by the work we do. This was perhaps never more apparent than in the tradition of girls and young women making needlework samplers, especially in early America.

These samplers taught so much—the alphabet, the building blocks of literacy, and often a moral precept, but also focus, concentration, and amazing eye and hand coordination, especially considering that simple samplers were stitched by girls as young as five or six. Eleven- and twelve-year-old girls made elaborate samplers, with superbly tiny stitches that would challenge you and me.

Just as the samplers taught the girls much of what they knew, they also teach us much of what we know about these girls and of women and their roles in these early years. Even the names of woman were rarely recorded in official ways in the 17th and early 18th centuries and so much of women’s work was work that was regularly undone and didn’t last.

Food was prepared and was consumed, and more food needed to be made. A home was cleaned, a bed was made, a garden was tended and all needed to be done again the next day. All were relentless, repetitive works in progress, with no lasting artifacts to remind us of the names and contributions of women.

So, in our abecedary of craft forms, it’s appropriate that alphabet samplers come first, since they were the craft that came first for young girls and because they provide tangible evidence that women make.

All alphabet samplers are samplers but not all samplers were alphabet samplers, or training tools for that matter. It seems that the earliest-known samplers were a way for women to collect stitches—a sort of cloth and thread library of stitches they could refer to.

Women didn’t have printed instructions, much less the Internet, to learn from so, when they saw a stitch that was new to them, they would stitch it on cloth, as a reminder. This sampler of stitches was added to over a woman’s lifetime and examples of these collections survive from the 15th and 16th centuries.

It was probably only a matter of time until these collections of stitches turned into something of a competitive sport and samplers evolved as more elaborate and showy, a way for a woman to show off a little, as seems to have happened in 18th- and 19th-century Europe.

These showy samplers didn’t make a lot of sense for European women who came to North America, though:

the settlers in America had a new wilderness to conquer and the need for elaborately decorated linens and clothing was not a necessity to them. What was common luxury in ‘civilized’ England was not important in the new land.

What was deemed necessary in early America was the education of girls to become resourceful and pious women, and good wives and keepers of a home. The alphabet sampler was an important aspect of this education. The alphabet sampler, while not original to the United States, was certainly embraced by new settlers of the English colonies, to teach their girls.

From 1645, when the earliest-known American sampler was made by Loara Standish of the Plymouth Colony, girls spent hours of their days, producing stitched alphabet samplers. It seems amazing to me that young girls, usually between the ages of six and twelve, had the coordination and concentration to make these stitches. Can you imagine any 10-year-old you know handling this task?

These samplers were teaching tools, giving girls a way to learn and practice stitching, letters, coordination, and lessons in morality. They could then demonstrate their ability to mark linens, in order to keep track of them in a household, as well as demonstrate piety and values to possible husbands.

The completed work was usually framed and hung in the parlor, proclaiming the maker’s obedience, patience, and skill. . . . The verses found on many samplers reinforced these messages, emphasizing the importance of female virtue, the value of education, and obedience to one’s parents and to God.

That so many alphabet samplers survive, even though they are made of relatively fragile threads, gives us a good sense that the women who made them treasured them. And why wouldn’t they? The samplers were evidence that a woman could make a mark that would last, unlike so much of the work assigned to women in those years. The permanency of thread on linen, along with the name of the maker, gave many women the only tangible item that might outlast them.

The simple designs of these samplers are still treasured by needleworkers, who reproduce the designs faithfully from patterns offered for sale. Today’s patterns connect modern stitchers to a long, homely tradition:

Make it.

Learn from it.

Sign it.

Cherish it.


For more information about samplers, including alphabet samplers, and many images visit Antique Samplers.




29 thoughts on “A Maker’s Abecedary: A is for . . . Alphabet Sampler

  1. These have always amazed me! And for the reasons you outlined……no, I cannot imagine a young gal today producing such a stitchery! These days, we have so many “labor/time saving devices” yet we observe/complain that “there’s no time”!! We flit from one thing to another and have lost the ability to apply “determined grit” to a project to get it finished. Some would say that this applies to the shift from hand quilting to the use of a machine but I would submit that it is a totally different art form, in a category that’s separate from the “traditional”. So much food for thought……great post!!!!!!

  2. I bought a sampler from an auction, using the genealogy sites I’m beginning to find out a little more about the young girl who created it, it’s amazing such works of art exist for us to treasure

  3. I share your passion: I even once did a paper on samplers and medieval education for girls. Seeing through all these precious little stitches the lifes and circumstances of those girls and young women is so endearing and enlightening. How I would love to have a cuppa tea with you and talk samplers!

    • Wouldn’t it be fun, if we could talk together?! We’d have so much to say, so many interests in common! That’s fascinating that you did a paper on samplers–you should write a blog post on the subject!

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about samplers and their importance in a girl’s life. It’s hard to imagine a 10 year old doing such needlework today but a child might, if given the opportunity and the right encouragement. Young ones are very capable, nimble and dextrous, ( look how good they are at computer games!) and obviously love creative activity, as we can see with the present craze of loom bands. When I was about 7, we did needlework in class ( a type of sampler) and the boys had to do it too. It wasn’t detailed like the samplers you show case, but it was fun.

  5. What I find interesting is that a sampler was a way to collect stitches…no internet or written instructions were available. I wonder how many different types of stitches were commonly used.

    • I think hundreds of stitches were used. I read somewhere recently that some of the older samplers contain stitches for which we have no names for now! You can see why women would need crib notes!

  6. Great post Kerry! I enjoyed reading this over view of history and can see it was a wonderful hybrid lesson, including the practise of many skills. [An art in education that appears to be largely lost.] I, shame-facedly, must admit to being no great shakes in the art of embroidery. It appears I lack the discipline and concentration for it – I have tried, as two discarded quarter completed counted embroidery projects hidden at the bottom of my thread drawer can attest…… But I do very much admire those who do work in the art-form!

  7. This is fascinating. I remember doing a piece of work at university on 17th century stump work, where the emboridery is also padded to produce 3D effects. Some were wonderful, but, yes, those women who made them didn’t have their creations acknowledged. And actually, little seems to have changed. Although as it’s your field, perhaps you know differently?

    • It’s not my field in any official way–I just like reading about it. From what I can tell, things actually are changing. Women support each other more in making things like quilts and other stitchery and have outlets, like local and regional shows, to share what they’ve made. The Scottish tapestry, which I re-blogged a post about, involved and got recognition for hundreds of needleworkers, as well as elevating their craft in the public eye. I’ve been to two quilt exhibits in major museums in the past two months, where the quilts were presented as art. And, of course, there’s the internet, where it’s easy to find like-minded people to share work with and to find almost unlimited resources. So, yes–maybe we can be optimistic.

  8. I love samplers!

    I also read that some samplers were a portfolio of sorts for needleworkers for hire — they showed what they can do to potential employers.

    Once I read a book about knitting history and was amazed to learn that Colonial women asked their children to do a certain number of rows on their sock knitting each day before they could play. Like you said, 10 years old and under! At the time I was struggling to learn how to knit socks and my mantra became “If a 10 year old Colonial child can do it, I can do it!” I did eventually learn 🙂

    I was obsessed with hand sewing and needlework when I was little and I remember my grandmother giving me all the hemming for the household! I think I was around 9 or 10. I also remember having free-choice but on a theme projects in 5th grade, and I would make these sewn and embroidered projects from my imagination — like a big sewn heart that looked like a candy box with all the details embroidered with different colors of sewing thread (no one in my house did this kind of work so I don’t think they knew about embroidery floss in order to buy me any!). I was an outsider artist even at 10 – lol! I made all kinds of crazy things out of found materials until I finally went to my first craft store in my late teens.

    • What a wonderful bunch of experiences you had! And maybe it’s just as well that no one else did embroidery so you could go your own way and explore. I’ve read, too, about the “stints” of work that were impressed on children and that, apparently, women imposed on themselves, a certain amount of work that needed to be done in a day. When I was working on my 1812 quilt and needed to be sure it got done for a deadline, I did the same thing to myself, setting a time goal for each day! Amazing how much you can get done with structure!

  9. Are you going to make a series of posts of these? I love how this post is giving a glimpse at history, is educational and entertaining as well! Imagine the response of these women if they could have known their hard work would have been featured on the internet many years after?!

    • Wouldn’t those women be dumbfounded by the technology we have?! Things have changed so much, even in the last 30 years, let alone 200!

      I’m thinking I’ll do more posts like “A is for . . .,” “B is for . . .” but I don’t really have a plan. I may not do them in order and I definitely don’t want them to seem forced. But maybe the idea will same me sometimes, when I just think of anything else to write about!!

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