Hand-embroidered samplers have been around for a long, long time, with the oldest surviving European samplers dating from the 1500s.
Originally used to demonstrate stitching skills and to illustrate examples of stitches, samplers developed over the centuries to serve other purposes as well, from recording life events (like weddings, births, deaths) to simply adorning walls.
Images via Needle ‘n Thread
When considering embroidered samplers, two types come to mind: the band sampler, with designs, motifs and letters worked in lines; and the spot sampler, where small vignettes are worked randomly (in spots) all over the fabric surface.
It’s probably most common to equate the idea of a sampler with the band sampler that features an alphabet and text, often worked in cross stitch and other counted stitches. And while these samplers are quite beautiful and can be used for display, practice, to record life events and the like, the sampler is not restricted to this concept.
If you consider the roots of the word “sampler” (it comes from “exemplum” in Latin, which means “example”), a sampler is really just an embroidered cloth with examples of stitching on it.
Samplers are great fun to stitch, and they aren’t confined to any set rules or patterns. Just as in ages past, samplers are a wonderful learning tool, a good record of stitch mastery, a great method of exploring threads, fabrics and techniques, and an excellent way to discover your own likes (and dislikes) in stitchery.
Are you ready to get started on your own embroidered sampler? Here are a few guidelines to help you out!
What’s the purpose of your sampler?
If you’re keen to stitch your own sampler, before you start out, you should ask yourself if there’s any ulterior purpose for your sampler, aside from sampling stitches.
Are you planning on displaying your sampler? Do you want to record any specific information on your sampler? Are you testing specific threads or fabric? Or are you simply stitching to have fun, to play with stitches, to learn and to discover?
Your answer will help determine whether or not you need to do a little planning before you start stitching. If you plan to display your sampler, for example, you might want to take a little care with determining an attractive layout for the stitches or a pleasing color scheme for your threads.
If you wish to record some monumental life events — like a wedding, birth, retirement or moving to a new home — then, again, some planning will come in handy. What words do you want to use? How will they be written? Where will they be located on the sampler? Considering these points before you begin to stitch will go a long way in producing a satisfactory outcome.
Are you testing specific threads, combinations of threads, fabric, or combinations of fabric? If so, do you have them on hand, in the colors you want?
Or are you just stitching for fun, making up your sampler as you go?
Even if your plan is essentially no plan, consider the basic supplies you’ll need before you start.
What embroidery supplies do you need?
For the random stitch sampler, it’s still a good idea to give some consideration to your embroidery supplies.
This doesn’t mean you have to spend hours and hours making decisions! Just a few points to keep in mind:
1. What type of fabric will best support the stitches you want to work?
If you’re determined to work a huge variety of stitches, or if there’s a chance that your stitching will be dense and heavy here and there, or if you already know you’ll be using some heavier threads like perle cottons or crewel wools, it’s important to choose a ground fabric that will support your stitches.
There’s nothing worse than choosing the wrong fabric for any embroidery project, to regret it later, after you’ve put all that time and effort into stitching! Or choosing a fabric that’s going to cause you frustration along the way, that doesn’t show off your stitching, or that (worse yet!) detracts from your stitching.
A good medium weight, high thread count linen is always a safe choice in these stitching circumstances. Why linen? Because it’s resilient. If you pick out a section of stitching once or more, linen is less likely to show any ill effects from your change of mind. Cotton and cotton-poly blends do not stand up to heavier, dense stitching as well, and they almost always show signs of wear when “reverse stitching” (picking out) takes place.
And even though you might pay a little more for a piece of linen than you would for cotton or a blend, in the long run, your stitching experience will be more pleasant, you’ll have few fabric frustrations and the end results will look far superior than they would on lower quality fabric.
2. What type of threads will you use?
If you’re planning on your sampler sticking around for a while, choose good quality threads. DMC or Anchor floss or perle cotton are a better choice than generic craft threads.
Even though craft thread may be slightly less expensive, it is not generally of the same high quality as DMC, Anchor and other well-known and respected brands of thread. Low quality thread, just like low quality fabric, can lead to frustration and discouragement, due to fraying, knotting more frequently, pilling and breaking.
Even though you might just be “playing” with stitches on your sampler, you might as well enjoy the experience!
3. Do you have the right needles?
For general surface embroidery, crewel needles (also called embroidery needles) are a must. If you’ll be experimenting with various weights or thicknesses of thread, you’ll need to have a few sizes on hand.
If you’re thinking of trying any specialty stitches – like bullion knots, for example – it’s useful to have milliner needles on hand, too.
4. Do you need a hoop?
Generally, embroidery looks better when it’s done in a hoop or on a frame, with the fabric pulled taut. A hoop can go a long way to avoid puckered material!
If you’re just getting started in embroidery, a simple plastic hoop will work! If you want something a little nicer and more reliable, consider investing in a good wooden hoop with sturdy hardware, so that you can tighten it well.
Find a good stitch dictionary.
If you’re playing with stitches with the intention of mastering many stitches, then consider having access to a good stitch dictionary or online resource for instruction.
Stitch dictionaries are abundantly available today, and you can pick up a decent one for very little, especially if you look through used book sources. With over 400 recorded hand embroidery stitches to choose from, consider stitch dictionaries with a good variety of embroidery stitches, and, if you can preview it in advance, make sure the instructions, photos, or diagrams are clear.
Be aware of stitch levels, but don’t be afraid to try.
In many stitch dictionaries, the level of stitching skill will be recorded for the various stitches (easy, intermediate, advanced).
For beginners, you’re less likely to be frustrated by stitches if you start with simpler stitches and work up to more complex or advanced stitches.
That being said, if a certain stitch catches your fancy, don’t be afraid to try it! After all, that’s precisely what a sampler is for! See if you can work it out. If it proves difficult, or your first attempt doesn’t look so hot, don’t worry about it! Try it again, until you get the results you want.
And you can always consult online resources, you can ask questions on needlework blogs or find experienced stitchers who are more than happy to help beginners, if you do run into difficulties with any particular stitch!
One of the great advantages of working out your own embroidery sampler is that you have unlimited scope for experimentation.
You can experiment with the sizes of stitches, their spacing, the orientation of stitches, the types of threads and the way they look or behave differently with different stitches.
How does this particular stitch look, when worked with a fine thread? With a heavy thread? With wool or silk instead of cotton?
What will happen if I combine these two stitches? What will it look like if I mirror two rows of that particular stitch? How well does this stitch work on a curve? How can I make that stitch turn a corner?
Strive for confidence and freedom with stitching.
As you explore embroidery stitches on your own embroidery sampler, you’ll become more and more comfortable with taking stitchy risks, and your embroidery will benefit from your new-found confidence and freedom!
What about you?
Have you worked your own embroidery stitch sampler? What discoveries did you make while you embroidered? What was your favorite aspect of working a sampler? Did you grow in confidence while you stitched? And could you see a noticeable improvement from the beginning of your sampler to the end?
You know, all this stitch talk just makes me antsy to go pick up my needle and thread! It’s time to go indulge in some stitch fun!