Frequently Asked Questions

How do you know where a sampler was made?

            Whether a sampler is American, English, Scottish, Dutch or Spanish there can be certain visual clues that make its origin known. After years of study, we can easily identify characteristics and compositions from not only certain regions, but specific schools, as well. For example, Scottish samplers are known for their green and red palettes and family initials with the mother’s use of maiden name initial. American samplers can be identified by regional characteristics; i.e. the hillocks topped with coniferous trees on a New Hampshiresampler are certainly different than the rolling hills of a ChesterCountysampler with sheep and flowers. The format, whether horizontal or vertical, the stylization of flower blossoms, and borders can all give insight into the origin and date of a sampler. Genealogical research helps where possible, as well but the physical characteristics of sampler must come first in the identification process.

How can I tell if a sampler is English or American?

            Generally, English samplers are more commonly worked on a fine wool ground, rather than the linen ground greatly favored by American samplermakers. Samplers made in Englandwill frequently have a more formal, symmetrical composition with small, sometimes tiny, motifs spaced evenly on both left and right of a larger central image, often arranged in mirror-image format. American samplers have a more organic quality, generally not symmetrical, with more vining plants and scrolling borders. Of course, there are always exceptions to any rule.

If a sampler has crowns does that mean it is English?

            Certainly not, although a great many English samplermakers did include crowns on their work. Crowns are found on samplers that were made in many different countries. They are merely small decorative motifs used often on English samplers, as well as Scottish, Dutch, German, and are commonly found on American samplers.

How does one determine the value of a sampler?

            The value of a sampler is determined by a great number of varying factors. In general, many American samplers are more valuable than English or European samplers; however, that may not be the case in Englandor Europe. And of course an outstanding early English sampler is much more valuable than a later, simple American one. Aesthetics are very important. Condition, age of the sampler, a pictorial scene, strong color and contrast also all play key roles is determining the value. Rarity also factors in, so that, for example, far fewer samplers made in the Southern states exist than those from the Mid-Atlantic or New Englandregion and therefore Southern samplers can be more highly valued. Genealogical research can add to the interest of a sampler but only if you can confirm the identity of the sampler (parents’ initials or maker’s birthdates on the sampler for instance) and only if the research can be confirmed. Much genealogy found online may not be accurate.

How important is condition in this field?

            Condition is extremely important. In general very good care was taken with most samplers, and of course they were not made for any physical use. They were frequently taken to local framers and hung with pride in the families’ homes, while early band samplers and marking samplers were rolled and tucked away, in a drawer and out of light, for continuous practice. When critiquing the condition of a sampler, do not be mislead by the phrase “its condition is consistent with its age,” or other such descriptors. Lesser condition is frequently due to poor care of a sampler over time or exposure to unkind environments. Many samplers can be two to three hundred years old and in pristine condition. Of course, some minor fading, very minimal loss to the ground fabric or even some very minor loss to a few stitches can be acceptable but stains, browning, holes, replaced stitching and the like are not acceptable. In preparing to acquire a sampler we closely evaluate the condition of every facet of a sampler or needlework in person, as photos can be deceptive, as well.

Are there fake samplers? Are samplers altered for fraudulent reasons?

            Fake samplers are surprisingly prevalent, from posters to newly made samplers manipulated to appear old, to antique samplers that have been re-worked or re-colored. In every case it is very unfortunate that people do try and pass such items off to unsuspecting customers. Many of these will turn up at auction or on eBay. We find these pieces very easy to detect.

            There are books of poster-size images of samplers (i.e. Samplers by Susan Mayor & Diana Fowle) and we have seen the large pages of these framed and behind non-glare glass, which can give a fuzzy effect and give the flat surface of the image a little texture. Newly made samplers may be tea-dyed, and silly enough, have crude stitching to attempt to achieve a folky look. Period samplers were made with a great degree of education and skill and no such work would ever have been acceptable.

            And under most unfortunate circumstances, we have seen perfectly fine (or even excellent) authentic antique samplers, which someone has felt the need to rework missing stitches, or even add color where there has been some fading. We have also known of the following occurrence: a sampler with a problem to a border, such as a stain or hole: the border is cut off or folded under and the sampler then reframed with an attempt to disguise the fact that it ever had borders, it is then offered at auction or on eBay. Again, we find that careful examination of a sampler will reveal all. 

Can stains or spots be cleaned? Should stitches be replaced?

            Some staining or spotting may come up in conservation, although most likely won’t fully disappear. We do not consider wet cleaning to be an acceptable procedure when conserving textiles, except in a museum conservation laboratory. Also during conservation, stitches may be secured by adding stitches to assist, but reworking what has completely disappeared is intolerable. See our Conservation Mounting page for more information on this process.

How can I go about researching the maker of a sampler?

            Many websites (some free, some by subscription) exist for genealogical research and they are a very good way to get going, but the information might be incorrect. Genealogical historical libraries, some with online access, are generally more accurate. Most importantly, one cannot truly identify a samplermaker without some corroborating facts: initials of the maker’s parents stitched onto the sampler, early written family information that accompanies the sampler (perhaps who she married), or the fact that a sampler has strong, identifiable regional characteristics and was made by a girl with an unusual name. Coming to learn that, for example, a girl with a name that matches that on a relatively simple piece was born in the correct year given her age and the date of her sampler is insufficient. And hearing that a given sampler “was found in Virginia” or “came from a family that began in Georgia”, for example, is not reliable information on which to base an attribution of origin. Of course many samplermakers just can’t be identified and that doesn’t minimize their work in the least. Identification of makers is an interesting part of the field but it isn’t of primary interest.

Is there a source to find the verses or poems that appear on samplers?

            No such source exists yet, but the 1921 book American Samplers by Boltonand Coe did a fine job of cataloging a huge number of theses. Googling a line of verse, in quotes, will generally bring up the source, as most text found on samplers were extracted from important pieces of literature or religious books of the time and earlier, likely taught to these young needleworkers as part of their schooling. Others seem to have been composed by teachers for their students and were repeated on many samplers.

Do certain images have symbolic meaning?

            Yes, and there are some good sources to turn to such as the book Embroidery Motifs from Dutch Samplersby Alberta Meulenbelt-Nieuwburg (especially good for northern European samplers but much of the information applies to all sampler.); however certain myths have taken hold and should never be taken as fact. The following are a few examples of misconceptions in this field:

  • A willow tree always signifies death or mourning
  • A depiction of a figure with skin tone stitched in brown/black silk thread must be African-American
  • The house shown on a sampler must be the maker’s home or her school building
  • A crown indicates that the sampler is English

What are some good books to reference and learn about samplers?

             Unfortunately there is no one encyclopedia of all sampler work, nor is there a good overall beginner book in this field. Betty Ring’s Girlhood Embroidery, a two-volume set, is certainly an excellent source of American material, as Mrs. Ring is the most highly regarded scholar in the field of samplers and schoolgirl needlework. Many excellent books have been written about samplers and needlework from specific states and we list those in our Selected Bibliography. There are also many fine museum websites that present collections of samplers along with much information.

Do you do appraisals?

            We do not do appraisals for insurance purposes, nor really any appraisals. We are happy to take a look at your sampler (sometimes a very good photo of a sampler is sufficient) and give you a verbal evaluation, if we feel that we can so. If we can’t evaluate it, we can certainly tell you the origin of sampler.

Where do you find all of these!?

            Generally, owners of samplers contact us directly and we are active buyers. We are happy to educate and assist in selling a piece, either by buying it outright or selling on consignment. We understand that each situation is different and each transaction is given individual attention.