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The basic techniques or stitches found on the earliest embroidery examples remain the fundamental techniques of hand embroidery today. Traditional folk techniques are passed from generation to generation. Embroidery can be classified according to whether the design is stitched on top of or through the foundation fabric, and by the relationship of stitch placement to the fabric. In Free Embroidery, designs are applied without regard to the weave of the underlying fabric, however in Counted Thread or Cross-Stitch Embroidery patterns are created by making stitches over a predetermined number of threads in the foundation fabric. Many folk museums show examples of clothing decorated with cross-stitch. Two-dimensional cross-stitch in floral and geometric patterns, usually worked in black and red cotton floss on linen, is characteristic of folk embroidery in Eastern and Central Europe. In the United States, the earliest known cross-stitch sampler is housed at Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The sampler was created about 1653 by Loara Standish, daughter of Captain Myles Standish and pioneer of the Leviathan stitch. Elaborately embroidered clothing, religious objects, and household items have been a mark of wealth and status in many cultures.
The oldest surviving samplers were constructed in the 15th and 16th centuries. As there were no printed patterns available for needle workers, a stitched model was needed. Whenever a woman saw a new and interesting example of a stitching pattern, she would quickly sew a small sample of it onto a piece of cloth – her ‘sampler'. The patterns were sewn randomly onto the fabric as a reference for future use, and the woman would collect extra stitches and patterns throughout her lifetime. Samplers were stitched on a narrow band of fabric 6–9 in (150–230 mm) wide. As fabric was very expensive, these samplers were totally covered with stitches. These were known as Band Samplers and valued highly, often being mentioned in wills and passed down through the generations. These samplers were stitched using a variety of needlework styles, threads, and ornament. The samplers also incorporated small designs of flowers and animals, and geometric designs stitched using as many as 20 different colors of thread.
In the 17th century a border was added to samplers and by the middle of the century alphabets became common with religious or moral quotations. The entire sampler became more methodically organised and by the 18th century samplers were a complete contrast to the scattered samples sewn earlier on. These samplers were stitched more to demonstrate knowledge than to preserve skill. 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. To learn more visit the National Museum of American History
Written by Tamara Pearce.